Blade: A Mythos Empowered, A Dream Deferred
The 1998 film Blade is a science fiction/fantasy martial arts action film starring Wesley Snipes as the titular superhuman vampire hunter. Blade is an important milestone in the history of cinema, though its impact is overshadowed by other films of its ilk. It is a focal point of transition between the conventional action films of the ‘80s/early ’90s and the science fiction/fantasy films of the early 21st century, heavily reliant on computer generated imagery (CGI) special effects and large production budgets. The film is also integral to the rise of the comic book superhero blockbuster trend that has dominated the motion picture industry in recent years, yielding record-breaking box office returns and an unprecedented level of pop cultural ubiquity. The comic book character Blade has his roots in the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s, a lineage expressed with an uncanny level of maturity and sophistication in his live-action adaptation.
With all these substantial qualities to its name, its lack of appreciation by cinematic taste making academics and casual moviegoers alike is a grievous oversight. The character’s obscure comic book origins, the popularity of other characters given live action film adaptations, the delicate issue of race, and the behind the scenes workings of studio executives and licensing deals are all factors that have contributed to Blade’s lack of pop cultural weight. In 2018, the Marvel Studios film Black Panther defied those same lowered expectations by a significantly greater order of magnitude, earning over $1 Billion at the box office internationally. It accomplished this feat via an almost all-Black cast featuring relatively unknown comic book characters come to life. This triumph of Black superhero cinema comes with the startling realization that it has taken twenty years for a phenomenon like Black Panther to make an impact on cinema the way Blade has. This research paper will explore Blade’s production, themes, and influence in an attempt to understand why it has taken so long for a film like Black Panther to make such a powerful impact on pop culture, particularly when Blade laid the foundation for that success so many years ago.
The Marvel Machine
A necessary part of exploring the creation of the film Blade is to understand the early development of how Marvel Studios came to be. Marvel Comics first began publishing comic books in 1961, which featured a combination of fantastical space faring stories and grounded “street level” heroes dealing with domestic drama. Of note, the character Captain America existed under Marvel’s predecessor publication Timely Comics in the 1940s and he would be resurrected into Marvel Comics proper in 1964. In the Gizmodo.com article The Secret History Of Marvel’s Movies Before Iron Man: Part 1, author James Whitbrook details the first efforts of translating the comic book characters to live action. Whitbrook details how in 1944 “Captain America was a 15-part serial film (an episodic film that usually accompanied a longer motion picture, a popular format during the earliest decades of the film industry) that holds the honor of being the last ever serial made by Republic to star a superhero as well as the first live-action Marvel adaptation.”
In the 1970s, Marvel produced live action adaptations of their characters for television, with series featuring Spider-Man, Captain America, and the famously successful series The Incredible Hulk staring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Several TV movies were made from these series, but the first true feature film directly adapted from a licensed Marvel property to receive theatrical release was the ill-fated Howard The Duck in 1986. The film received poor critical reviews and was a box office bomb, earning only $17 Million in its initial theatrical run off a $30 Million budget. The 1989 film The Punisher and the 1992 film Captain America were limited to home video only releases, which were also met with poor critical reception. The financial failures of these feature films paralleled the much greater financial crisis of the comic book market crash in 1993.
In the BBC.com article Marvel Avenged: From financial ruin to the biggest film franchise in history, entertainment reporter Mark Savage explains that the crash came about “thanks to a glut of underwhelming titles, and a crisis of confidence amongst collectors. Sales dropped by 70 per cent and Marvel was left heavily in debt.” During the next few years of financial turmoil, there were volatile shifts in the executive board at Marvel. A major factor in helping Marvel stay afloat was a merger with the toy company Toy Biz, run by CEO Ike Perlmutter. Perlmutter brought with him a brash toy designer named Avi Arad, who would become a key figure in the newly reconfigured Marvel. After a series of legal battles and a bankruptcy filing in 1996, Perlmutter became the chairman of Marvel, with Arad as the new chief of Marvel’s film division. Part of Arad’s radical new vision was the consolidation of resources and licenses for film production. As Savage details, “Arad looked at the botched attempts to license Marvel movies in the early 1990s…and made a decision: In the future, Marvel would commission its own scripts, hire its own directors and negotiate with stars. Then it would sell the whole package to a major studio, which would shoot and distribute the film.” It is from this new film making strategy that Marvel Films achieved its first successful theatrical release with Blade.
Out of the Darkness, Into the Night
In the Hollywood reporter article What Happened to ‘Blade’?, film journalist Richard Newby links the decision to adapt obscure characters such as Blade with Marvel’s decision to rebrand lesser known characters for a new generation, in the hopes of increasing comic book sales. Describing the new creative push, Newby writes, “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.” The use of obscure characters provided latitude with which to create more violent and mature stories for modern teens. The results paid off for Marvel comics, and would prove equally successful for its burgeoning film studio. An adaptation of Blade had been in the works for years prior, but Marvel’s previous studio woes meant the project never got off the ground. This time around, there was serious investment put into the production, and a critical step in the process was the casting of Wesley Snipes.
The action films in the 1980s through mid-1990s emphasized physical masculine dominance, where actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger boasted incredibly muscular physiques. In his book Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back, author Harvey O’Brien analyzes the work of contemporary writers and concludes that this atmosphere of “hard body” action heroes came about when “the emasculation of America came with the reconstitution of America.” With the end of the Vietnam conflict and the acceleration of the Cold War, O’Brien postulates how “this was closely integrated with repatriation through surrogate fathers in narratives dramatizing the patrimony of the American nation, and, by extension, reasserting the patriarchy of the Presidency under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.” Obrien notes how this concept would reach a “metaphoric apex” in the 1997 film Air Force One, in which the president, a Vietnam veteran, becomes an action hero as he fights Russian terrorists.
Wesley Snipes’ career developed in this era, but he had a particular set of skills that set him apart from the muscle-bound action hero archetype. Snipes dazzled audiences in movies such as Passenger 57 (1992) and Demolition Man (1993) with his flashy martial arts moves, derived from his real life expertise as a fifth degree black belt in Shotokan Karate. Along with his physical prowess, he also had formidable acting ability, appearing in a number of comedies and dramas such as New Jack City (1991), Waiting to Exhale (1995), and Jungle Fever (1991), directed by the auteur Spike Lee. This arsenal of skills was significant in bolstering the other key factor in Snipes’ success: he was one of very few African American leading men in action films. Snipes’ imbued many of his characters with a roguish confident attitude, and in several films, this attitude directly challenged racism. One of the most famous examples of this is the heavy racial subtext in a scene from the film Passenger 57, where he taunts the villain by declaring, “Always bet on black”. This combination of physical skill, acting bonafides, and his cultural cache as a Black action hero would all become integral to the reimagining of Blade for a new generation of moviegoers.
Cold Blooded, Sucka
An important component of what makes Blade such an effective film is the cinematic lineage it shares. It is part of the long line of vampire horror films dating as far back as Nosferatu (1922), but it also shares direct lineage with the explosion of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Author Adilifu Nama writes in his book Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Supeheroes, “Blade was created by Marv Woflman in 1973 and unquestionably dovetailed with the popular Blaxploitation film craze of the period.” Blade wore outlandish clothing and had sexual encounters as he roamed the night stalking the undead. The influence was more than just surface level, however, as the comic also inherited the political undertones of the films, particularly 1972’s Blacula, which featured strong elements of black nationalism and resistance against the police state within its supernatural tale. Nama writes, “The original comic book version of Blade signified a similar racial message; it reimagined black racial revenge in the form of an anti-establishment black superhero stalking and killing pale white vampires”.
In truth, that link with superheroes was never that far removed from Blaxploitation films to begin with, since as Nama notes, “the unmistakable commonality between the two exists because Blaxploitation characters were black superheroes.” This recalls films such as Superfly (1972), which featured a pimp who used martial arts, cunning and substantial wealth to win the day (in a sense, this combination of abilities is not too far removed from the DC Comics character Batman, a billionaire detective ninja.) Other films that imbued their protagonists with almost superhuman levels of strength and skill include muscular football legend Jim Brown in Slaughter (1972), Fred Williamson in Boss Nigger (1975), and Jim Kelly in Black Belt Jones (1974). In the book of collected essays titled Beyond Blaxploitation, author Laura Cook Kenna has a chapter titled Making Exploitation Black where she describes the discourse surrounding the premier of Blaxploitation films and its relation to the tastes of the black audience. She notes how the shrewd marketing of Shaft alongside advertisements for the 007/James Bond series underscored Blaxploitation’s relation to the over the top fantastical action of spy films, themselves being only a step removed from superhero fantasy. She even finds a quote from Gordon Parks Sr., lauded director of the iconic film Shaft (1972), where he opines, “If [people from Harlem] see superheroes with fast cars and fancy clothes, well, that’s the American dream- everyone’s American dream.”
Kenna declares, “Blaxploitation traded in literally spectacular blackness, but racial politics were also used as part of character motivation in kung-fu and ‘angry white man’ tales.” Blaxploitation films heavily incorporated martial arts and traditional white hero revenge tales into their scripts, and the film adaptation of Blade builds on these same principles. Wesley Snipes puts on spectacular displays of martial arts skill in each fight sequence enhanced by special effects in an ultimately grim tale about a haunted victim of violence seeking retribution against the monsters that made him. At the same time, the film also incorporates important racial and social issues like the Blaxploitation films of yore, but in a contemporary setting. The movie takes place in a nameless city (production notes indicate it filming locations split between New York in Los Angeles) that stands in for any diverse metropolitan area. The control the vampires exert upon day-to-day life is a flexible device that could be a stand-in for any number of insidious organizations in our world, be they real or imagined. As Blade notes in a line of dialogue “[The vampires] have their hands in everything. Politics, finance, real estate; They already own half of downtown”.
The film’s take on the myth of vampirism is also a unique approach that touches on our real world issues. While vampires are most certainly supernatural in Blade, the film takes its time to flesh out the biology of it all. Vampirism is overtly likened to a sexually transmitted disease, reflecting the HIV and AIDS epidemic brought into America’s collective social consciousness in the early and mid-’90s. There is also a reference to Sickle Cell Disease, a blood condition known to be more prevalent among people of African descent. Racism is present in subtext throughout, but one of the most overt cases is the scene where the villain Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) has a tense standoff with Blade in an attempt to convince him to join forces. Frost/Dorff cannot match the physicality of Blade/Snipes, but he makes up for it with a sinister cerebral approach laced with invective dialogue. He taunts blade by calling him “Uncle Tom” a heavily loaded insult for black people who prostrate themselves to white power for preferential treatment, invoking a double meaning towards the (black) vampire who protects humans rather than feed on them as if to stay in their good graces.
Frost further injects racial animus into his words in another scene when Blade’s ally Karen (N’bushe Wright), a hematologist, is held captive in Frost’s penthouse fortress. Frost once again uses racially and sexually charged invective to try and “turn” Karen, noting her “great skin” and mocking Blade for not “giving it to her”. Karen, a brilliant and powerful black woman in her own right, sees right through him and twists the situation with a counteroffer of her own, promising a cure for his ailment. Frost snaps back with the fiendish line: “I’ll tell you what we are sista: We’re the top of the fucking food chain!” Shades of the historic sexual abuse of black women, dehumanization of black people, and racial rhetoric once again interwoven into a brilliant character moment brimming with subtext.
Black sexuality is a particularly significant component of Blade’s appeal. Vampire lore since its earliest mythological expressions has been a metaphor for unbridled lust. Tales of vampires that woo and prey upon virginal women speak to the insecurities about seduction and sexual promiscuity. In the case of Blade, that fear of sexuality collides with the historic sexual abuse of African-Americans, by white dominated structures of power as well as the toxicity of domestic black relationships. This is compounded by the longstanding demonization of black men as sexual predators. In his book Screening America: United States History Through Film Since 1900, Author James Lorence points to one of the keystones of this cultural demonization within the birth of cinema itself in the infamous film Birth of Nation (1915). Lorence writes “the films account of Reconstruction stresses the lustful behavior of African-Americans allegedly relentless in their pursuit of innocent white womanhood” and how “rape, pillage and murder all befall the helpless white southern victims.
Authors Noel Koh and Joel Gwynne believe that Blade represents a distinct re-contextualization of this historical perception through its use of vampire lore. In their essay Blood and Race — The Black Male Vampire as Action Hero, Koh and Gwynne postulate that “by presenting the vampire as an action hero, the Blade trilogy (1998–2004) attempts to renegotiate the ambivalent positioning of the black action hero as either hyper-sexualized or passively castrated.” There is explicit sexual imagery throughout film, and although Blade himself never exhibits traditional onscreen sexual behavior, Koh and Gwynne note that “ the African American action hero cum vampire hunter, is portrayed as firmly heterosexual and identifiably masculine within the frame of his vampiric corporeality.” This is most directly evidenced during the final act and lead up to the climactic battle against the villain. Drained of life by Frost after a torturous resurrection ritual, Blade requires blood to survive. In desperation, Karen offers her own blood. Blade, no longer able to withstand, lets the thirst take over and embraces her like a devouring predator would its prey, the two writhing in agonizing ecstasy, the sweat glistening off their dark skin. Soon, the pain becomes too great and Karen quietly pleads for Blade to stop. Blood drunk, he ignores her pleas, but eventually comes to his senses and releases her, revitalized and ready to put an end to their white tormentors. Again, though this is not intercourse in a traditional sense, elements of black male sexuality, the myth of black men as predator, and the harsh realities of sexual abuse upon black women all collide to form complicated contemporary manifestation black sexuality. Blade is a violent contradiction of tempered focus and animal rage, and at the climax of the film this internal struggle finds equilibrium through mutual consent and understanding. The vampire’s bite, normally portrayed as an act of violence and manipulation, now becomes an expression of reconciliation with all of that historical emotional baggage, channeling that pain into a new sense of purpose and empowerment.
Ice Skating Uphill
With all this narrative and thematic weight to bear upon its name, one wonders why Blade doesn’t register as strongly as other pop cultural properties. One thing that seemed to haunt the success of Blade was the accumulated failures of other black superhero films prior to its release. As Nama recalls, “films like Robert Townsend’s light hearted The Meteor Man (1993), the completely absurd Blankman (1994) and the unwatchable Steel (1997) standout for some of the most questionable cinematic representations of black superheroes ever presented.” One notable exception was the film Spawn (1997), which treaded much darker territory in comparison to the aforementioned comedic spoofs and parodies. The character Spawn gained notoriety in the mid-‘90s as the brainchild of Todd McFarlane, a comic book writer and artist who previously worked on issues of Marvel’s Spider-Man series. He formed his own publication called Image Comics, which was filled with graphically violent and sexually explicit stories. Spawn was the flagship of his new venture, featuring a story about an African-American black ops soldier left for dead, making a deal with the devil that granted him superpowers at the cost of his soul. The film adaptation in 1997 starring martial arts actor Michael Jai White performed modestly at the box office, but failed to incite enough interest for an ongoing movie franchise. Outside of Blade’s own continued adventures in two other films, the momentum that Spawn and Blade gathered wasn’t enough to garner interest in further black comic book hero adaptations.
Another element that may have stymied the proliferation of Black superhero films in the aftermath of Blade was the onset of multiple R-rated Sci/Fi franchises that appeared in its wake. The most famous and successful of these is The Matrix (1999) and its sequels Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003). The Matrix starred Keanu Reaves as an unwitting hacker turned warrior messiah in a future apocalypse, where computers imprison humanity in a computer generated dream world. Featuring extensive cutting edge CGI special effects and spectacular martial arts choreography by Hong Kong cinema legend Yuen Woo Ping, The Matrix series upped the action ante of Blade in every conceivable way. Even so, it shared the key element of race in a story about overcoming oppressive autocracy. In her article Dead White Men: An Essay on the Changing Dynamics of Race in US Action Cinema, anthropology professor Gretchen Bakke observes the clash of races inherent in The Matrix, stating “The Wachowski brothers constructed two opposing worlds for these films: Zion, or the ‘real’ world, is diversely utopic, while the matrix is monocultural and dissimulating. The former is the world of the truly living and the free, and the latter of the half-living and the willfully deluded. One is pointedly not-white… and the other is exclusively and deliberately white.” What seems to separate the black vampire hunter from the multicultural freedom fighters is degrees of accessibility. Whereas Blade has roots firmly within the movies of black power counter-culture anti-heroes, The Matrix provides audiences with a more easily digestible and appealing cast of heroes in a spectrum of colors, lead by the affable Keanu Reeves, himself a racially “ambiguous” mix of Caucasian and Chinese-Hawaiian descent. This allowed The Matrix a level of mainstream appeal that even the mighty Blade series could never match financially.
Bakke also notes that other “Hard-R” special effects laden action films with high-tech black leather aesthetics also pull liberally from Blade, expanding on his symbolism as an anti-establishment militant force and applying it to different templates in an attempt to obtain broader audience appeal. This is particularly the case of the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises, which feature white women as the central heroes who defy the racially coded evil white “undead” patriarchy. Bakke explains, “in Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)….Alice is pitted against the hyperwhites, a new sort of zombie engineered specifically to best her. In the Underworld series we see the same dynamic. The first film pits the Vampires against the Lycans — decadent whites against lively “blacks” or, if you will, cultured bloodsucker against sewer-dwelling animals.” Although successful and entertaining in their own rights, the transposition of a black anti-hero onto the mold of white women leaves for some unsettling and uncomfortable implications. Despite this apparent oversight, the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises currently have five and six entries in each series respectively, compared to only three entries of Blade, an apparent justification of cultural appropriation in the eyes of film executives concerned with the bottom line.
The largest element which curbed the advent of the black superhero film must in all likelihood be the rise of the mainstream superhero movie itself. Though this may seem paradoxical, a cursory look at the types of movies released reveals an unsettling trend. Discussing the entirety of the superhero boom of the early 21st century would be a tremendous undertaking beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we need only key in on the types of characters (and the actors portraying them) that have maintained prominence in the after math of Blade. Beginning in 2000 was the first X-Men film directed by Brian Singer. Although the X-Men comics originally gained popularity for diverse youth fighting discrimination, the movies largely center on Hugh Jackman’s solemn rendition of the mutant character Wolverine. This continued throughout the majority of the eleven franchise entries, with the exception of the Deadpool entries starring Ryan Reynolds. In 2002, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man staring Tobey McGuire broke box office records, with its two sequels bringing in even further success. 2005 saw the return of Batman to the big screen with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins starring Christian Bale, followed by his groundbreaking adventure The Dark Knight in 2008. That same year saw the first big hit of what is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe with John Favreu’s Iron Man (2008) starring Robert Downey Jr. From there, the MCU plowed ahead with introductions of other famous characters, to include The Incredible Hulk (2008) starring Edward Norton, Thor (2011) starring Chris Hemsworth, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) starring Chris Evans, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with Chris Pratt as the lead, Ant Man (2015) starring Paul Rudd, Doctor Strange (2016) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and Spider-man: Homecoming (2017) starring Tom Holland. The common denominator in virtually every movie: cis-gendered heterosexual white men in the leading role.
The films have had varying degrees of racially and sexually diverse casting as the years went on, but the paradigm of white man in the lead never truly altered until Black Panther in 2018. In fairness, one can see the idea of establishing the ground work of Marvel’s famous characters before digging into their roster, but the very fact that an obscure character like Blade found success in a public that practically had no idea he existed prior to the film flies in the face of that logic. Nama observes that “the film industry appears reticent about the ability of black superheroes to achieve success”, but it appears that more than anything, they are concerned with maintaining the illusion of the white male status quo, even when evolving social and racial demographics in the United States defy that calculation ever so surely.
Blade represents an important link between Black cinematic heroes of the past, super-powered or otherwise, and the modern age of iconic minorities on screen who appeal to a culturally savvy and diverse audience hungry for representation in mainstream media. Despite the obstacles it faced, the film was a success for its time. It defied the conventional wisdom of movie studios that tried to shape what kinds of movies could appeal audiences, especially compared to the failures of other contemporary live action black superhero properties. With the success of Black Panther and the rise in popularity of other racially diverse superheroes such as Luke Cage and Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino youth who is the latest iteration of Spider-Man, there is hope that Black superheroes and characters from across the spectrum of race and gender will have their chance to shine. And as this new era dawns, we must never forget Blade, the film that kicked down the doors and paved the way for this renaissance of black cinematic spectacle.
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