The Origin Story
Once considered cinematic junk food, comic book movies are no longer just bite-sized, easily digestible bits of entertainment. Not long ago, comic book movie franchises’ primary objectives were profitable box office runs, generating as many sequels as possible (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), and selling ungodly amounts of licensed merchandise. In today’s blockbuster movie landscape, a film can meet box office expectations, spawn a sequel, and still qualify as a failure.
In 2016, studio mandates require that comic book movies hit multiple benchmarks in order to qualify as successful, and wrapping up a satisfying story in roughly 120-minutes is only one of them. Comic book movies must also act as advertisements for upcoming films, and establish deep mythologies that branch off into other movie franchises, video games, comic books, and TV series. Nowadays, producing comic book related entertainment is a complicated process, akin to juggling several knives while walking backward on a tightrope.
Marvel Studios remains at the forefront of superhero entertainment because it figured out how to keep its audience fixated on two fronts: it drives massive audiences into theaters for its movies and then convinces them to tune into Marvel programming at home. Indeed, Marvel’s movie/television production alchemy changed the face of blockbuster moviemaking; it’s now the blueprint for even non-superhero movie franchises. Delivering entertainment on multiple fronts makes it infinitely more difficult to form a cohesive brand. With so many titles interconnecting and characters crossing over, it’s no surprise that even the most beloved franchises leave tonal inconsistencies in their wake.
Yet while Marvel has demonstrated a knack for delivering various superhero archetypes, it has also shown a reluctance to bring its arcane, supernatural characters to life.
Marvel Establishes Its Brand
Back in the mid-’00s, Sony and Fox held the movie rights to Spider-Man and The X-Men respectively. Marvel had no choice but to adapt a film based on its little-known Iron Man comic book. It’s easy to forget that only a decade ago, no one shy of true comic book nerds knew who Tony Stark/Iron Man was. Marvel took Tony Stark, a flawed hero, famous for his battles with alcoholism and turned him into the backbone of its billion-dollar The Avengers franchise.
In 2008, Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a shared world where Marvel’s movie and TV franchises interconnect. Since the MCU’s inception, Marvel’s most popular characters, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four have remained off-limits due to prior licensing agreements with rival studios. Recently, Marvel reacquired the film rights to Daredevil and Spider-Man, and so far, it has wasted no time weaving them into Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Marvel’s assimilation of Spider-Man and Daredevil exemplifies its two-tiered approach to live action entertainment. Marvel has drawn a tonal line in the sand between its Netflix series and the rest of its cinematic universe. This coming May, Spider-Man gets the silver screen treatment; he’ll be web-slinging across Manhattan with the Avengers and battling whatever global crisis happens to sit atop of their team meeting ledger. Daredevil exists on the opposite end of the spectrum; he’s ‘relegated’ to Netflix, a place where he can fight crime and battle lower-level threats. Marvel doesn’t want Daredevil fighting aliens any more than it wants Iron Man busting sex traffickers.
Marvel’s Netflix series currently feature a group of gritty, street-level heroes taking on lower caliber villains unworthy of spots on The Avengers’ to-do list. The Netflix shows’ realities are not as heightened as its cinematic counterparts. Instead, Daredevil and Jessica Jones ratchet up the sex and violence and tone down their comic book qualities. From a budgetary standpoint alone, this tactic makes sense; Netflix can’t produce the same level of spectacle as Marvel’s $100 million movies. However, aesthetics aren’t the only area where the Netflix series show restraint.
So far, the Netflix series hasn’t figured out how committed it is to embracing its character’s comic book roots. Netflix’s upcoming Iron Fist series stumbled through numerous pre-production hurdles as the creative team tried to determine how to adapt the source material (Iron fist is a character with mystical origins). It’s peculiar that Marvel is so hesitant about introducing a superhero that wields magic when it makes billions of dollars off of outlandish characters such as Ultron, The Red Skull, and Rocket Raccoon.
Marvel has a character in its superhero roster that can perfectly bridge Netflix and the MCU’s tonal gap. Not only is this character a Godfather to modern day comic book movies, he also starred in his own weekly television show, a series that predates Daredevil and Jessica Jones by nearly a decade: his name is Blade. For those not in the know, Blade is a human and vampire hybrid with all of the strengths of a vampire and almost none of their weaknesses (he needs to inoculate himself from his vampiric bloodlust). Blade is the personification of the modern day anti-hero, a brooding vigilante who stalks all manner of the undead through the streets of New York.
Almost two decades ago, the film Blade set a precedent for successful non-Batman and Superman comic book movies. The 1998 film featured a badass Wesley Snipes performance and a tight action-horror script penned by David S. Goyer (Goyer went on to write The Dark Knight Trilogy with Christopher Nolan). Blade tripled its budget, bringing in $131 million (according to BoxOfficeMojo), a feat made more impressive given the film’s R-rating. A pair of sequels and a 13-episode TV series followed.
It’s clear that the Blade character resonates with audiences: the film series brought in over $400 million at the global box office and the character has also starred in his own video game and animated series. Even after factoring in the series’ most disappointing entry, Blade Trinity, it’s perplexing that New Line Cinema and Marvel Enterprises/Studios allowed the franchise to spend the past decade on the sidelines as comic book movies began dominating pop culture.
A Bridge Between Worlds
Blade fits perfectly into Marvel’s Netflix model of television, and migrating the character from film to a Netflix series (à la Daredevil) makes perfect sense. There’s no need for a ridiculous effects budget, Blade doesn’t fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes, he’s a martial artist that fights with guns, swords, and fists. A Blade series’ dark tone and graphic violence would be right in line with the brutality on display in Jessica Jones and Daredevil, two shows that slant closer to R than PG-13.
Finally, Blade fits into the world of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen like the missing piece of a puzzle. Unlike Thor and Hulk, Blade would feel right at home on a New York rooftop facing off with the likes of Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, and Luke Cage.
Most importantly, Blade and his vampire backstory would bridge the mysticism gap that Marvel seems so tentative about crossing on Netflix. A man fighting vampires is no sillier than aliens decimating New York or a billionaire flying around in a metal suit. Blade’s backstory is accessible to mainstream audiences: vampires kill Blade’s mother so he spends his life hunting them. Much like slipping into a warm bath and then cranking up the heat, as Blade’s journey takes him deeper into plotlines featuring monsters and mysticism, Marvel gently acclimates its audience to “out there” characters like Iron Fist, Baron Mordo, and The Ancient One.
Considering that the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange exist in the same universe as Jessica Jones, it’s odd that Marvel is hesitant to play up characters with ties to the supernatural (Daredevil danced around the issue during the episode, Stick). Tossing Blade into the mix would help ease the transition between the magnificent and the mundane; his story is malleable enough to work on the big screen alongside Doctor Strange or with the grittier Netflix characters. Blade’s enemies refer to him as the Daywalker, a creature capable of maneuvering between the world of both man and vampire. Perhaps Blade can once again be a bridge between two worlds — televised and cinematic.