The state of comics and comic book films in the summer of 1998 was dire.
DC Comics were the only big name in the genre, having created the modern superhero film with Superman: The Movie (1978). DC proceeded to drive that series into the ground in a stunning display of diminishing returns with three increasing terrible sequels and a failed Supergirl spinoff. DC then created a cultural touchstone with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but had also destroyed that cinematic property over three sequels. The last Batman film was the intentionally “toyetic” Batman & Robin which, one year before 1998, set the gold standard for superhero film awfulness.
Other superhero films didn’t fare much better. The year 1997 also saw the disappointing releases of Spawn and Steel. Memories of the Phantom (1996), Judge Dredd (1995) and The Shadow (1994) were still fresh. Only Men In Black (1997) could be considered a comic book film success story, but most people didn’t know it was based on a comic.
Marvel Comics had yet to truly enter the cinematic arena. Howard the Duck (1986) was a legendary bomb. The Punisher (1989) was barely given a theatrical release, Captain America (1990) was released direct-to-video, and Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (1994) was never officially released. Film prospects were the least of Marvel’s troubles, however. In late-December 1996, Marvel Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy, the largest victim of the early ’90s comics speculation bubble bursting. In June 1998, Marvel reorganized into Marvel Entertainment and began efforts to rebuild.
Two months later, Blade was released.
Comic book films were not considered bankable. Marvel was climbing out of bankruptcy. Now along comes a film based on a C-list, typically supporting character from a series of C-list Marvel vampire books and storylines. Created as a street-smart vampire hunter with no powers by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan for Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973), no one but the most die-hard Marvel Comics fans even knew Blade existed. The film offers only the briefest reference to Marvel when it credits Wolfman and Colan. To most filmgoers in 1998, myself included, Blade seemed like an original action-horror film featuring Wesley Snipes killing vampires. Given the state of comic book films at the time, this probably helped the film more than hindered it.
Blade offers a new origin for its title character. He is the Daywalker. His mother was bitten by a vampire while pregnant, imbuing Blade with many vampiric assets (strength, agility, enhanced regeneration) but with the ability to operate in the daylight. The only downside is he retains the thirst for human blood, which he and his ally, Whistler, keep at bay as they hunt the secret vampire society. The film creates this new origin but does not dwell on it. Unlike the first films in many superhero franchises, Blade, refreshingly, doesn’t spend time covering the trials and tribulations of its hero discovering his powers and beginning his mission. It jumps straight into the middle of his vampire-hunting career, his latest in an endless series of adventures.
And does it ever jump into the middle of it. After a short scene depicting Blade’s birth, the film picks up with a hapless party dude being lured to a rave in the back of a meat locker. By the time he realizes something is off, blood is raining from the sprinklers and his fellow ravers are sprouting fangs. He seems hopeless until the flow of blood ends, the music stops and, standing motionless in pristine black, Blade (Wesley Snipes) appears. What follows is not only the best scene of the film but one of the most exciting kinetic character introductions in any superhero film. Blade displays his skills with martial arts, as well as weaponry that reduces the vampires to ash and skeletons.
Stephen Dorff as Deacon Frost
As the film progresses into story mode, it never quite matches the energy of that scene. Blade rescues Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), a hematologist, and searches for Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). Dorff is perfectly cast as a sneering vampire elitist with an inferiority complex, having been turned into a vampire rather than being born a vampire. He seeks to resurrect the vampire blood god, La Magra, to bring about a vampire apocalypse. The plot is decent, but not the point. This is a movie about style and feeling, anchored by Snipes, who’s all charisma and intensity in a role he was born to play.
The film also features a hidden world, beneath the surface, that most people cannot see. The hero, dressed in black clothing, a trench coat, and sunglasses, engages in gunfights and martial arts, occasionally aided by wire work. He even evades police officers by jumping an impossible distance between buildings. If this sounds familiar, that’s because The Matrix would be released seven months later, featuring all of these elements. Filming of The Matrix wrapped the exact month Blade was released, so Blade certainly did not influence the aesthetic of that film. But it’s interesting that these elements were in the air, in the culture, to be tapped into in the late ’90s.
