What Happened to 'Blade'?

Twenty years after Wesley Snipes gave Marvel its first box-office hit, the comic book powerhouse is more popular than ever, but the vampire hunter has disappeared into the shadows.
Courtesy of Photofest
'Blade' (1998)

There’s no better place to begin than with a nightclub housed in, of all places, a meat-packing factory. Strobe lights, house music, bodies bumping and grinding against each other in the darkness. This is primal. Overhead sprinklers turn on, the liquid rains down, dark and heavy, onto expectant faces and open mouths lit up wildly by the dancing multitude of lights. It’s blood, and there’s a lot of it. Teeth extend, howls are emitted and the feeding begins as wet bodies push against each other. This is savage. A figure steps out, and from ground level the camera slowly moves up and then pulls back to reveal the figure. The lights go up, the DJ stops and eyes adjust to the clinical whiteness of the room. “It’s the Daywalker,” someone says in the background. Wesley Snipes is dressed all in black, a long leather coat and sunglasses, cutting a striking image. He steps forward and smiles slightly. There’s no one cooler in the room.

It’s 1998. Blade has yet to be released, and in fact few are expecting it, let alone aware of the comic book origins for the film that would hit on Aug. 21 of that year. Marvel is a struggling brand. Less than two years earlier, Marvel Entertainment Group filed for Chapter 11, facing bankruptcy in the aftermath of several failed publishing initiatives, the loss of a number of its top artists to Image and an overall decline in the interest of comic books. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are recovering from a convoluted and controversial yearlong storyline, Heroes Reborn, that failed to reignite interest and relevancy of characters once considered staples of the brand. Marvel’s film prospects are even more dire. The last theatrical movie based on the company’s characters was the critically panned Howard the Duck (1986). Straight-to-video releases The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) didn’t fare any better. And then there was the matter of the unreleased The Fantastic Four (1994), later alleged by Stan Lee to be a scheme by Constantin Film Production to retain the rights. A muddled sense of continuity, unclear character direction saddled by endless events,and no movies was what Marvel fans could look forward to in the late '90s. That is, until Marvel got its blood flowing again.

Marvel Entertainment Group was reborn as Marvel Enterprises in 1997, under the direction of Toy Biz co-owner Ike Perlmutter and his partner Avi Arad. In the '90s, there was no better way to sell toys than to attach it to a movie. But before Marvel could take over the film world, it would first need to redefine the books they sold. Enter Marvel Knights, an imprint of mature comics starring Daredevil, Black Panther, Punisher and The Inhumans — characters whose own books had struggled or had been canceled years before. These were leftovers, characters few cared about, except for editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, who saw the opportunity to reinvent these characters for the 21st century through their indie company Event Comics. The idea of Marvel Comics contracting an indie publisher and giving them license to pick the creative teams to take over these books seems like an improbable situation today, but in 1998 it was a necessity in order to breathe new life into its brand. Marvel’s new approach to these comics — take bottom-rung characters, give them a 21st century sense of cool and highlight the simplicity of their backstories — runs parallel to their first successful film release, Blade.

It’s too easy to remove Stephen Norrington’s Blade from the conversation of superhero movies, perhaps because it feels like it was originally intended to be that way, distinct from capes, cowls and tights. Blade had been in development at New Line since 1992, with LL Cool J, Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington all on the studio’s list before Snipes was cast as the human-vampire hybrid. David S. Goyer, who would later become Hollywood’s go-to guy for superhero scripts, took a relatively unknown Marvel character and imbued him with Snipes’ voice and a fashion sense.

Blade takes the Marvel Knights approach, though this is more likely a resulting awareness of the changing times than any planned coordination. Regardless, the same kind of streamlining and willingness to age-up the books to better appeal to their core audience, who had become adults that Marvel exhibited through Marvel Knights, is also what allowed Goyer and Norrington to deliver something that felt unique with Blade. Despite some MTV-style editing early in the film and nonplussed citizens who barely notice when action happens in the middle of the sidewalk, Blade is grounded in a way comic book movies hadn’t been before. Sure, the word "grounded" gets thrown around all the time now in a post-Christopher Nolan world, but in 1998, Tim Burton, Alex Proyas and Joel Schumacher defined the aesthetics of comic book movies. The world of Blade feels realistically seedy, its streets grimy — lacking the Gothicism of the films that preceded it and the sheen superhero movies would later take on. In a number of ways, no doubt aided by its $45 million budget, Blade feels like an underground comic book movie, not only in terms of design but by the fact that few audience members were aware of Blade as a previously existing property.

Blade, created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, first appeared in Tomb of Dracula No. 10 in 1973. A supporting character in a book featuring a number of vampire hunters, Blade’s early appearances strike a drastically different image from the one Snipes would later fill out. London-born and clad in a bright green jacket, blue pants and massive yellow shades, Blade was a white interpretation of the style of blaxploitation movies, resulting in a character who looked more silly than imposing. Blade had never been a major player, and following the conclusion of Tomb of Dracula, the Daywalker’s appearances were rare. He saw a brief revival in the '90s, serving a role in Marvel’s short-lived horror-centric book Nightstalkers, and headlined a couple miniseries and one-shots that improved his fashion sense, but did little to make the character a staple of the Marvel Universe.

