An unsung hero: How Blade helped save the comic-book movie

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Mar 12, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

"Some motherf--kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill."

No one could deliver that line like Wesley Snipes' Blade, the human-vampire hybrid who headlined three movies based on the Marvel Comics character who first appeared in The Tomb of Dracula in 1973. The first film was released in 1998, and unlike most in its genre, Blade had both style and substance. It was a combination that audiences responded to, making it Marvel's first theatrical success. Unfortunately, the film doesn't always get the credit it deserves. Most people thank X-Men (2000) or Spider-Man (2002) for kickstarting the current wave of superhero films, but it was Blade that laid the groundwork and helped rebuild the genre after some fatal blows.
In 1997, comic-book movies were being read their last rites. With the exception of Men in Black, they were box-office bombs, critically panned or both. In that year alone we saw the release of Batman and Robin, Steel and Spawn. Batman and Robin made money ($238.2 million worldwide) but was so embarrassingly bad that Warner Bros. put the franchise on hold for eight years. Meanwhile, Steel and Spawn were financial flops that failed to make an impact.

During this "killing season," a group of producers including Michael De Luca and Peter Frankfurt were already shooting Blade. Most people in their position would have been terrified. If Batman, the biggest superhero at the time, was being shunned, how would Blade survive? Also, two comic-book movies with African-American leads had already proven to be box-office poison. Blade was coming to the plate with two strikes against it. How could it avoid the fate of its predecessors?

First and foremost, Blade wasn't a flash-in-the-pan pitch. According to Frankfurt, the film was originally conceived in 1992 after he wrapped production on the urban drama Juice (which famously starred Tupac Shakur). "I said to Marvel before I called New Line, 'Don't you have any African-American heroes? Any characters that we can make a movie?' They responded with, 'Yeah, we've got Blade. It's kind of a midlevel character. He had a couple of comics that he was on the cover, but mostly he's a secondary character. He's kind of cool. He likes jazz.'"

Blade was everything De Luca and Frankfort were looking for. De Luca had an option on it for New Line, and they'd found the perfect writer for it in David S. Goyer. Everything was starting to fall into place. But their small comic-book movie slowly turned into a blockbuster. "We knew that it was going to be way too expensive," Frankfurt recalled. "So when I handed in the script to Mike I said, 'You might be upset about this, OK? This is not gonna be a $3 million movie like Juice. But if you don't like it, we can always take stuff out.' He takes it for the weekend and calls back on Monday and goes, 'I love it! It's insane.'"

That type of enthusiasm and trust is what made Blade such a creative triumph. At the end of the day, they just wanted to make a good comic-book movie. After seeing how intense the material was, their goal was to cast a black action superstar, someone who could really embody the role. There was only one name that stuck out: Wesley Snipes. Like everyone else, Snipes was invested in the film's quality. Not only was he the star, but he was also a producer and fight choreographer. If there's one thing Snipes loves more than acting, it's probably martial arts. Blade allowed him to dabble in both.

They spent years looking for the right director and found him in the most unlikely candidate. "We'd seen this movie Death Machine, by this young guy named Steve Norrington. It was amazing. It was made for no money. It didn't make a whole lot of sense narratively, but just the energy of it and the craft of it was really impressive," Frankfurt explained. "It had this kind of crazy velocity. It had some really fabulous action beats in it. So I met him, and he was like P.T. Barnum in a room ... Lynn Harris was the executive shepherding at New Line, and she met him and was like, 'I like this guy. He's crazy, but he could be great.' I got him in a lunch with Wesley, Wesley's like, 'OK.' And then that was it."

After five years and multiple meetings, they finally got Blade into production. But it happened to be at a time when the comic-book genre was imploding. Frankfurt took note of the grim landscape. "I was concerned," he said. "Mike De Luca produced both Steel and Spawn, but he wasn't concerned. He just said, 'Make the best movie you can.' The wonderful thing about working with New Line is that they gave you plenty of rope. You could completely screw it up, or you could make something great. But they weren't going to interfere."

These days, a studio keeping their distance sounds like a foreign concept. But their faith paid off when De Luca saw the first cut of Blade. The producer had a visceral reaction, which turned out to be a good sign. "He was sitting behind me in the screening room, and he had his feet up on the back of my chair. I could feel him kicking and pushing. He was totally into it. The lights came up and he was like, 'Oh my God. This movie is like triple NC-17. We might have to pull it back in a few places, but it's f--king awesome. Just keep doing what you're doing.'"

Blade was released Aug. 21, 1998, and no one expected it to be a hit. It happened to open a week after one of the most hailed films of all time. "The movie came out the second weekend of Saving Private Ryan. And it opened at number one. It knocked Private Ryan off number one. Everybody was like, 'What? Are you kidding?'" Frankfurt exclaimed, "Everybody was shocked, like, 'What is this movie that knocked Private Ryan off?!' And then it held its second weekend, which was unheard of for an urban movie. Usually they just flame out like a horror movie does. Other people were like, 'Oh, it's a horror movie.' Everybody was trying to figure out what it was."

Blade was a game changer. It was only the second Marvel-based film to receive a wide theatrical release (behind Howard the Duck), and it earned more than $131 million worldwide. Even though Marvel didn't have much to do with the production, they can't ignore what it accomplished. "I think they as well as most acknowledge that it was the first movie that kind of presented a comic-book hero in a fresh way. It made people, especially young people, pay attention and say, 'Oh wow, this could actually be cool. This could actually be something that I'd want to watch.'"

Was Blade perfect? No. But it was a solid entry in the genre, and it helped revive the lucrative industry you see today. It's ironic that the film is Marvel's unsung hero. Like Blade himself, it doesn't get the most shine, but it still thrives, even in the shadows.

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