How Blade Carved The Path For Modern Comic Book Cinema

by Ben Martin

We live in the golden age of the comic book movie. However, that was not always the case when it came to bringing the four-color page to the silver screen. Indeed, there was a time when the comic-book movie wasn’t a sustainable blockbuster genre. Other than Superman: The Movie (1978) and its sequels; the comic movie was otherwise non-existent. That is until Tim Burton brought a dark and brooding Caped Crusader to the big screen with Batman (1989).

In the wake of Bat-mania, Hollywood attempted to capitalize on comic-book properties. Specifically, the movie industry tried to achieve the success of Batman by aping its gothic aesthetic. Some of these films went on to become cult hits; such as the 1994 releases of The Mask and The Crow, respectively. However, most of the comic book movies of the 90s were flops: Such as The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Steel (1997). None of these comic book adaptations drew the audience that the Batman films did. But, even a cinematic trip to Gotham City proved lackluster by the time Batman & Robin was released in the summer of 1997. However, that sequel being dubbed, “The death of the comic book movie,” is hyperbole. For an entirely different comic-book property would prove successful the following year in 1998.
Another character taking its comic book movie adaptation cues from The Bat was Blade. The Marvel Comics character was created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan in 1973. Created as a reaction to the Blaxploitation and horror genres which were ruling the silver screen by the early-mid 70s and modeled in appearance after anNFL star of the day, Jim Brown; Blade was the only vampire hunter in comics. Furthermore, Eric Brooks/Blade had the upper-hand on his prey. As a half-human, half-vampire, the character possesses the ability, “To walk in both worlds.”

Introduced in Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973), Blade quickly gained popularity. Despite his reputation though, the character remained a mere B-level fan-favorite in the pantheon of Marvel. Throughout the decades, Blade made numerous supporting and guest appearances in various Marvel comics. However, The Daywalker did not receive a solo book until Blade: The Vampire Hunter; which ran for ten issues from 1994-1995. Following that, the vampire hunting hero had several other solo mini-series. The last of these published in 2015, and oddly, none of those books made it past 12 issues.
Around the same time that Blade: The Vampire Hunter was published; Marvel Comics optioned the film rights for its comic. New Line Cinema (whose parent company, Warner Bros. distributes all DC Comics adaptations) snatched up to rights to Blade. Even though no film based on a Marvel title had received a major theatrical release since 1986’s Howard the Duck, producer Avi Arad believed that Marvel movies could prove fruitful. Thus, the producer led the charge to get Blade to the screen. By the early-mid 90s, screenwriter David S. Goyer delivered a completed screenplay for the film. Alas, the movie was still not ready to go, and in the interim, Goyer’s screenplay was nicked from at the Marvel offices. As a result, Blade’s first appearance outside of comics was in Spider-Man: The Animated Series. In Season 2, Episode 11- Neogenic Nightmare, Chapter 9: Blade the Vampire Hunter was introduced using large chunks of the film’s script.

The animated episode aired in 1996 and that same year, the movie that would become Blade finally gained some substantial traction. Back in the 90s, Wesley Snipes was a highly-bankable action star. Around this time, the actor approached Marvel about making a Black Panther movie. However, when that didn’t get off the ground, the publishing company suggested Snipes consider their character of Blade; who was about to receive the major motion picture treatment. Playing a little inside baseball, New Line and Arad approached the action star about becoming The Daywalker around this same time. Snipes not only quickly accepted the part but also became a co-producer on the picture. Shortly after that, director Stephen Norrington was tasked with the project. Norrington, at the time, a fresh talent had gained some genre experience with his debut film, Death Machine (1994). Following the procurement of a star and a director, everything else quickly fell into place for the movie.
Taking its cue from the comic-book source material (and just a smidge of inspiration from Batman ‘89), Blade introduced the character to the world. In doing so, the hero’s origin was explained; but not focused upon. The movie tells the story of its titular half-human, half-vampire hero who protects us from the blood-suckers. With the help of his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade has a pretty good handle on his enemy. Alas, vampires have grown in number under the leadership of Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff); who is planning a takeover as the millennium approaches. Now, Blade must not only defeat the vampire underworld before they grow too large. He must also protect and utilize the expertise of Karen (N’Bushe Wright); a hematologist who was bitten during a vampire attack.

