Black Panther: praised for its ‘unprecedented’ inclusion of a black lead in a superhero film. Deadpool: lauded as the first commercially successful R-rated Marvel movie. And yet, neither of these films deserve the credit. Both honours belong to director Stephen Norrington’s 1998 horror-action film, Blade. With the movie celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, one can make the case for Blade being one of – if not THE – most underrated superhero films of the past two decades.
Based on the Marvel comic-book character of the same name, Blade is a blood-pumping thrill-ride of 90s high-octane action and chaotic horror-badassery. Wesley Snipes plays the titular character, a half-human/half-vampire, who inherited the strengths of a vampire from his human mother, who was bitten whilst Blade was still in his mother’s womb. This alone, as a concept, should win you over for why this film is brilliant. ‘Blade – Part Man. Part Vampire. All Hero.’, as the D.V.D. cover puts it, enables Snipes to portray one of the more interesting cinematic action heroes. In a decade of everyman John McClane’s and superhuman T-800s, Blade’s character takes the humanity of the former and fantasy of the latter to create an empathetic and interesting protagonist for the audience. Blade’s mix of mortality and monstrosity, with the very human motive of wishing to avenge his mother’s death, creates a likeable, interesting and relatable protagonist for the audience – one who is both down-to-earth and out-of-this-world.
Oh, and did I mention that Blade is black? Although skin colour does not and should not always define a film, Blade – along with other films like In the Heat of the Night and Moonlight – is a landmark for black representation in cinema, not only being the first commercially successful Marvel movie, but also the first critically acclaimed superhero film featuring an African-American lead. This alone should cement Blade a place in film history.
This does not even consider the impact Blade had on the film industry as a whole. Blade proved once again, following the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, that adult superhero movies could be commercially viable. However, Blade used unprecedented levels of blood and gore that would have never been permitted on the set of Tim Burton’s Batman. Gore in comic book films – as seen in Deadpool – has its origins in Blade, a movie whose franchise re-established Wesley Snipes as an action star, and helped launch the Hollywood careers of a multitude of directors, writers, and actors, including Guillermo del Toro, David S. Goyer, and a certain Ryan Reynolds…
And yet, hardly anyone talks about this film. Not to say that Blade doesn’t have fans. It is a much-loved action franchise, with a cult following and a small but noticeable presence in modern popular culture. But this is not enough. Blade is so much more than just another schlocky 90s action film. Back when Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin was still in recent memory, Stephen Norrington and David S. Goyer made Blade – a dark, adult piece of superhero cinema, whose influence prevails in the modern film industry. The progress Blade made in the development of superhero films and the advancement of black cinema appears to have been eclipsed by the work of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other Marvel-inspired movies like Deadpool. Perhaps Black Panther and Deadpool simply had better timing? Even so, this does not justify Black Panther or Deadpool being given total credit for improving black representation in the superhero film genre, or demonstrating to producers the commercial viability of R-rated superhero flicks. Instead, this justifies exactly how ahead of its time Blade actually was, and how much more recognition this action-horror masterpiece deserves for innovating the modern superhero film.