Picture Snipes in his overcoat and flattop, sword in hand.
The history of comic book movies is a bit revisionist of late. During this watershed decade where comics form the basis of so much entertainment, it is easy to forget what came before. The ‘90s produced great comic book movies like The Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Men in Black, based on books that were as independent as the filmmaking ethos of the time. Better-known characters were having a hard decade. The Batman films were imploding. Superman was on TV. And the Marvel logo that is so ubiquitous now was nowhere to be seen. That changed in 1998 with the release of Blade, starring Wesley Snipes.
Based on the character created by Marvel and DC stalwarts Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Blade is a Batman story in its essence. Instead of Crime Alley, bullets and a broken pearl necklace, Blade’s quest for vengeance begins when his mother dies after getting attacked by a vampire. While Batman has his bat cave, Blade has an abandoned industrial park where his weapons of war are maintained by an old biker named Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), his ad hoc Alfred. Both Batman and Blade stalk the night, but Blade administers final justice, often at the end of a sword. But the most important difference between the two is power. Batman’s is defined by his wealth and will while Blade has all the power of a vampire and none of the weaknesses. He was in the womb when his mother was attacked, the vampire infection made him a hybrid and his story resonated.
Released in August of 1998, Blade was the first Marvel property to become a hit and, watching it 20 years later, it’s easy to discern why. Producer Snipes, director Stephen Norrington and screenwriter David S. Goyer smartly decided to couch their superhero movie within a horror movie and make the real monster a blood infection during the era of HIV/AIDS. In Blade, Snipes found a stoic hero of the vein that has served white leading men so well since the advent of cinema. Blade is the Man With No Name, Neo, Han Solo, another name in the pantheon of driven, reluctant heroes, and from the outset Snipes clearly relishes the role. With his eyes obscured by chic sunglasses and his character wrapped in silence, Snipes introduces Blade as a character of pure action, a beginning that proves seductive for the beauty of the actors onscreen, the artistry of the combat and the innovation of its worldbuilding. Sadly, after fifteen minutes pass, all that potential is squandered and all that’s left is Snipes’ star turn.
The movie should be more celebrated. It pioneered the choreographed martial arts violence and Prada chic that would make The Matrix so iconic a year later. It doesn’t launch a cinematic universe but does prove the viability of a property that originated in the pages of Marvel comics. Blade was a minor player in The Tomb of Dracula comics, but Snipes elevates the character into one worthy of a small, profitable franchise. Yet, despite these strengths, the movie now feels like a relic.
This is partly due to time. In 1998, CGI was still maturing and far from seamless, making all those exploding vampires look like cartoonish cuts from a video game. Another reason is its lead. Due to legal troubles and the inevitable fading of stardom, Snipes has receded from view and the height of his fame is a distant memory. He was one of the few African-American movie stars of the previous generation and it feels like he should be taking a bow during this cultural moment. Before the Black Panther, the daywalker brought heroism to the screen, yet Snipes is curiously absent from the overdue celebration of Black excellence.
What truly dooms Blade to channel-surfing curiosity or the recommendations algorithm on your Prime account is the undue influence of Tim Burton’s Batman on sci-fi and fantasy cinema in the years after its release. Its blockbuster status notwithstanding, Burton’s Batman is wrought with the sort of cornball narrative loops actual comic books had long abandoned as the form grew more sophisticated. But, instead of embracing the maturity of its source material, Burton’s film devolves to simplistic, childish plotting, the most egregious point being that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley. Goyer and Norrington follow this same formula in Blade, making the main villain, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), the very vampire that attacked Blade’s mother, thus creating the hero.
The other portion of the Batman formula that infected cinema until its unofficial end with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is the scene-chewing archenemy. Knockoffs of Nicholson’s Joker litter the decades, including Snipes’ own turn in Demolition Man. The trope became so commonplace that it inspired that adage about a hero only being as good as his villain. It takes a charismatic actor to pull off that kind of performance, and Dorff is not that actor. His impudent overacting makes you yearn for his inevitable demise. Frost should be Blade’s narrative equal, but he is lazily played as another two-dimensional psychotic and drags the movie down.
For all its faults, it is amazing how prescient Blade really was. Snipes, Goyer and company stood at the vanguard of the coming wave of superhero films and the new fascination with vampires. It is also a long and dull film, but the same can be said about Batman and Superman (1979). Classic images leap to the mind at the mention of both those films and that’s how Blade should be remembered. When you think of it, picture Snipes in his overcoat and flattop, sword in hand. With each step he evokes Jim Kelly and Bruce and Brandon Lee, the next in a line of great action stars, a link between blaxploitation and the grindhouse and Marvel’s first cinematic success.