It’s interesting that this year saw Black Panther become such a landmark film event, being hailed as not only an artistic achievement and fantastic story in its own right, but also as the first big-budget blockbuster actioner to feature an almost all-black cast. While a superhero film with a black lead is a rarity, King T’Challa of Wakanda is not the first such hero. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of the big-screen debut of Blade. And while it is disconcerting that it took twenty years to get another movie starring a nonwhite superhero into theatres, Blade stands as a milestone for a very different reason: it is the first successful movie based on a Marvel character. You could argue that the entire so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men, owe their success to a sleeper hit about a D-list hero.
In 1998 the odds seemed decidedly stacked against Blade doing any kind of box office business. Marvel Comics was bankrupt, and their film development division was, in essence, a licensing lemonade stand; they licensed their characters out to any studio that would throw them money, and they were none too discriminating about who held the film rights. Until Blade, the only films to feature Marvel heroes at the time were the atrocious 1990 version of Captain America, the Dolph Lundgren-starring The Punisher, and the now-infamous Roger Corman-directed Fantastic Four, a film you can find only in bootleg form at random comic conventions. Besides which, comic fans were still reeling from Hollywood’s most public superhero failure, 1997’s Batman and Robin. So, the appeal of superheroes to the viewing public was near-nonexistent. Besides which, as superheroes go, Blade had zero name recognition, residing within the darkest recesses of Marvel’s horror titles alongside Ghost Rider, Morbius, and Werewolf by Night. And as for Wesley Snipes, his star power had faded in recent years and he was not exactly considered a top box office draw. What’s more, at first blush, Blade looked like it had “direct-to-video genre trash” written all over it. Vampires, martial arts, an ‘80s music video vibe complete with a guy who literally wears his sunglasses at night? This thing looked the epitome of crass B-movie exploitation.
But then the film opened, and audiences ate it up. The movie, which cost $164 million to make, brought in $415 million. It garnered two sequels (the first overly praised, IMHO, and the other a dreadful mess) and inspired a short-lived tv show. It significantly raised the character’s profile in the comics world, has become Snipes’ most famous role, and the character has become a regular part of the fanboy zeitgeist, enjoying the same kind of fame as his more established comic book brethren.
Directed by Stephen Norrington, the film is lean and mean, proud to be pulpy, and earns its ‘R’ rating with buckets of blood and carnage. It positions Blade, a half-human, half-vampire, sword-wielding slayer of bloodsuckers, as the Bram Stoker equivalent of Batman, with vamps referring to him, in fearful, hushed tones, as the Daywalker; that is, he possesses all their strengths but, owing to his unique parentage, has none of their weaknesses. Which means he can basically pray the rosary while enjoying garlic bread outdoors at high noon, before staking some unlucky “suckheads” later that evening. The movie is shot in moody blues and grays and plays like a grittier, scarier version of a Michael Mann feature. And Snipes’ performance falls well outside of what audiences had come to expect of him. The suave, expressive and mercurial star of New Jack City, Demolition Man, and White Men Can’t Jump, maintains a stone poker face, rarely raising so much as an eyebrow, and his voice never gets above a low growl. His fighting style is an oddball combination of brutal swordplay and cheeky, semi-robotic posturing, and these disparate elements accentuate a performance that’s more memorable than it has any right to be.
Blade also benefits from an antagonist who, for my money, belongs in that very small club of worthy Marvel villains. Stephen Dorff plays the malevolent Deacon Frost like the mutant offspring of Patrick Bateman and an especially misogynistic frat house dudebro. Slick like oil and as cruel as addiction, his desire to put down humanity once and for all is palpable, and he’s the most compelling cinematic vamp villain not named Dracula. But beyond Frost, the vampire world and culture on display is the best realized of any movie to feature bloodsuckers (Daybreakers comes a close second). There are royal families (“houses”), with hieroglyphic symbols for each, “familiars” (human henchmen who want to become immortal), and a social hierarchy is laid out which favors purebloods (vamps from birth) over those who were formerly mortal. The impure Frost’s plot to overthrow the social order, as a means to attain his genocidal goals, is one of the film’s juiciest elements and plays out like an undead Game of Thrones.
It’s also worth mentioning that Blade is that rare studio-backed fantasy action film to boast an African-American protagonist, one whose race does not define him and who operates free from stereotypes. The only racial comment in the entire film comes when the white Frost calls Blade an “Uncle Tom,” drawing the obvious analogy. The comment is neither particularly clever nor is it a clunker; it is simply a taunt that is consistent with Frost’s odious personality. What’s more, the film has an African-American female lead, in Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), a phlebotomist whose value to the story lies in her expertise, as opposed to being a love interest or a “damsel in distress;” in fact, she winds up saving Blade‘s life at a crucial point. And Wright is not Hollywood’s definition of a “beautiful black woman,” meaning she is not actually a light-skinned, mixed-race woman with petite Anglo features, but rather a dark-skinned, full-lipped beauty. I don’t know if the filmmakers were conscious of it at the time, but given Hollywood’s abysmal track record with representation, and especially since we haven’t seen another black superhero carrying his own movie (as well as featuring strong, heroic black women) until this year’s Black Panther, Blade stands as a highlight among the rare studio films that I would call “progressive.”
Beyond diversity, though, Blade is just plain fun. Its visual effects, to be sure, have not aged well, but the Ray Harryhausen quality of flying vampiric skeletons has an almost quaint, old-school vibe to it. It’s the best kind of pulp fiction, a neo-noir where even the good guy is a known killer, and it revels in its B-movie wackiness. Even Snipes’ serious-to-a-fault dialogue sounds at times like knowing parody; he’s Philip Marlowe meets Van Helsing meets Shaft. And the good news is that Marvel Studios has recovered the film rights to the character, and at age 56, Snipes has not aged a day (something in that Hollywood water, I guess). If Kevin Feige’s company were to reintroduce the Daywalker to the world, that would be a welcome homecoming (well, for those of us who aren’t vampires, at least). For now, though, we’ll always have this gem. Just bear in mind, when you’re enjoying the brilliant spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War for the umpteenth time, that the rise to success of the Marvel superheroes began, not with Tony Stark or with Peter Parker, but with a badass dispatching monsters with a samurai sword and who dropped this B-movie chestnut:
Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.
That’s what I call entertainment.