Without “Blade”, We Wouldn’t Have the Marvel Cinematic Universe
(Author’s note: I originally wrote this in 2016 for CBR.com. I’m reposting it here because of the news of the new Blade film.)
I last saw “Blade” when it was in theaters. Way back in 1998, during the days when Blade’s look, the sunglasses and trench coat, predated “The Matrix” by almost a year. Watching the film recently, I forgot how funny it was. Thanks in no small part to Wesley Snipes’ dialogue and mannerisms. But there were a few things I didn’t forget about it, which I want to pass on to you.
First and foremost, given Blade’s record-setting run at the box office, there would be no “Deadpool” film without “Blade”. And that’s not mindless speculation on my part. You may know Marc Bernardin from his co-hosting duties on Kevin Smith’s “Fatman Beyond” podcast, but he is also the former film editor to my favorite newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. He had this to say about the connection between the two R-rated films featuring unlikely Marvel characters: “We often credit Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ for blazing the trail that led us to our current climate of Marvel-movie dominance. And it did a lot,” Bernardin told me. “But it wasn’t the first film to take a pulpy comic and treat it seriously, to imbue a character with a tangible sense of time and place. That’d be ‘Blade,’ which took a top-shelf actor and put him at the center of a movie that had none of the ridiculousness of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies and all of the visceral punch of a horror movie crossed with a kung-fu spectacular. Honestly, you don’t get to ‘Deadpool’ without ‘Blade’ coming first.”
R-rated films have always been a dicey proposition financially because of the perceived restriction of the film’s audience because of the rating, but it’s often forgotten that “Blade” made money. With just a $40 million budget, it grossed more than $130 million worldwide at the box office. But the film’s relevance today concerning the potential for a flood of R-Rated superhero properties is just one thing. The other is that, nearly two decades later, you can insert “Blade” into virtually any discussion about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it fits in perfectly. Heck, if you didn’t know any better, you could watch this film and easily think it’s part of the MCU, aside from the glaring omission of an after credits scene connecting it to the other films. A few examples:
- Are you tired of seeing a forgettable villain with vague and impractical plans for world domination? Then “Blade’s” Deacon Frost has you covered. Although his plot falls into the “world domination” category, it makes sense in a way those of other antagonists, like Ultron, don’t. Frost wants to unleash the Blood God, which will transform Earth’s entire population into vampires — which sounds great, until you realize that vampires need humans to survive. To his credit, screenwriter David S. Goyer has said there was a scene to demonstrate how this new vampire-dominated world would work, but it was cut from the final product. Regardless, Frost’ reason to enact his plot is sound: He perceives humans to be only food for the vampires, and because of this, the vampires should be in charge, not the humans. Now compare that plot and motivation with Ultron or Malekith where it wasn’t really clear what they wanted and what would happen after they were successful.
- Are you having a discussion about the lack of diversity in superhero films? “Blade” features two people of color in lead roles, Blade (Wesley Snipes) and Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright). The film only alludes to Blade’s ethnicity once, with a questionable bit of dialogue from Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) referring to Blade as an “Uncle Tom.” Re-watching the film, you understand the implication is that Blade is a vampire-like creature who sides with humans over his vampire brethren, but that line is super-awkward, and more than a little uncomfortable to hear today. There are only two serious (non-parody) superhero films that existed prior to “Blade” that featured people of color in leading roles. Both of these films came out in 1997 and were released within fourteen days of each other in August of that year. There was “Spawn”, which was indeed the first film of its kind in that regard Then, there was “Steel,” starring Icy Hot spokesman and former runaway bus for the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal. Although some of you may argue that “Steel” isn’t so much a movie as much as it’s the singular greatest film ever released in the history of cinema. One with no peers that I can only lessen by including it here in this discussion. And a movie that can only be spoken about in hushed, reverent tones. I dare not tarnish “Steel” by discussing it any further.
- How about the role of women in Marvel Studios films, and superhero adaptations in general? More often than not, these film and television shows feature their female characters as damsels in distress. Usually defined as the girl being placed into danger in order to move the plot along and motivate the hero. Karen does not fit that description at all. (And yes, there are exceptions in today’s Marvel films too. Gamora and Black Widow come to mind, but thus far they’re the exception to the rule. In “Blade”, Karen is pivotal to the plot: Without her, there’s no EDTA to kill Frost, and no cure for vampirism. (EDTA was a blood-thinner that had a borderline comical effect of blowing up the vampires whose blood was exposed to it.) Karen is not merely standing around and waiting to be saved, either; at one point she wields a shotgun and takes out some of the bad guys herself. More importantly, she’s not a superhero, but rather a civilian caught up in the craziness of a vampire film trying hard not to be a vampire film.
No “Blade, No Marvel?
