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By Joseph Thompson on

‘Part man, part vampire, all hero’: How ‘Blade’ started a revolution

Volunteer blogger Joe takes a look at an unsung genre-saver—Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998).

Blade, directed by Stephen Norrington, is a visceral assault on the senses. With visuals and audio that encapsulate a techno underground scene, the film also encompasses a vampire mythos that seems perfectly fleshed out and believable in the world it creates.

The title character is very loosely based on a 1973 character of the same name. The original Blade, who would not be familiar to fans today, appeared as a supporting character in several Marvel horror comics. It wasn’t until the popularity of the 1998 film that Marvel would relaunch the superhero with all the abilities and updated origins of the film interpretation.

Wesley Snipes as Blade
Wesley Snipes’ iconic sunglasses and fade later came to be synonymous with the character

This change represented an extremely rare move in adaptations, where the on-screen version comes to influence the print media. Blade is an over-the-top superhero film—definitely meant for adults—that I highly recommend to any lover of anti-heroes and/or vampires, perfect for Halloween! There is a strong argument however, that Blade helped Marvel Studios get the ball rolling on their cinematic universe and started a comic book revolution.

So there you have it, Wesley Snipes is responsible for the billion-dollar tour-de-force of cinematic storytelling, defining a generation of cinemagoers worldwide…

OK, so, I don’t think Wesley Snipes is personally responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I do think, however, that the film Blade really does hold weight in the argument of saving the superhero genre in general, and that it showed, by being Marvel’s first commercial success, that Marvel could be ambitious and make some serious money.

Let’s start by looking at the superhero films of the 90s. In this decade there seems to have been two different approaches to the genre. The first is a more family-friendly approach. It’s rumoured that Warner Brothers, although initially happy with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, believed that its dark overtones prevented it from being an even larger commercial success. So the 90s began with the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, followed quickly by the second, and Batman Returns. The other side of the genre involved a more adult approach: the sequels for Robocop; the first Judge Dredd film; The Crow; Tank Girl. This brings us to halfway through the decade.

There are some truly fantastic films in that list. The genre was looking strong, and huge amounts of money are being made. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers still felt Batman Returns did not make enough money due to its darker image. The consequence of this was the creation of Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) generally regarded as the worst superhero film ever created.

Batman & Robin scorched the earth of that franchise—and, by extension, all superhero cinema. 1998 was also quite a big year for general cinema releases, with many a popcorn favourite premiering around the same time: The Wedding Singer, Spice World, The Big Lebowski, Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle, Godzilla. The year had some big earners for the top studios. One month before Blade’s release, the cult comedy classic There’s Something About Mary was released, followed by the blockbuster Armageddon and finally Saving Private Ryan.

Blade was released on 21 August 1998, with nought but a hope and prayer from Marvel executives.

Among these heavy hitters, it’s rather incredible to note that Blade not only made money, but more than doubled its original budget. Marvel had a hit—of sorts—and had made money on a relatively unknown side character. More importantly, they proved the worth of their extensive back catalogue on the silver screen. Blade was made for $45 million and grossed $131 million, a sum which would mark the birth of Marvel Studios. Their packaging and licensing deals would continue throughout the 00s; the company rapidly began to make money, while silently re-acquiring their own characters.

10 years after the release of Blade, Marvel released Iron Man and established their own brand of movie experience, with characters grounded in one ever-changing universe, blending trademark serialisation with blockbuster style.

And while lucrative licensing deals with Sony, New Line and Fox may have funded their venture, I’d say every journey starts with a first step. Success breeds success, and Wesley Snipes, along with all those who were vital to the success of Blade, gave Marvel time to readdress the viability of the genre along with the confidence to really run with their own ideas.

Blade will be screened at the National Science and Media Museum at 21.00 on Friday 11 October 2019—find out more and book tickets. This screening is part of Widescreen Weekend, our annual festival celebrating the past, present and future of film, taking place between 10 and 13 October 2019.

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