Last week I started talking with one of my co-workers about Marvel movies, from the early days when Sony was making big money off the X-Men and Spider-Man to the birth of Marvel Studios and the very impressive feat they’ve been able to pull off with the creation of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and the buildup to The Avengers. I started thinking back to how much I’ve enjoyed some of the Marvel movies, and wondered how many there were and whether I’ve seen them all.
An idea was born: wouldn’t it be fun to go back and (re)watch all 27 — it turns out there are 27! — of the modern Marvel movies? I say (re)watch because in fact there are three films (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Punisher: War Zone, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) I have never seen.
Yes, I concluded! It would be fun! And what would make it even more fun would be to write a blog post about each movie as I go! So, I started this project on Saturday evening by watching Blade, which I was able to purchase in HD from the iTunes store for the low, low price of $6.99.
It’s true that there had been a few Marvel movies before Blade was released in 1998, but other than multiple Razzie Award winner Howard the Duck (1986) and The Punisher (1989), which was never released theatrically in the US, nothing had made it to the big screen since the 1940s film serial starring Captain America. Blade, which cost about $45 million to produce and made $70 million at the box office, was the film that really brought Marvel to the movie industry’s attention. In his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe quotes former Marvel CEO Avi Arad as saying that it was the fact that Blade the film succeeded despite Blade the character’s relative lack of popularity which really helped sell the Marvel brand: “Blade was the least likely to succeed … That was the first time it seemed clear to Hollywood that the Marvel franchise was something special” (p. 396). It’s a lesson Hollywood seems to have absorbed: post-Blade, at least one film featuring a Marvel character has been released to theatres every year except 1999 and 2001.
The title character in Blade is played with a humourous intensity by Wesley Snipes, who rocks an intriguingly geometric haircut for the role, or maybe that’s just Wesley Snipes’ normal hair. Blade has certain supernatural abilities brought on by the fact that his mother was bitten by a vampire while pregnant with him. His vampire side gives him accelerated healing and elevated strength, but he has escaped most of the vampires’ weaknesses: he is immune to garlic, silver, and sunlight — hence, he is called the Daywalker. Unfortunately, he does have a thirst for human blood which he controls by means of some kind of serum administered by his mentor and co-vampire fighter Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). The villain of the piece is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a young upstart among the leaders of the vampire world who is frustrated by the undead establishment’s desire to maintain a low profile. (The elite ruling class Frost is in conflict with is kind of like the Volturi in Twilight that way. Dammit, I try not to think about the fact that I’ve read those books.) Frost wants to make a splash by awakening La Magra, the blood god, who will help the vampires claim their rightful place at the top of the food chain. Mixed up in all this is Dr. Karen Jenson, played by N’Bushe Wright, a hematologist rescued by Blade at the beginning of the movie. She teams up with Blade and Whistler to stop Frost and perhaps develop a cure for vampirism.
I had not seen Blade since around the time it was first released. Although it is the forefather of all Marvel movies, it’s also very different from most of them in the level of violence and gore portrayed, not to mention the swearing; if it were a comic book, it would definitely be published by Marvel Max. It seems ridiculous to comment on the presence of blood in a vampire movie, but Blade really is drenched in the stuff right from the opening vampire rave “blood bath” scene to the very disgusting exploding vampires in the final battle. Visually, the film has a dark and gritty yet clean and modern style that is similar to the still-filming-when-Blade-was-released The Matrix, but without the greenish tint and innovative effects.
The other pop culture favourite I thought of while watching Blade is the greatest vampire slayer story ever told: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nikki Wood, one of the Slayers who preceded Buffy, is rather Blade-like: obviously, they’re both vampire slayers. They both wear long black leather jackets. And they’re both associated with the 70s: Blade’s first appearance in the comics was in Tomb of Dracula #10, published in July 1973, and Nikki is shown in the Buffy episode “Fool for Love” to have died in 1977. Plus, according to the Buffy novel Blackout by Keith R.A. DeCandido, she was called to be the Slayer in February of 1973 — perhaps a reference to Blade’s debut that same year. The Nikki/Blade similarity was also referenced in the Buffy comics: artist Georges Jeanty’s variant cover for issue #6 of Buffy season 9 is an homage to the cover of Tomb of Dracula #10. There’s a bit of Blade in Nikki’s son, vampire-hunter-slash-high-school-principal Robin Wood, too. Just as Blade’s mother was killed by a vampire, so was Principal Wood’s. Though he has no special powers, Wood was trained to fight vampires by his mother’s Watcher.
But the Woods aren’t the only Buffy characters who have a lot in common with Blade: there’s also Spike, the vampire who killed Nikki. Like Blade and like Nikki, Spike wears a long black leather jacket — a jacket he stole from Nikki Wood after killing her; also like Blade, Spike controls his thirst for blood by artificial means (although in Spike’s case, this is involuntary). Blade, Spike, and Robin Wood are further linked by the fairly serious mother issues they share. Wood’s issue is that his mother never loved him quite enough: she prioritized her Slayer mission over her son and left him behind in order to go fight vampires. Blade discovers late in the film that SPOILER! the mother he thought dead has actually been living as a vampire all this time, having abandoned him when she turned. Even worse, his enemy Deacon Frost is the one who bit her, which results in a very unsettling extended family situation where Frost is essentially the “father” of Blade’s vampire side. When Blade encounters his vampire mother, it makes for rather uncomfortable viewing as she behaves in a creepily sexual manner towards her son. The Buffy episode “Lies My Parents Told Me,” which shows parallel flashbacks of Spike and Robin Wood’s pasts with their mothers, reveals that Spike went through a very similar situation: he turned his own mother into a vampire and once her demon side took over, she rejected him cruelly before making some extremely inappropriate advances towards him.
One other thing Blade and Nikki and Robin Wood have in common: they’re all black. Blade was the first and is still one of only three non-ensemble Marvel movies to feature a black protagonist (the other two being … Blade II and Blade: Trinity, so that’s still just the one guy then). Blade includes a veritable plethora of important non-white characters by comic book movie standards: the female lead, Karen, is also black, as is Blade’s mother, Vanessa. Karen is noteworthy, too, for being quite a satisfying example of a strong female character. She’s presented as smart and accomplished in her career, she shows very little fear when dealing with vampires, and she gets herself out of a few difficult scrapes without having to wait for Blade to rescue her. It’s nice.
All in all, Blade is a very entertaining movie with good characters played by a solid cast, a stylish look that has aged well, and a decent script. It’s definitely not the best ever Marvel movie, but it was a strong start to the modern era of Marvel on film.
Next up: Hugh Jackman dons Wolverine’s claws for the first of five (so far) times in X-Men.