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This Week in Genre History: Blade threw a bloody rave at the box office

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Aug 26, 2020, 2:14 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

“I’m going to pitch you the Star Wars of Black vampire films.” In a 2018 oral history for Entertainment Weekly, that’s how screenwriter David S. Goyer says he approached New Line regarding his big-screen vision for a Marvel character that most movie fans probably didn’t know. First appearing in comics in 1973, Blade was a half-man/half-vampire who devoted his life to hunting down evil bloodsuckers. He’d never had the same cultural impact as Marvel’s more famous properties, but that made him an ideal candidate for an adaptation: You could just make a nasty, edgy movie without the huge expectations of a Spider-Man.

And so, on Aug. 21, 1998, Blade hit theaters, helping to prove the viability of R-rated comic book films and, more importantly, Black superheroes at the multiplex. It was also the culmination of Wesley Snipes’ evolution from one of the 1990s’ most promising dramatic actors into a riveting action hero. As Blade (aka Eric Brooks), he brought the necessary swagger and effortless cool to a character who has his demons and dark backstory but is far hipper and funnier than Batman. 

But despite some '90s excesses — everybody in this movie sure loves techno — Blade isn’t campy. The film follows Blade and his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) as they rescue an idealistic doctor, Karen (N'Bushe Wright), while taking on the villainous vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who wants to become all-powerful. Where other action cinema was growing dependent on CGI, this movie flaunted a proudly old-school vibe, largely focusing on martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, with characters brandishing swords as much as they flashed guns. (Tellingly, when the movie actually goes in for flashy special effects, they usually come across as cheesy.)

In the process, Blade paid homage to both bygone Black action movies and kung fu films while throwing in comic book tropes and vampire lore. On paper, that sounded like a weird mixture of different elements, but Snipes believed it would work. “All of my friends, we’ve never seen a cool, Shaft-like vampire that did karate at the same time,” he once said when explaining why he wanted to do the movie. After Blade, it was a thrilling reality. 

Why was it a big deal at the time? The '90s had its share of R-rated comic-book films, including The Crow, Judge Dredd, and Barb Wire, but none of those were based on Marvel properties. And with good reason: The once-legendary company was in financial freefall, and the last time they’d tried to mount a serious big-screen adaptation, it had turned out to be Howard the Duck, one of the most notorious bombs of the 1980s.

But Blade was different because it was going to be written by Goyer, a guy who loved comic books and had worked on the script for 1996's The Crow: City of Angels. Plus, New Line was feeling good about superhero cinema after its modestly budgeted 1997 film Spawn had been a solid hit. According to Goyer, who would go on to shape the Dark Knight films with Christopher Nolan, the studio decided that Blade should be given a hefty budget of almost $50 million. “It was the first time in my career where I got to write exactly what I wanted to write and I didn’t have a bunch of editorial interference,” the screenwriter later said.

Meanwhile, Snipes was looking to solidify his status as an action star. Earlier in the decade, the former Major League actor had won accolades for serious roles in Jungle Fever and New Jack City and proved himself to be an ace comedic performer in White Men Can’t Jump. But he had his eye on blockbusters, playing the gonzo villain in Demolition Man and saving the day in Passenger 57 and Murder at 1600.

“I could do New Jack until I die,” Snipes said in 1998, talking about his role as fearsome drug kingpin Nino Brown in New Jack City. “New Jack could be 65 in a wheelchair and still running things. But that’s not going to travel internationally, and it’ll put a limit on how long I have a career.”

Interestingly enough, Snipes had actually talked to Marvel about playing Black Panther back in the mid-'90s, with Black filmmakers like John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles being considered. “I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history, and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes told The Hollywood Reporter a few years ago. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the Black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”

But when that project failed to get off the ground, he jumped on Blade, serving as a producer as well. In this brooding, cocky character, Snipes saw someone who connected to his own acting heroes and influences, including Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Blacula’s William Marshall, Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, and the work of Orange Sky Golden Harvest, the Chinese film production company behind so many Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee action flicks. In other words, Snipes wanted to merge attitude and balletic grace, ass-kicking action, and a strong sense of Black pride. 

Initially, Goyer had hoped a relatively unknown young filmmaker would direct Blade: David Fincher, who he developed the script with. But after that fell through, another up-and-comer, British director Stephen Norrington, got the gig. Blade producer Peter Frankfurt had seen Norrington’s debut, the intense horror film Death Machine. “It’s a little bit incoherent,” Frankfurt later admitted, “but it is just nonstop balls-to-the-wall. The action is insane, and he made it for nothing.” 

