Ice Skating Uphill: BLADE And The Pre-Cinematic Universe Superhero Era

The superhero classic turns 20 today.

Watching Blade in 2018, it’s easy to remember why it’s been largely forgotten, despite its pedigree as Marvel’s first box office success: At a bloated two hours, Stephen Norrington’s film doesn’t have enough story to fill its running time, the visual effects are woefully dated, and overall the title character feels oddly absent from his own film. But it also marked the first step into a larger world - a yet-to-be-defined cinematic universe - and certainly pointed to the commercial possibilities, only now really being pursued, of Hollywood exploring more culturally diverse stories. That doesn’t make Blade a particularly great film, but 20 years later, it offers some much more interesting - and important - lessons than perhaps audiences recognized upon its initial release.

What’s especially fascinating in retrospect is how Wesley Snipes’ stardom oddly began to dim right at the moment in which he achieved his greatest success. Coming off of To Wong Foo and One Night Stand, Snipes was exploring some of the most acclaimed, adventuresome material of his career, but he’d also made The Fan and U.S. Marshals, big commercial films that were both disappointments at the box office. Blade should have made him one of the industry’s most bankable stars, or at the very least earned him some better opportunities. But outside of the franchise, he struggled through a number of projects that barely attracted audiences, if they earned a proper theatrical release at all. Then again, notwithstanding its opportunities for the real-life martial artist to showcase his physical skills, the film cast Snipes against type, hiding him behind ubiquitous sunglasses and a dour demeanor that failed to utilize the febrile, unpredictable charisma that initially made him so appealing.

That said, there are some really great choices the movie makes which, quite frankly, it would behoove current superhero storytellers to heed. Blade is anti-origin story almost to a fault; other than a handful of extremely brief flashbacks, it takes almost half of the movie before Whistler (the terrific Kris Kristofferson) explains how he became the “Daywalker” whose mission is to eradicate Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) and his worldwide network of vampires. Also, Blade is tortured by the persistent hunger he feels, but there’s no moral struggle with his mission - he’ll impale, vivisect or explode anyone who gets in his way, without hesitation. And yet, it’s also a surprisingly quiet, un-busy and seemingly very painstaking film, especially for Norrington, who went on to direct The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an experience so unpleasant that he vowed (briefly) to never direct again.

His skill and personality as a filmmaker isn’t on par with, say, James Cameron, whom he worked with as a special effects artist on Aliens, but he demonstrated with this film an aptitude for unobtrusive but unique style that should have earned him more work than he got, particularly in the era of David Fincher and his Propaganda Films group. He has something that a lot of filmmakers of his era - and subsequent to it - lack: patience. Even if the story told here feels slightly anemic for a two-hour film, he creates some really distinctive, bold moments simply by letting them unfold in an unhurried way, and constructs scenes that if nothing else create a tangible sense of space for those mostly terrible (especially now) visual effects. (Watch Udo Kier’s death scene; even though the mishmash of passable practical effects and bad CGI are composited in a really awkward way, the tonal effect on the movie is successful, underscoring Frost’s cruelty against the backdrop of what should be a beautiful moment - a sunrise.)

But ultimately, Blade is anchored by Snipes, whether or not he “does” enough in the role. (His disposition in these films starts on the first one with a sense of halfhearted commitment to the source material, and he gets more and more Tommy Lee Jones - good, but contemptuous - in the second and third installments.) He has always been one of our most watchable actors, and even when the script isn’t equal to his talent, he clearly tries his best to give the material a unique spin, such as during the finale when giving in to a long-resisted urge to drink blood becomes a rapturously sexual embrace with Karen (N’Bushe Wright). What is perhaps most exciting about his portrayal of the character is that you could fairly easily drop him into the current Marvel Cinematic Universe without making almost any changes - including casting - and he would fit comfortably.

The ‘90s featured a number of comedic takes on black superheroes (Meteor Man, Blankman) that pretty much all tanked, but this film’s serious and sincere adaptation was a success, pointing the way not just to a whole potential roster of other heroes of color, but audiences that were eager to watch them on screen. That it took literally 20 years to get another black hero at the helm of his own story is shameful, in the very least because of all of the money studio execs left on the table in the wake of this film’s success. Upon reflection, Blade is probably a more interesting movie than it is a good one, a cultural footnote and fascinating progenitor for a genre that now dominates the industry. But if nothing else, its 20th anniversary feels like an overdue if welcome occasion for reflection upon the film’s legacy, and a sobering reminder of the stubbornness of Hollywood to recognize and acknowledge lessons that, looking back, should have left as vivid an impression as the sunrise on a vampire’s skin.

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