Blade turns 20: How Wesley Snipes' film about a vampire hunter ushered in a new era of superhero movies
Wesley Snipes' Blade laid the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today.
Films based on comic books or the superheroes could be easily divided into two broad categories - before and after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. It’s true that had it not been for the trilogy, especially the second installment, The Dark Knight (2008) — that featured a bravura performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, the genre might not have had the respect that it now commands. But truth be told, the genesis of this adulation lies between two franchises that came into being a few years before Nolan's trilogy took off with Batman Begins (2005). If Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) turned the superhero genre around, it was the David S Goyer-written and Stephen Norrington-directed Blade (1998) that truly ushered in a new era of the superhero films.
As Blade turns 20, it wouldn’t be totally incorrect to say that it was this Wesley Snipes-starrer that truly laid the foundation of the Marvel revolution. In fact, had it not been Blade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not even have come into existence.
Back in 1998, Marvel was a struggling brand far from being a studio to reckon with. It had some of the biggest names in the comic book universe but the films based on superheroes and such characters were not taken seriously. Burton’s Batman was a revelation and so was Batman Returns (1992) but once the juggernaut began spinning, it unleashed two Joel Schumacher productions - the slightly inane Batman Forever (1995) followed by the pathetic Batman and Robin (1997). It was in the shadow of this that Marvel decided to push the envelope by taking some of the lesser known characters such as Blade and give the parallel universe a boost. Perhaps that is the reason why initially the idea was pitched to rapper LL Cool J to feature as the lead.
Later even as New Line Cinema took over the project, there was never a push to make Blade look real, seedy or the spoof that the studios desired. By the time writer David Goyer came on board, there were three stars in the reckoning to portray the Blade - Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and Laurence Fishburne - and finally, it was Snipes who became Blade. However, the real reason why Snipes was interested in playing a ‘Dhampir’ (a human with vampire strengths but not their weaknesses, who protects humans from vampires) was to do with his fascination with the Black Panther comics. Later, Snipes said that he simply approached the character as a really cool guy who could do martial arts and wear a leather suit.
Actors can make significant changes to the way writers look at characters and it’s to Snipes’ credit that he made Blade, and as a result, the whole suited-superhero character cool enough for the mainstream. A few years after the first of the Blade films, Marvel produced the X-Men and the first of the Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire in 2002 and by that time, Snipes was enshrined as Blade with Blade II (2002), which was directed by Guillermo del Toro. Such was the impact of Blade that no one knew what to make of it - was it a comic book film or a horror film or just a ‘nonsensical action film’? But then it did the unimaginable. It was the film that knocked Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) off the number one position. But more than that, it made the world realise that superheroes can be multi-layered just like ‘regular’ characters.
Today, in a post-Black Panther world, Blade might look simplistic. Yet had it not been for its success, the superhero genre might not have gotten the boost it did and moreover, Black Panther itself might not have come up on the radar. In fact, Snipes, himself was keen to play the lead and pushed for a script to develop a film based on Black Panther.
Is there still some juice left in Blade? You bet there is. Snipes might not be the go-to name in the superhero universe anymore but instead of a traditional reboot, the series could benefit by tapping into its legacy — perhaps if one could look at a Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight-like rejig with Wesley Snipes reprising the titular role. The manner in which The Expendables franchise introduced forgotten stars to a new generation, vintage Snipes could truly introduce the younger lot to some real badassery - after all, not many can make a line like “Some motherf***kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill,” sound cooler than what it possibly could be.
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