The Blade shoot was sometimes tense — Norrington quickly developed a reputation for not being the best people-person — but he brought a specific vision to the project. “He was much more than a director, he was creating and really designing the world around the story, inspiring the visualization of the project,” Blade cinematographer Theo Van de Sande told SYFY WIRE. “He’s a difficult director but had very good suggestions.” The question was whether audiences would be interested in a Black superhero they’d probably never heard of.

What was the impact? Coming out at the tail end of Summer 1998, Blade went straight to No. 1, knocking Saving Private Ryan from the top spot. The movie ruled the box office for two weekends, becoming a surprise hit and staying in theaters throughout September and into early October. It was Snipes’ biggest hit as a leading man to that point, opening the door for two successful sequels — and some incredible reports from Blade: Trinity costar Patton Oswalt, who claimed that Snipes hated working with Goyer (who directed the third installment) so much that he insisted on only communicating via Post-it Notes, which he signed as "Blade." (“That may have happened,” Snipes said when questioned by a journalist about Oswalt’s comment. “I wouldn’t say it was frequent.”)

Plus, it gave Snipes (who doesn’t like giving interviews) the opportunity to do press for the film dressed (and seemingly acting) like Blade:

More importantly, Blade ushered in a wave of martial arts-fixated genre movies, including The Matrix, which made kung fu moves seem thrillingly cutting-edge. And soon, there was a fresh wave of exciting R-rated action films, like Constantine and Underworld, that emulated Blade’s funky, supernatural-themed, B-movie vibe, targeting niche audiences without ever worrying about being mainstream blockbusters. 

And, of course, the film legitimized the commercial firepower of Black superheroes. Goyer has mentioned that there was initial pushback from the studio, which wondered if Blade could be white, but before Blade, Black superhero movies had either been comedies (Blankman) or bombs (Shaq’s Steel). Blade helped change that impression. 

Has it held up? Especially in our modern age of polished, super-popular superhero movies, Blade feels like a time capsule from a time when comic book movies could be this ornery and scruffy. (Its opening rave scene, with everyone ultimately drenched in blood, still feels transgressive — no way something like that is happening in Black Widow.) Everyone in the movie takes the material seriously, but the film is a lot less self-important than your typical DC or Marvel entry. And Snipes is just fantastic, equally comfortable with Blade’s action sequences and dramatic moments. Unlike Nicolas Cage, another revered actor who dove into blockbusters, Snipes didn’t become a cartoon of himself while going for bigger paydays.

Unfortunately, Snipes would soon run into trouble with the federal government, sentenced in 2008 to three years in prison for tax evasion. As for Norrington, he went from Blade to direct The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the infamous 2003 dud that convinced the filmmaker that he never wanted to work in Hollywood again. (“Stephen is incredibly creative,” one of that film’s producers, Trevor Albert, told the Los Angeles Times. “He just doesn’t love the pressure of a big group of people. The rewards don’t outweigh the negatives.” When Norrington skipped Extraordinary Gentlemen’s premiere, star Sean Connery was asked about his absence. “Check the local asylum,” Connery said.)

As far as Blade’s impact on Black cinema, the progress was slow — and no doubt hampered by Catwoman’s commercial failure — but Black Panther, which Snipes had dreamed about doing years earlier, ended all debate about whether Black superheroes could be big box office. And no doubt Black Panther’s success has, in turn, helped renew interest in Blade: In 2019, it was announced that two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali will be playing the character in a Marvel Studios reboot. (Marvel head Kevin Feige later admitted that Ali had pitched the idea to him, which he immediately said yes to.) 

Publicly, Snipes has praised the casting, but back in 2018, he pondered what kind of actor could possibly take over as Blade. “Skill-wise, there’s not a lot of guys out there that dance, that do the martial arts, that act well and can have that Blade flavor,” he said, later adding: “They gotta be in shape and have some sex appeal. F***ing Blade has some sex appeal.” 

He sounded skeptical there was anybody other than him who could do it. “Maybe you know somebody, I don’t. I don’t know.”

Snipes will always be the Blade. But, still, I think Ali satisfies all of Snipes’ prerequisites for the gig.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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