As the world celebrates a proudly black superhero getting his own film, you may hear some fans quietly muttering, “Wait, didn’t Blade do that like 20 years before Black Panther?” And then there’s an even smaller, weirder group of people saying, “And what about Meteor Man?” But this is about Blade, and what it says about where the world is now versus 1998. (Spoiler: What it says is mostly bad.)
First, remember the context. Back in 1998, we still didn’t know if superhero movies truly worked. Sure, we’d seen success with Batman and Superman, but both of those series had fallen into fatigue before they could get through even three entries. We still hadn’t gotten the boom period that started with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. (Yes, I know that X-Men came before it, but I always felt like Spider-Man unapologetically embraced the comic book aesthetic, whileX-Men was still apologizing for it.)
And then along came Blade. It was a bloody, R-rated superhero movie (long before Deadpool and Logan would be celebrated as trailblazers) featuring a black lead, not to mention a black woman costar (the movie signals this is leading to a romance, but the pair wind up in a partnership of strong, mutual respect). And Blade, under its layers of rad trench coats and vampire raves, has way more to say on the subject of race than you’d think.
Blade is a black vampire in a world dominated by pasty white bloodsuckers who sit around a big table and secretly control everything. But the movie doesn’t do that thing where they use supernatural creatures as a metaphor for some minority (hello, Bright). Blade isn’t symbolically anything; in that universe, he’s actually a vampire and he’s actually black. The latter means the same thing in that world as it does in ours. He is fighting a power structure that fears him, hates him, and has forced him into the life he lives. Yet he’s supremely confident. The first time he shows up in a club of EDM Nosferatus, the entire crowd crouches and slithers and sneaks, while Blade does none of those things. He is direct and he is awesome, and that is terrifying to them.
At one point, Karen Jenson (played N’Bushe Wright), is attacked by a cop who, guess what, turns out to be a dupe for the vampire power structure. Blade proceeds to smack the guy around and demand information — a scene that, if included in a blockbuster today, would probably draw two-dozen enraged tweets from the president. Does Blade say that all police are corrupt? No, the script is smarter than that. That individual bad cop is portrayed as a cog, someone almost pathetically caught up in a larger system. These are themes you would not expect to come up in a Wesley Snipes movie about a kung-fu vampire.
The franchise never backs down from it, either. In Blade II, he’s partnered with the Blood Pack, a group of assassins who have spent years training to hunt Blade, but who now must reluctantly work with him. Within seconds of meeting them, Ron Perlman’s bald, tattooed character Reinhardt asks, “Can you blush?” If that sounds like a nonsense question to you, congratulations on not being intimately familiar with racist pseudoscience (white people, they say, are the only race capable of blushing, and therefore are the only race capable of feeling shame).
Blade responds by smacking Reinhardt twice in the face, then attaching an explosive to the back of his head and telling him that he’ll use it if Reinhardt acts up again. That’s the two-act structure to every Blade scene: 1) Some motherfucker tries to ice skate uphill. 2) Blade handles it.
When Blade does gain more allies in (the thoroughly mediocre) Blade: Trinity, he’s quick to point out that his struggle is not a joke. Ryan Reynolds, showing up here long before Hollywood thought of him as superhero movie material, wears a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker with the words “FUCK YOU” written on it. To that, Blade responds, “You think this is a fucking sitcom?” First of all, I’d really like to know what sitcoms Blade watches. Second, it illustrates that if you want to be an ally, you have to be ready to take it seriously. Approaching it with ironic detachment is a slap in the face.
Yet despite all of this, you didn’t see the mainstream press heralding Blade as some kind of bold risk. Even the positive reviews were based around statements like “What is unusual about the film is the way it combines high-tech violence with the more up-close-and-personal violence of vampires” (yep, you really nailed it, Gene Siskel, and may God rest your soul). The negative reviews spouted shit like “Filter out the gloss, the gore and the insistent techno score, and all you’re left with are the gleaming pecs and bulging biceps of Wesley Snipes as Buff The Vampire Slayer.” You get the sense that 20 years ago, an R-rated, wide-release movie in which a black Marvel superhero beats the shit out of a white cop was considered boring.
Which would almost imply that we’ve gone backward since then, that Black Panther feels like a trailblazer because it does indeed have to re-blaze the trail. Blade came along at the tail end of the Clinton years, a year before the box office would be dominated by parables about mediocre white males having a crisis of identity (American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix). Since then we’ve seen regression, not just in terms of race relations but also in what kind of risks movies like this were willing to take. Twenty years later, a movie like Black Panther (and a show like Luke Cage, while we’re at it) feels like a bold slap in the face to the Trump Era.
I’m not trying to take anything away from either of those. I’m just saying that two decades earlier, there was a Marvel superhero movie that featured goddamned Mobb Deep on the soundtrack.
Daniel has a Twitter. Go to it. Enjoy yourself. Kick your boots off and stay for a while.