Indeed, Blade is most definitely a film of its time. The CGI is sparse and pretty terrible. I don’t want to criticize the CGI too much. After all, this was a mere five years after Jurassic Park sparked a revolution in visual effects, and Blade was fairly low budget. But in the finalé, after Frost is possessed by La Magra and Blade cuts him in half, Frost is reassembled by what looks like cartoon raspberry jam. So it’s worth mentioning the underdeveloped CGI. The film also features more than a few scenes of gratuitous grotesquery that seem entirely out of place. Heads injected with an anti-blood (?) swell and bubble and turn a purply-red before exploding. A strange, morbidly obese vampire data engineer is baked to death by ultraviolet rays. These are scenes of gross-out simply for the sake of gross-out.
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And then there’s the line. That line. The line that was not in the script, but that Snipes was overheard saying in a conversation on-set. The line that was so magical, that it was not only added to the film, but it was added as the one-liner following Blade’s final defeat of Frost. Deacon Frost, seemingly immortal since possessed by the blood god is stuck with half a dozen injectors of the anti-blood serum and explodes.
Blade: “Some motherfuckers are always tryin’ to ice-skate uphill.”
Blade is not a great film, but it’s a good film. It heavily altered its central character’s origin, but it took the character seriously. One year after Batman & Robin, that was refreshing and welcome. When the film ends with Blade taking down a vampire in Moscow, proving his mission will continue, it implies the possibility of a sequel. That sequel was certainly not assured at the time, particularly after the failed launches of so many potential franchises. But enough people were excited about the continuing adventures of Blade that a sequel was released four years later.
The importance of Blade in the history of Marvel and comic book films is frequently overstated. It did not create the wave of Marvel films that inundates us today. It was the first real Marvel film effort, and it came out nearly two full years before the studio’s next major effort, X-Men, this is true. But there were serious efforts by major studios to bring the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man to the big screen that predate Blade by several years. Snipes was sidetracked from his true, unrealized comic book passion project, Black Panther, to make Blade.
Although Blade didn’t create the comic-book-to-film craze, it’s undoubtedly an important film in that genre. As previously stated, it was Marvel’s first real cinematic effort, and it was a hit. It was well-received by critics and fans. It made a surprising if moderate gross at the box office. It achieved this despite being a film based on such an unknown character.
Ten years later, Marvel would be praised for elevating a lesser known property, Iron Man, into a fantastic, fantastically successful film. Seventeen years later, Marvel Studios chief would announce that its films would begin moving away from full-on origin stories in favor of the “in media res” type of storytelling on display in Blade. Eighteen years later, Fox would have a massive success with an R-rated superhero film, Deadpool. Twenty years later, Marvel would finally launch a new franchise, Black Panther, with a non-white central character. Blade is a pioneer in all of these developments, if not the comic book film craze as a whole. In that way, despite being so completely of its time, Blade ends up feeling ahead of its time. A hard-edged superhero film for today — released two decades ago.
Let’s wave hello to Stan Lee, credited as Executive Producer. He also had a cameo as a police officer arriving at the scene of the blood rave, but was cut. This means the “Stan Lee Cameo” section will have to begin with the next installment of this article series.
We can also welcome two super producers: 1. Executive Producer Avi Arad, CEO of Toy Biz, which helped pull Marvel out of bankruptcy, and producer of the entire pre-MCU era of Marvel films and 2. Associate Producer Kevin Feige, who can truly say he was around at the beginning and would work on many of the pre-MCU films before becoming the powerful guiding force of Marvel Studios and the MCU as a whole.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer would guide the remaining two Blade films to the screen, even directing the third film, before jumping over to DC Films. After working on the incredible Dark Knight trilogy with Christopher Nolan, Goyer became a major creative force in the DCEU
Stuntman David Leitch would eventually move into directing. After finding great, completely earned, success with John Wick, he was tapped to return to rated-R Marvel and direct Deadpool 2.
Marvel goes all in, adapting one of its flagship properties into a big budget summer blockbuster.