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Marvel Movies Project: Blade

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.

Blade (1998)

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.

Spike and Nikki Wood in "Fool for Love."

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.

Show me your teeth

We have an independent theatre in Ottawa called the Mayfair. Its website bills it as “Ottawa’s home of stuff you won’t see anywhere else,” which is pretty accurate. The Mayfair is both a second-run theatre, showing the occasional movie that was playing in the big chains a couple of months earlier, and a repertory theatre with a focus on classic and cult movies old (they show Rocky Horror monthly) and new (they’re also showing The Room monthly these days). A few months ago they had a Martin Scorsese showcase, this month they’re doing Alfred Hitchcock, and next month it’s a “Cornu-Coppola” as the work of Francis Ford Coppola is revisited. Basically, if you like interesting and/or old movies, it’s excellent to live within a convenient distance of the Mayfair.

Today’s show was a double feature of Steven Spielberg’s two most toothsome thrillers: Jaws — which was released 36 years ago tomorrow! — and Jurassic Park. A staff member explained before the show started that they were showing an old 35mm print of Jaws. The film had obviously not been restored in any way, and the colours in some sections had taken on a pinkish-red tone. I don’t know the technical reason for this, but I’ll have to read up on it. Film preservation is something I’d be interested to learn more about! Jurassic Park was presented with its original DTS sound disc, and it was amazing to hear the difference between that and Jaws‘ older sound technology.

I’d only seen Jaws once before, but I have a lot of love for Jurassic Park and I couldn’t resist what seemed to be a perfectly-matched double feature. Indeed, these two extreme “man vs. huge, terrifying creature with gigantic nasty pointy teeth” stories did go very well together. I have shark fear, so to me just the concept of Jaws is frightening. Spielberg pulls it off so well that I think I’d probably place it in the top five scariest movies I’ve ever seen. At one point while watching today, I literally jumped off my seat — like, I vaulted myself a few inches into the air and didn’t realize it till I felt my butt hit the chair on the way back down. Jurassic Park is also incredibly scary, especially the scene with the T. Rex and the kids in the car. I’ve always thought that was an outstanding sequence, masterfully put together for maximum terror, and watching it today re-confirmed how absolutely petrifying it is. Both movies build a sense of dread from the helplessness of humans facing off against these ancient-seeming creatures — because there’s undoubtedly something about sharks that seems prehistoric — that are huge, smart, pure predators. There’s also a feeling of invasion involved, as though the creatures have violated human space and time: the shark shouldn’t be in the waters near Amity; the dinosaurs, of course, shouldn’t exist at all.

But in Jurassic Park it’s man’s own arrogance that brings the dinosaurs to life. I love a good Frankenstein story and Jurassic Park definitely is one. Jeff Goldblum’s character asks: “What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” This recalls Victor Frankenstein’s description of himself as “always having been embued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature.” Both Frankenstein and John Hammond violate the natural order, and the consequences of their actions are horrific.

One other thing I appreciated about Jurassic Park on watching it again today: the female characters, paleo-botanist Ellie and pre-teen computer nerd hacker Lex, are kind of great. It’s really been bothering me lately how many movies there are where the woman is just a prop there to be rescued by the guy. I know this has been going on forever, but I’ve found it even more annoying ever since I saw Kick-Ass, with its highly unsatisfying ending where SPOILER! super competent, awesome Hit Girl is deprived of her revenge. Ugh! Repeated exposure to the the trailer for the new Transformers movie — in which the female lead (I assume) never even speaks, but is only shown looking scared — probably hasn’t helped either. I think it’s fair to say Sam Neill’s character is the hero in Jurassic Park, but Ellie and Lex both have moments of excellence. When Lex manages to make the doors lock and prevent them all from being eaten by raptors, it’s a fantastic, empowering moment for a young girl who’s spent much of the movie scared out of her wits, but still manages to think on her feet in a difficult situation.

God Only Knows

Big Love, a show I’ve watched and enjoyed on HBO for five seasons, aired its final episode on Sunday night. I can’t say that Big Love is one of my favourite shows, but I’ve always found it entertaining. The best thing about it for me is the huge number of non-stereotypical female characters it presents. Bill Henrickson’s three wives — Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) — are the three main women on the show, and the most fully-developed. But plenty of other intriguing women have shared the stage with them, notably: Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), Bill and Barb’s teenaged daughter; Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Nicki’s mother Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), both of whom were brought up at the polygamist compound, Juniper Creek; other compound-raised women including problem child Rhonda, Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn, Bill’s unstable sister-in-law Wanda, twins Kathy and Jodeen, the androgynous Selma Greene, and Alby’s wife Laura; and regular Mormon women like Barb’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn!) and sister, Sarah’s friend Heather,  and the Henricksons’ neighbour Pam. Basically, Big Love was overrun with female characters, most of whom didn’t quite fit into any of the normal roles for women on TV.

The show placed all these women in a highly repressive, male-dominated society, and yet they were the ones who shone; they were, at least in my opinion, generally far more likeable (with a few notable exceptions *cough* Rhonda *cough*) and almost always much more intriguing than their male counterparts. Series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer said in an interview for TVLine that it was always their intention to make the show about the women:

Scheffer: The show has always been a feminist show, which I think people didn’t always understand. And some people were put off by the fact that these women were quote-unquote under the thumb of a patriarchal jerk. But it’s always been a show about the bonds between women, about the way that women subvert power when they’re in [oppressive] situations.

I thought last night’s finale, entitled “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” did an excellent job of bringing this fact home. In the process, it made a few very interesting statements about its lead male character, Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), and his role in the world and his family. It was a solid finale: less spectacular than many shows’ final episodes (for me, Angel and Six Feet Under are the standard bearers for TV endings), but satisfying nonetheless. I felt the writers succeeded at wrapping up most of the many ongoing story arcs — which is pretty impressive, because after the penultimate episode I couldn’t imagine how they’d possibly tie up the seemingly endless different plot threads in just one episode — and left viewers with some ideas to ponder. The more I think about “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” the more I like it.

For a few of my thoughts on the episode, follow the jump.

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