‘Blade’ – Twenty Years Later
“There are worse things out tonight than vampires.“
In 1998, Blade became Marvel’s first box office success, and in the last 20 years, Marvel has become the leading studio for comic book movies. Despite initial mixed reviews, the film became a cult favourite and was followed by two sequels, Blade II and Blade: Trinity. In fact, Blade was the first Marvel property to have a trilogy and the first Marvel property to star a Black lead.
Blade was made on a $45 million budget and earned $70 million opening weekend, but when adjusted for inflation, it is roughly $138 million. Needless to say, it was a bona fide hit. Prior to Blade, Marvel was struggling as a brand and their film prospects were dwindling. After a few fumbles such as the critically panned Howard The Duck (1986), the straight-to-video releases of The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990), and the never to be seen Fantastic Four – Blade’s success allowed Marvel to get back on their feet. A large part of Marvel’s current day success is due to Blade.
In this retrospective we are going to go over what made Blade great and what we can look forward to in an eventual remake or reboot.
Stephen Norrington’s Blade is often not in the same conversations as other comic book movies, but will usually be a part of the vampire/horror conversation. This is due to the nature of the character and the intent behind the film. Blade stands out from the other heroes – no capes, no tights, no cowls, no bright colours. Just some badass tattoos, a slick cut and a long black leather trench coat. Oh, and this hero is a vampire that doesn’t get burned by the sun.
For years Blade had been in development with Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and LL Cool J circling the project. But Wesley Snipes — thanks to screenwriter David S. Goyer’s insistence — would be called to embody this lesser-known Marvel character, and give Blade his classic signature style and mannerisms. Norrington, Goyer and Snipes insisted on reinventing Blade, a character who in theory was meant to be menacing, but in the comics was far from it.
Blade was revolutionary in that regard, as the creative team reinvented a comic character instead of just adapting what was already on the page. Blade was a product of the blaxploitation era, which had long ended by the time Blade was in pre-production. The reinvention was necessary to make the character relevant to the time it was being made in. Unbeknownst to this creative team, their iteration of Blade is still relevant 20 years later. The Blade we know now was entirely crafted by Snipes, Goyer and Norrington, and this interpretation would be adopted in the comics and various other formats. Snipes’ Blade would also fit right in with the current movie landscape.
For a film that was released 20 years ago, it still holds up today. Despite a few editing and stylistic choices that work against it, it is a solid film. Norrington strays from overly complicated directing and ambitious editing. The film does have its fair share of cringeworthy campy moments, but tonally it was drastically different than say Batman & Robin and Steel released by Warner Bros. the year prior. In fact, the R-rating placed Blade on an entirely different level and as to not risk the tonal balance of the film, Norrington holds back on the conventional comic book style that was common at that time.
The same can be said about Goyer’s script. Although its riddled with conventions, its simplicity and directness are something that will be sorely missed later on in the trilogy (*cough* Blade: Trinity *cough*). The characters are archetypal; we have the dark and brooding hero, the equally dark and brooding villain, the smart and beautiful love interest, the comedic henchman and the older grouchy mentor. The story focuses solely on Blade and Whistler’s mission, which is to prevent the vampires’ war from spilling over into the streets by mowing down any vampire that dare steps out of line.
Blade is a slick and straight to the point movie. Even the vampire society is lightly touched upon and presented in a simplistic manner. The story was stripped of any overly sentimental storytelling and grandiose ideas of what it is to be hero (that can be found in Goyer’s later projects like The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel). Blade does not dwell long on our protagonist’s backstory or the residual trauma he carries from what happens to his mother. Blade’s directness is what makes it stand the test of time. No matter the year or the state of moviemaking, Blade will not be out of place. It is in the later films that Blade would get the Batman treatment with a deep dive into his psyche and the complicated world he lives in. Blade II and Blade: Trinity up the action, horror and camp that was introduced in Blade.
Blade is a simple character. Snipes is essentially playing himself and evoking many of his previous roles. Just like Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man, a large part of the character’s persona is informed by the actor. Blade was an interpretation of a blaxploitation hero, and Snipes in many ways was perfect for that depiction. Blaxploitation heroes typically had an affinity for martial arts and Snipes just happened to be a trained martial artist since age 12. This is evident in his action scenes as there is scarce use of a stunt double. The blaxploitation era had ended by the time Snipes’ career had begun, but there was no doubt that his characters and persona were largely influenced by that era of films. Unlike the previous actors circling the project, Snipes was the perfect combination of a blaxploitation hero and the 90’s action hero.
Like Snipes, Blade is one cool cat. Snipes’ personality and martial arts skills not only shaped Blade, but also shaped similar heroes later on — most notably Kate Beckinsale’s Selene from Underworld and Mila Jovovich’s Alice from Resident Evil. Blade is the classic male hero, a man of very few words, rarely shows emotion, but doesn’t shy from occasionally flashing a smile before wrecking someone. Snipes also adds a few quirks into his portrayal of Blade. Blade at times can be eccentric and sassy but no matter what, he will always be the coolest guy in the room. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor in this role. Blade would not be the cult hit or culturally significant if it were not for Snipes, Norrington, and Goyer’s artistic liberties with the character.
There have been many discussions lately about a potential Blade reboot/remake, especially with Marvel Studios reaching unparalleled success on the big and small screen. In 2011, Marvel Studios regained the rights to the character from New Line and since so much of Marvel’s achievements today hinge upon Blade’s success in 1998, it is safe to assume the current suits at Marvel are aware that they have a hot property at their fingertips. However, the studio has stated they have no current plans. Black Panther (which was a passion project for Snipes prior to Blade) was a massive success and has encouraged fans to think back to Marvel’s first Black superhero film. In the last 20 years, Blade has stayed relevant in various mediums, but never reached the same heights as the film. It makes sense for Blade to return now since there is a very eager fanbase.
In 2015, a new Blade comic series was announced and it was to feature Blade and his estranged daughter teaming up to fight vampires. Writer Tim Seeley stepped down from the project, arguing it would be best if a Black woman took over. However, Marvel did not follow Seeley’s advice and the project never went anywhere. The plot of the comic series would be an excellent premise for a movie or Netflix series. Snipes has been vocal about being open to play Blade again, after a dissatisfying end. The premise would also be a good introduction to many who were unaware of Blade, and new audiences can have new Blade to follow through new adventures. Fans of the old Blade can get a proper conclusion that would satisfy both Snipes and fans. Marvel Studios should also look at the success of Black Panther and the unwavering support for the horror genre and see that there is a cross-section yet to be explored in the current superhero landscape.