Black Excellence and Bloodletting | Blade at 20
With Venom out this week, Andrew Carroll looks back on his personal favourite superhero
Every time another Marvel movie comes out I let out a little sigh. I don’t like superheroes anymore. The glut of them that’s hit cinemas in recent years just compounds all the problems I have with them. Disregard the fact that they’re CGI laden messes with hard to follow plots and characters rarely worth caring about. Instead think of them in industry terms. They take talented actors and directors out of truly creative zones forcing them to work in a system that is beholden to a labyrinthian lore that feels like one big ‘meh’ instead of one big mythology. I don’t like superheroes anymore but I wasn’t always like this.
Blade wasn’t the first superhero movie. It wasn’t even the first good one but it was special in its own way. It was the kind of fare that packed cinemas in the late 1990s. Bloody violence, guns galore and a ludicrous premise made Blade that special kind of movie rarely seen anymore. It was The Matrix with vampires but more importantly it was Marvel’s first successful movie and front and centre was a proud black man.
Blade (Wesley Snipes) is part vampire, part human. The vampires he hunts with the aid of his human partner Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) call him Daywalker. Blade is hunting Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a powerful young vampire with world domination and blood deities on the brain. After rescuing Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright) she and Blade begin working on how to defeat Frost and the many, many vampires he controls.
Wesley Snipes came up alongside the people that would define African-American popular culture in the 80s and 90s. He played Michael Jackson’s nemesis in the Bad music video and a jazz saxophonist in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. A convert to Islam (though now lapsed) Snipes credits it for giving him a perspective on what African people had done for the world, themselves and what they could continue to do. He has also trained in karate and hapkido since he was 12 and now holds black belts in both martial arts. By the time Blade came along in 1998, Snipes was more than prepared to become the superhero that would dominate the box office for the next eight years.
Wesley Snipes was an incredibly talented actor in his day. His ability to portray icy cool and fiery rage worked wonders in his dramatic, comedic and action roles. It’s a shame that he hasn’t really continued this success on into the new millennium what with his tax problems and a lack of roles that really let him flex those acting muscles. No one ever said “motherfucker” the way Wesley Snipes did. But even with his effortless cool and relentless determination it was writer David S. Goyer’s script that gave Snipes every opportunity to make Blade the baddest motherfucker to ever step onto the silver screen.
Blade opens with an innocent man being led to a vampire blood rave. Yes you read that right. As the bass rises and drops, human blood pours from the ceiling upon the sharp-toothed crowd below. The innocent crawls along the floor seeking escape and finding it in the only pair of non-bloodstained boots in the place. There stands Blade who proceeds to slaughter every leech he can get his stakes into. Trapped in a circular pit Blade uses a silver boomerang to cut his way through the bloodsuckers surrounding him. Upon pinning a vampire to a wall on the first try, Blade fist pumps and grins. It’s the kind of badassery reserved for teenage kids with power fantasies and it’s a hell of a lot better than the bloodless Iron Man movies we usually get these days.
Still a superhero is nothing without the team surrounding them if today’s fare is to be believed. Blade’s own version of the superhero team had various incarnations with varying degrees of success but it was at its best when it was just Blade, Whistler and Dr. Jenson. Blade II might have a young Norman Reedus and Blade Trinity might have a young Ryan Reynolds but age trumps beauty every time and Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler wins out. “We have a good arrangement,” Blade says of Whistler. “He makes the weapons. I use them.” Jenson meanwhile is as single-minded as Blade. She’s all brains and brawn. Not only does she develop a cure for Blade’s condition but she kills the obsessive and vampiric creep who’s constantly after her at work.
The alt-right probably hate Blade. It’s a film about a black power couple aided by a crippled old white man. It’s also a film where the predominantly white villains are shown as parasites. It’s also got some pointed messages about how these white villains control all of society especially the cops. Blade only trusts his stakes, the police will never help him. It’s a display of black heroism that operates against the system designed to control it. There has never been another black movie superhero like Blade. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon all operate within system’s that have strict rules governing what they can and can’t do. Blade doesn’t give a fuck. If a few cops have to die along the way you won’t find Blade shedding a tear only more blood.
The Blade films, or at least the first two, stand as probably the most violent superhero movies outside of the Kick-Ass and Deadpool films. A lot of the vampires turn to ash the moment Blade stakes, shoots or stabs them but some suffer greatly. Deacon Frost’s henchman Quinn (Donal Logue) is an ass so it’s a real joy to see him lose both arms, get staked to a wall, set on fire and finally killed. Head vampire Gitano Dragonetti (a downplaying Udo Kier) gets burnt and exploded by dawn rays. Frost himself gets filled full of syringes before Blade pauses in reflection upon the last one and says: “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.” He then spin kicks the needle into Frost’s head and watches him explode with a smirk. I’ve never clapped publicly at a film before but I clapped at that anniversary screening in the Sugar Club in Dublin and I’d do it again.
Blade is very much a film of its time. It arrived at a point when comic book movies were still uncertain as a genre and it carved its way to a box office gross of $140 million. More importantly and perhaps sadly it paved the way for Marvel to make more movies, most of which looked nothing like Blade. Still there are some shining points in Marvel’s pretty average milieu: the afro-futurism of Black Panther, the comedic trappings of Thor: Ragnarok and the spy-thriller suspense of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There’s just not enough of that variety for me to be in any way interested or hooked on their cinematic universe.
Blade paved the way but that way has been lost. Still we’ll always have Wesley Snipes shouting: “Motherfucker are you outta your damn mind?!” at a bunch of cops that would even dare shoot him.