The film succeeded even before its release, at least in terms of reinventing the characters and the world in which it takes place. While today we celebrate how accurate comic book movies are at bringing their source material to life, Goyer, Norrington and Snipes’ insistence on artistic freedom resulted in a film that feels more interesting than any straight adaptation could have been, or the tongue-in-cheek version New Line was originally angling for.

While Blade seems relatively simple today, it proved revolutionary for comic book adaptations on a casting, technical and narrative level. Blade, as a character, is entirely crafted around Snipes’ persona and martial arts skills. Essentially the character Blade is now in comic canon is a result of Snipes, much in the same way that Robert Downey Jr.’s performance of Tony Stark forever changed how writers approach Iron Man. Snipes effectively blended the '90s action-hero model, for which he’d played an integral part, with the romantic horror character Hollywood had largely moved away from. Snipes’ depiction of Blade essentially set the stage for Milla Jovovich’s Alice in Resident Evil (2002) and Kate Beckinsale’s Selene in Underworld (2003). While the popularity and success of those movies, along with their action sequences, are often attributed to The Matrix, they owe more to Blade than the former. Even “bullet time,” a term for slow-motion CGI bullets coined by The Wachowskis, appeared earlier in Blade. The simplicity of Blade’s narrative, centered around the villain Deacon Frost’s (Stephen Dorff) scientific and mystical attempts to replicate Blade’s powers, set the stage for a host of comic book movies that would utilize genetic alteration as a key part of the antagonist’s plan — notably in the entries that really pushed Marvel forward in the blockbuster superhero movie business, X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002).

Blade goes back to one of the fundamental aspects that made Burton’s Batman (1989) work so well, and that is the synergic nature of heroes and villains where they create and feed each other in an endless cycle of violence. As much praise as Snipes is given for his portrayal of Blade, an equal amount deserves to be placed on Dorff, whose de-aged version of the comics’ Deacon Frost is portrayed with an alt-metal relish for the darker things in life and a sense of constant thirst. While Blade is mostly silent, breaking for the occasional one-liner, Frost is mouthy, savoring every word that runs out of his mouth. The vampire politics we see Frost’s character entangled in would later be picked up in Underworld, but here they’re given a simplicity and directness that none of Blade’s sequels would find again. Even the film’s third act reveal in which Blade finds out that it was Deacon Frost who bit his pregnant mother and resulted in his special case of vampirism, is handled with a casualness that purposefully avoids the Empire Strikes Back (1980) theatrics of an “I am your father” moment.

While Blade is built on conventions and character types — the old mentor in the form of Whistler (Kris Kristofferson); the intelligent love interest, Karen (N’Bushe Wright), who can save the hero from his dark path; and the villain’s comedic henchman, Quinn (Donal Logue) — Goyer and Norrington mostly strip the film of the mythic nature associated with comic books and vampire fiction by rejecting a need to delve too deeply into any characters’ backstory, insisting on forward motion instead — motion that can’t afford personal entanglements or a sense of closure. Blade isn’t a cold film by any means. There’s too much hot blood for that. But it is a film where our hero isn’t driven by mourning, where supporting characters die without ceremony and where romantic attraction is unconsummated. Blade is built for work, and while not particularly slick, sexy or startling, it constantly feels driven by a sense of purpose and awareness of what comes next — something Blade’s owners would struggle with in its aftermath.

Marvel has never quite taken full advantage of the character in the years following 1998. Blade earned $131.2 million, and even if audiences still weren’t largely aware of the character’s comic history, Marvel Enterprises had a bit of muscle to flex in Hollywood. While things didn’t go nearly as well for Norrington as they did for Goyer, with the director stepping away from moviemaking after his experience making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Blade lived on. The year 2002 gave us Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II, an anime-inspired sequel that ups the smirks, horror and grandness for a result that is maybe better than the first, but if so, not by much. Blade Trinity (2004), took full advantage of the growing popularity of comic book characters by introducing several from of the pages of Tomb of Dracula, including the big bad himself, for an unfocused, and often grating, film that makes Blade feel secondary, but at least it led the way to supporting player Ryan Reynolds becoming Deadpool. A short-lived Spike TV show in 2006 saw Sticky Fingaz take over for Snipes, who that same year was charged with making fraudulent tax claims. If Blade’s cinematic potential was dwindling, logic would have it that at least the comic books would keep him alive. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case.

Blade made a few comic book cameos over the years, but surprisingly never got an ongoing title during the height of his popularity. In 2015, a new Blade series was announced at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con. It would have found the vampire hunter teaming up with his estranged daughter to fight vampires. Set to be released from writer Tim Seeley and artist Logan Faerber, Seeley stepped down after coming to the conclusion that there didn’t need to be another white team on a black-led book and suggested that a black woman would do a better job than he could. Although Seeley’s decision was admirable, Marvel has yet to take his advice, replace him and move forward with the series. Despite the fact that Marvel Studios has since regained the rights from New Line, it has no immediate plans for Blade, despite how perfectly he’d fit in Marvel’s Netflix Universe. In many ways, Blade set the course for Marvel’s film ambitions and proved to be a successful business model that helped lead to the Marvel Cinematic Universe we have today. Marvel is more popular than ever, but Blade is fading back into the shadows. It’s well past time that Marvel sinks its teeth into the character again.

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