Twenty years on, it’s evident that Blade is most certainly a product of its time, capitalizing on several cultural aspects of the 1990s. By the late 90s had seen a change in how vampires were viewed.  At the time, vamps went being horrific and scary to being intriguing and romanticized. Luckily, Blade was able to find the perfect balance between horror and intrigue for vampires. As a viewer, Blade is one of the only vampire movies that creates a dichotomy in which I both want to be a vampire and to hunt vampires. The way the picture found such a balance was by tapping into the audience of goth subculture; which at was experiencing an almost mainstream renaissance at this point in history. In tandem with fear of Y2K, all these elements make Blade as perfectly mixed as a tasty Bloody Mary.
By taking its source material seriously and utilizing the pop culture elements of the day Blade results in being an entertaining comic book film. The movie quickly builds a world for us to invest in; pulling us into it all with a sequence I like to call, “The blood club.” In less than ten minutes we know Blade is a bad-ass, not to be reckoned with. While my first choice for the titular hero would have been Michael Jai White; I suppose the actor’s committing to the monumental of a mess that is Spawn (1997) that previous year made such casting impossible. As a result, Wesley Snipes was no doubt the best actor to play Blade. A character who has never been all that deep; which can sometimes be agitating. Appropriately so though, Snipes performed as such saying,  I just approached him (Blade) as this really cool character where I’d get to do martial arts and wear a leather suit.

Blade also nails the character relationships between Blade and Whistler, played brilliantly by Kris Kristofferson. The surrogate father-son bond shared by the characters and portrayed by these actors is unquestionably the emotional core of the picture, which relies on action and thrills. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters and cast that fill this film are hard to watch. Yes, Dorff is having a good time as the villain here. While simultaneously hamming it up and serving as an analog for disenfranchised and technology-minded youth, Dorff as Frost quickly goes from being somewhat fun to a bit grating. Then there’s  N’Bushe Wright (Dead Presidents), who is frankly as stiff as a wooden stake in her role.
Aside from a somewhat weak supporting cast, the movie does have one other problem. That being that it has pacing issues. When there’s action, the flick moves faster than a bullet filled with garlic. Alas, several of the dialogue scenes drag you along. Despite criticisms of the movie in review, Blade is still a very entertaining, albeit, dated ride.
In August of 1998, Blade immediately proved to be a success. Produced on a budget of $45 million, the film went on to gross over $130 million worldwide. Like any successful blockbuster, the movie spawned a franchise. Blade II (2002) presented a superior sequel under the direction of Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). Alas, the franchise was drained of its life-blood with the next installment, Blade: Trinity (2004). The film proved to be a disappointing entry (written and directed by David S. Goyer) in what became the conclusion of an unintentional trilogy. Following that, there was the short-lived live-action Blade: The Series (2006). This TV series served as a continuation of the film franchise, with Sticky Fingaz taking over as Blade. Ironically, the show ran for 12 episodes; just as all Blade’s solo comics have run no more than 12 issues.
Despite not being able to sustain a long run of cinematic adventures, the movie in review achieved something much more important. While I’m certainly not to first to hold this opinion; I believe that Blade ushered in the modern age of comic book cinema in which we now bask. The film was successful in many ways. For one thing, Blade was and remains one of the few respected and profitable R-rated comic-book movies. Even in our current cinematic landscape, comic-book adaptations aimed at adults still have trouble turning a buck.
Blade proved that a comic-book hero other than Superman or Batman could draw in the crowds. A feat that was particularly impressive considering Blade is a mid-tier Marvel property. One that would prove a hit on the big screen a decade before Iron Man (2008) gained the same distinction and stealing Blade’s thunder in the process. The fact of the matter is that without this movie, producer Avi Arad could not have proved that a Marvel-based movie could be a success. Thus, we would have never gotten X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), nor the MCU.
It’s been two decades since Blade and to say that comic-book cinema has changed immensely would be an understatement. Many folks like myself still enjoy this movie, but there’s no doubt that it has become a bit lost in the wash. Everyone who cites Spider-Man as the movie that created the comic-book movie explosion is correct. However, without Blade providing the charge, I doubt that such an explosion would have occurred. Nothing can be learned without knowing history. And Blade is an essential part of comic-book cinema history because it changed such forever. Therefore, I encourage you to either give this flick a re-watch; or perhaps view it for the first time!


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: