VHS Revival takes to the vampire-laden streets with an unlikely innovator in the Marvel canon
Prior to Blade, Marvel’s track record in cinemas was impressively wretched.
At a time when DC’s Superman and Batman were experiencing unprecedented levels of cinematic success, the characters of Marvel were getting lost in translation. First up was George Lucas’ monumentally ill-judged mid-80s adaptation Howard the Duck, which tanked so hard at the box office that Lucas, who had bet on the film’s success to pay off outstanding debts he owed on Skywalker Ranch, was forced to sell his computer animation company to Apple buddy Steve Jobs.
Following the duck debacle, there was The Punisher featuring Dolph Lundgren, a top shelf, straight-to-video action flick that was enjoyably rubbish though ultimately forgettable. Next up was a further home video release, this time featuring Captain America, which was a stinker of a movie and borderline unwatchable. Finally, there was The Fantastic Four. Produced by Roger Corman in 1994 and cobbled together on a budget of a million dollars plus change, the film was never released in theatres. Explanations for this varied. However, consensus has it that the film was never meant for distribution and that it was only ever made so that Neue Constantin Film, who owned the rights at the time, could retain the characters for a further ten years.
The mid-nineties were difficult for Marvel. When comic sales bombed during the middle of the decade and Marvel suffered a financial hemorrhage, the company filed for bankruptcy. A period of legal wrangling and corporate arm wrestling followed. During this period, it was debatable whether the company would continue to trade, let alone a movie would be made of an established Marvel property. However, it was during this ropy period in the imprint’s history that the seeds of change were planted. The decision was made, which retrospectively seems like a stroke of genius, to outsource a number of lesser-known Marvel characters to an independent company. In this instance, the company was Event comics, co-owned by Joe Quesada. The project Quesada developed was Marvel Knights, which ultimately led to Marvel’s creative reinvigoration.
Blade: Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.
Similarly, an evolution was occurring in cinema. David S. Goyer was hired by Newline Cinema Productions to develop a script for a Blade movie, which had been under consideration since 1992. Goyer managed to convince the studio to go dark on the movie which, based on the Blaxploitation character originally created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colman in 1973 as a support player in horror comic The Tomb of Dracula, Newline originally envisaged as somewhat less gritty. With Wesley Snipes behind it and genre director Stephen Norrington hired on the strength of directorial debut Death Machine, the stage was set for a comic adaptation that would throw away the rulebook and overhaul the genre. Whether Quesada’s Knights influenced Goyer’s thinking remains debatable, but what is irrefutable is that across the board at Marvel, during one of the comic giant’s most turbulent periods, changes were afoot that would secure the company’s future.
Blade commences (following a brief expositional episode in a hospital depicting Blade’s birth) with the introduction of a naïve and slightly irritating youth as he is driven to, and subsequently led into, an underground nightclub by brazen vampire chick Racquel, played by Traci Lords. He is subsequently abandoned on the dancefloor where he dawdles for a bit, suspecting something is off but not really getting that he is probably on somebody’s kill list. An electronic beat builds to a thumping crescendo as the youth becomes alerted to the danger of his predicament. As it reaches its climax and the crowd begins to frenzy around him, he comprehends, albeit a bit late, that it’s all gone Pete Tong and he is about to meet his maker.
Blade: Still heavy.
Whistler: But, you’re so big.
The inspired scene that follows, involving a jerry-rigged sprinkler system that douses the club’s undead patrons in gallons of hemoglobin, brings to mind the shunting scene in cult classic Society. A gratuitous, OTT blend of writhing bodies and fake blood, it is immediately difficult for the viewer to fathom where one vampire ends and another begins. Before the assembled ‘suckheads’ can lunch on the traumatized jock, however, the Daywalker enters the fray. Clearly perturbed by the fearsome reputation of the half-breed vamp hunter who has gatecrashed the carnival, the killers clear a space around him. Blade, after an establishing shot frames him as the coolest motherfucker in a hundred-mile radius, promptly gets physical. Clad in black body-armor and sunglasses and sporting a razor sharp katana and intimidating haircut, Snipes turns feral on the gathering. In a visually magnificent bullet strewn, kung-fu free-for-all that’s edited like a music video and busy as Black Friday, Blade handily dispatches a number of the club’s denizens. He then proceeds to torture one of them for information before setting him alight to ‘send a message’ to his enemies.
Displaying scant regard for the Kirby/Lee era of comic book writing, not to mention the Day-Glo theatrics of Joel Schumacher’s kitschy Batman sequels, or the box office/critical demise of Spawn and Steel, both of which featured African-American leads in the title roles and both of which predated Blade’s release by a year, Blade was confident enough to go its own way. Via cinematographer Theo Van de Sande’s colour-rinsed, anamorphic photography and a collision of horror, action and comic book elements that would bind together with surprising coherency, Blade’s triumvirate of Norrington, Goyer and Snipes would redefine the concept of the superhero for a generation. Drawing a line under past failings and ushering in a new era of big screen storytelling, Blade would lay out the floor-plan for everything from the X-Men movies and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, to The Matrix, Underworld and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The movie was fresh. Having taken a bit-part Marvel character lacking a built-in audience and retrofitted it for the nineties, the filmmakers had struck gold. Nothing else looked, sounded, or behaved like Blade, which was like an adrenaline shot to the heart of popular cinema.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Blade was also responsible to a certain degree for updating the vampire mythos alongside that of the comic book hero. Pseudo-scientific jargon was used to explain vampirism, whilst traditional weaponry was given an upgrade, vampire mace being a particularly impressive concoction, along with UV torches and semi-automatic weaponry loaded with garlic-tipped bullets. Vampires were no longer loner Gothic princes or even the roaming gypsy bloodsuckers depicted in Near Dark. Blade presented an ancient, politically engaged vampire hierarchy where internecine vampire feuds proliferated, with Deacon Frost’s rogue faction of ‘turned’ vampires butting heads with an older, more established race of pure blood elders/boardroom executives. Furthermore, Deacon’s immaculately attired entourage, sated on a diet of sex, drugs and rock and roll, resided in luxury penthouses, hung out in vampire basement clubs after dark and had access to all manner of modern gadgetry and technological advancement. It is an oddly incongruous irony in the film that their relentless obsession with world dominance and ancient vampire Gods proves their undoing, despite the fact that for vast swathes of the film they come across as tech savvy information age Nosferatu gone global.
In terms of performances in the film, there’s not a lot to say. Snipe’s immense physicality and martial arts expertise gives substance to the Daywalker, which is just as well given he has limited dialogue to deliver. Stephen Dorff meanwhile is brilliantly cast as the villain. Deacon Frost’s ageless cool and politically aspirational loucheness acts as the perfect counterweight to Snipe’s moody earnestness throughout. Excellent support comes in the shape of Kris Kristofferson’s lank-haired Abraham Whistler, and N’Bushe Wright’s kick-ass hematologist Dr. Karen Jenson. Ultimately, however, it’s the visual surety of the film, backed by some fabulous fight choreography and a thumping club soundtrack that carries it over the finish line, solidifying its reputation as a key milestone in genre cinema’s ongoing evolution.
Deacon Frost: You may wake up one day and find yourself extinct.
Negative test screenings of the film due to poor audience reactions to the original ending would result in re-shoots and a delayed release date so the climactic sword fight between Blade and Deacon Frost could be edited in. Though occasionally hobbled by indifferently executed CGI, this was probably in the film’s interests. It didn’t affect the film’s success unduly on release either way, since Blade would do big business and spawn two further sequels and a short- lived TV show in 2006. Del Toro’s endlessly inventive and arguably superior sequel proved the standout. Goyer’s inferior Blade Trinity, meanwhile, murdered the series onscreen and left it for dead in a pool of its own blood.
As a comic book character Blade would star in a series of short-lived prints and supporting roles in other storylines. Bizarrely, the character’s onscreen success was never reflected in the comic universe and despite further talk of a Blade title in 2015, at the time of writing, the Daywalker still isn’t featured in his own publication. As for the future of the character, this too remains uncertain. These days, all-inclusive storylines and MCU world building means that irrespective of mythology, characters must adhere to the logic of a shared universe. Whilst there is room for originality within that universe, James Gunn’s ‘Guardians’ movies and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok being prime examples, ultimately, tone and direction is dictated by corporate decision makers. As a result, any attempts to deviate from the blueprint as dictated by the powers that be (Edgar Wright and Antman springs immediately to mind) are immediately corrected to serve the series’ interests.
Blade is rightly being revered as the critical forerunner to Marvel’s cinematic success story and rumours persist about the possibility of Blade 4 becoming a reality. Discussions about the potential for the character’s assimilation into the Marvel Cinematic Universe abound, with Kevin Feige expressing that he would like the character to return and Snipes himself going on record as having discussed two possible ways of achieving this with Marvel bigwigs.
Whether Snipes would persist in the role or whether somebody else would take on the Daywalker mantel is anybody’s guess at this moment. Whether Blade would maintain its 18-rated certificate or be toned down to conform to present MCU standardization is also uncertain. What is certain is that Blade is now getting some of the credit it deserves. With any luck, fans of the series wont have too long to wait before an overdue comeback is successfully staged.