How Wesley Snipes and Blade Saved the Marvel Movie Franchise
By Sumiko Saulson
Before the 1998 film starring Wesley Snipes, Blade was a lesser known Marvel superhero. Introduced as a background character in a horror comic called The Tomb of Dracula back in 1973, the African American character originally supported an afro. Over the next three years, the character appeared in various comics, including Vampire Tales and Marvel Preview before going on a sixteen year hiatus. He reappeared in Ghostrider in 1992, and only two years later, was starring in his own brief-lived title, Blade the Vampire Hunter.
Around the same time Blade made a comeback in the comic book world, Wesley Snipes, a young African American actor who happened to be a fan of an entirely different black Marvel superhero was rising to prominence. Snipes was a big fan of the sixties superhero The Black Panther, and was cast to play the role in a movie treatment back in 1994. Although the movie was once in production with Columbia Pictures, it was never made. Stan Lee kept rejecting scripts, and some people believed that the civil-rights era character was just too controversial for Marvel. The recent reaction to Beyoncé’s choice to use back-up dancers dressed in Black Panther attire for SuperBowl halftime performance of Formation shows how loaded the sixties black political party is even now. Although Chadwick Aaron Boseman is slated to play The Black Panther in a 2017 movie, back in 1998, Snipes was quietly diverted away from that role and into the less controversial Blade.
Westley Snipes was little more than a cast extra in the eighties. Before he came to America’s attention in supporting roles in “King of New York,” “Mo Betta Blues” and “New Jack City” in 1990 and 1991, his biggest role was as a gang member in Michael Jackson’s music video “Bad.” However, by the time he expressed interest in starring in a Black Panther film in 1992, he was a factor. He was starring in two blockbuster movies, the Woody Harrelson buddy comedy White Men Can’t Jump, and the action movie Passenger 57. Before Blade was made, Snipes would go on to star in a number of major motion pictures, including Demolition Man (1993), and Murder at 1600 (1997).
Having a star of his caliber was a big deal for Marvel in 1998. Not only was the entire comic book movie industry in deep trouble after the George Clooney D.C. Comics bomb Batman and Robin (1997), but Marvel had never managed the same level of success as D.C. in the genre. Back in 1989, when DC was breaking box office records and lining itself up for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction with Tim Burton’s take on Batman, Marvel was delivering Dolph Lundgren’s barely watchable performance as The Punisher. Things weren’t any better in 1994, when Roger Corman’s version of the Fantastic Four was deemed so horrendous it was never released. David Hasselhoff’s craptastic Nick Fury: Agent of Shield was released in 1998, the same year as Blade.
Many Marvel fans, this writer included, credit Blade with rescuing the seriously beleaguered Marvel movie franchise. If the movie hadn’t been a box office and critical success, the first X-Men movie might not have happened two years later in 2000. Rumors at the time said that Blade might not have happened if Wesley Snipes wasn’t shopping around The Black Panther earlier. It is notable that Snipes is listed as one of the producers of Blade.
Although Snipes went on to be very successful in his own rite, Blade was not only good for Marvel, it good deal for the actor. Along with films like The Art of War (2000) it helped cement his reputation as an action star. He is probably still best known for his role in the Blade Trilogy.
Who is Blade, and why is the character loved by so many? Like several other notable vampire slayers, including BloodRayne and Vampire Hunter D, Blade is a dhampir; the half-breed offspring of a human and a vampire. Like most dhampir, he has an ability that normal vampires don’t possess: the ability to walk around in daylight. In the movie Blade, this earns him the nickname “daywalker” and makes him the target of Deacon Frost, a power hungry young vampire portrayed by Stephen Dorff. Frost isn’t the only vampire in the series who desires to utilize Blade’s blood in order to acquire his unusual power.
There is something poetic about a black vampire who is immune to the damages of sunlight. Octavia Butler probably thought so: her 2005 novel Fledgling was about a vampire who is black because was genetically modified to have more melanin in order to resist the damaging effects of the sun. Although the movie Blade never makes a direct connection between melanin and sun-resistance, and it features other black vampires who have no such immunity, the connection is hard to miss.
Other themes that are apparent in the movie have to do with mixed heritage. The character is not only the product of a relationship between a human and a vampire, but of an interracial couple. Blade, who was a homeless preteen when he was adopted, presumes his mother to be dead. Raised by a human vampire hunter, he feels no loyalty towards his vampire brethren.
This is not uncommon for a dhampir. In the original legends, dhampir are typically the result of unwanted advances upon a human woman by a male vampire. The human mother usually dies in childbirth, or at the hands of the vampire father. The jeopardy the mother is placed in normally creates animosity on the part of the child. Blade, BloodRayne, Vampire Hunter D, and to a lesser extent, Twilight’s dhampir character Renesme fit this mold. It was implied that Saya, the hero of Blood: The Last Vampire is a dhampir whose vampire parent is female and human parent male.
Very much cut in the Marvel superhero mode, Blade is a stoic character who spends most of his time killing, maiming, and threatening vampires. He sets aside very little time to explore the usual dhampir abandonment and daddy issues. In many ways, Blade is a traditional action film, with a muscular action hero who spends a lot of time slicing and dicing his enemies. It is primarily his humanizing connection to Whistler, his foster parent and hunting partner, that we experience the elements of true horror. Whistler is to blade, what Alfred is to Batman: someone who took care of him as a small child, and knows him well. Although as a superhero, Blade is invulnerable; his worry for his friend makes him susceptible to the same concerns as mortals.
Sumiko Saulson a horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer. Her novels include “Solitude,” “Warmth”, and “Happiness and Other Diseases.” She is the author of the Young Adult horror novella series “The Moon Cried Blood”, and short story anthology “Things That Go Bump in My Head.” Born to African-American and Russian-Jewish parents, she is a native Californian, and has spent most of her adult life in the Bay Area. She is a horror blogger and journalist.