Beyond “Blade” fitting perfectly into the current Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of presentation and tone, and the fact that the film was an R-Rated success story, there’s another factor that we should consider. This is a film that’s historically important, both to Marvel as a company and to the currently existing Marvel Cinematic Universe. Simply put, without “Blade”, there would likely be no MCU
As a child of the ’90s, I can personally vouch for the fact that superhero films of that era we’re almost all garbage. Yes, everyone points and laughs at “Batman & Robin,” which despite what Internet nostalgists looking for page views want you to think, is an affront to our Creator and a counter argument concerning the theory of evolution. But there was also “The Shadow”, “The Phantom”, and “Judge Dredd” released in the ’90s, along with a Captain America film that featured rubber ears on his mask and an Italian Red Skull for … reasons. “Blade”, by comparison to many of the other superhero films released in that decade, was leaps and bounds ahead of its peers regarding its content and watchability.
Although Marvel had extensively licensed many of their characters to other producers, “Blade” was only the company’s second character, and film, to have a theatrical release. It was also the first film to be licensed by the newly formed Marvel Studios. Marvel’s corporate company history is as easy to follow as an early episode of “Preacher” on AMC. What is key here is that a few years after Toybiz bought Marvel, the arm of the company that had been charged with steering characters from comic to screen was sold to Fox. After that sale, Avi Arad, Isaac Permultter, and others sold off Toybiz stock in order to raise the funds to start Marvel Studios. (If you want to understand Marvel’s history, especially the confusing and constant changing hands by corporations with little interest in comics after Martin Goodman sold the company, you should read Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” and Laurence Maslon and Michael Kanton’s “Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture.” )
The remarkable thing about comic book films is their ability to warp the general public’s perception of a particular character or group of characters. A major example would be Howard the Duck going from funny, subversive and enjoyable as a comic book and as a comic character to an animatronic abomination with feelings. If you were to ask the average person today, or even people my age who weren’t alive for Howard’s original comic book run, I can safely bet my left pinky finger, that the only thing they’ll know is that he had a film, and that film was awful.
Thankfully, most people don’t remember that Howard the Duck was a Marvel movie, but Marvel sure did. You can see this in “Blade”. For example, there’s barely a mention anywhere of Marvel aside from a quick credit on screen naming Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman as creators of the character, and that’s about it. (There was a lengthy legal battle between Wolfman and Marvel over compensation and credit concerning the creation of Blade, so the fact that the credit is there at all is kind of amazing.) But even in the special features, you have a quick feature where Stan Lee is involved in talking about “Dark Comics”, but the word “Marvel” is uttered maybe once in the hours of bonus content packaged with the film. The cast and crew providing commentary go to great lengths to explain how they didn’t want “Blade” to be perceived as a “superhero” movie. Despite Stan Lee working tirelessly to see Marvel characters make their way into films like we see today, it’s a long time between “Howard” and “Blade”. Howard the Duck came out on August 1st, 1986. Blade came out August 21st, 1998.
This is especially shocking given that Warner Bros. had been cranking out superhero films since “Superman” arrived in theaters in 1978. But then again, Marvel had its own struggles at the time, including nearly having to close its doors between the time of the first Superman film and the release of “Blade”. If “Blade” had failed, I’m of the belief that we wouldn’t have gotten “X-Men” from Fox, or even “Spider-Man” from SONY. “Blade” gave the newly formed Marvel Studios something that the company seemingly did not posses in its films: Confidence. (Not cash though, since this was a licensed property. Something else that should be noted, since Marvel was not making any money on its own films until “Iron Man” came out in 2008. A full ten years after “Blade” hit theaters.)
Without that confidence, and the financial success of “Blade”, its likely Marvel Studios would not have taken such a huge risk on “Iron Man” at all. (If you really want to stretch the argument, “Spider-Man” spent most of its existence in what’s affectionately referred to as “Development Hell” in Hollywood. That is, stuck in a state of possibly going into production, but not doing so. Hollywood is an industry where everyone likes to back a winner, and so with “Blade” becoming successful at the box office, it’s likely that box office success spurred SONY into action.
If “Blade” had failed at the box office, you could make the argument that Disney would have never bothered with Marvel. You could also safely make the argument that the crappy Captain America and Fantastic Four films that made in the early ’90s may have been as good as those characters ever got on screen. “Blade” changed everything for Marvel. It was a commercial success that led to them taking a risk and putting the plans into place to create the MCU. “Blade” was a deep bench kind of character. One that first debuted in “Tomb of Dracula” in 1973 and then appeared sporadically until his film came out. Many of you my age may only have known Blade from his appearances in Spider-Man, the animated series, than you do from his time in the comics. If the film had not come out, it’s possible that’s all we’d have ever seen of Blade.
The fact that he starred in a successful film inspired Marvel to make use of the characters they already owned the film rights for. Another example of how the films warp and change perception of comic characters? Don’t forget that Iron Man was a C-lister and usually an afterthought after he initially appeared in the ’60s. Most people could identify Tony Stark with alcoholism and not be able to tell you much else about him or his enemies beyond that. But you put Robert Downey Jr. on the screen and let him be his most Robert Downey Jr-ness, and Iron Man becomes Marvel’s flagship character in print and on the screen.
That wouldn’t have happened without “Blade”. We can only hope the new “Blade” movie makes its own mark on Marvel’s history.