BLADE and the Foundations of Marvel Superhero's Movie Empire

Curator's Note

Way back in 2009, when I started writing my doctoral dissertation on superhero movies and post-9/11 American politics, it seemed totally plausible that the superhero genre was entering its twilight years. After a few early hits like X-Men(2000) and Spider-Man(2002), every major Hollywood studio had hastily joined the superhero bandwagon, churning out a handful of cinematic origin stories for comic book heroes on a remarkably regular basis. But a decade later, superhero movies have become basically synonymous with franchised transmedia entertainment, with the Disney-owned Marvel Studios alone delivering several blockbuster movies, Netflix series, and network TV shows each year. 

This spring, Marvel Studios’ eighteenth feature Black Pantherbecame the biggest superhero movie yet. More than just a box office smash, Black Panther was also an important cultural phenomenon, drawing as it did on Afrofuturist cultural frameworks and making its fictional African state of Wakanda a utopian enclave that avoided the historical atrocities of colonialism, slavery, and racism.

But long before the MCU was even being considered, the recently-bankrupted Marvel started experimenting with film adaptations by licensing their characters to film studios in the late 1990s. Blade(1998) was the first of these experiments, and its success laid the most basic groundwork for Marvel’s ongoing reign in the pop-cultural arena. 

There is some painful irony to the fact that a franchise that devoted its first seventeen (!!) serialized feature films to white male protagonists not only finds its greatest financial success in a black superhero, but also in the fact that another black icon had marked this journey’s beginning. Perhaps a key reason why Bladedoesn’t often get the credit it deserves, is that it’s an R-rated action film that is more horror than science-fantasy. While it shares later Marvel movies’ trademark combination of fast-paced but generic action and self-reflexive humor, it’s also clearly a movie designed for genre fans rather than mainstream audiences. 

It’s important therefore to remember that there is a longer history of black superhero movies that goes back several decades. And since Marvel’s own twenty-year history in developing superhero movies was built on foundations laid by Blade’s success, their reluctance to develop this further for all those years becomes all the more egregious. One step in the right direction would at least be for Marvel to bring back Blade, and give him the place he deserves in the MCU pantheon.

Comments

Jayson Quearry's picture

The history of near endings

The history of near endings for the superhero genre in film is fascinating. As you mention at the top of your post, 2009 - following a barrage of mediocre entries that were more sci-fi or action genre formulas with capes attached - felt like a possible ending point for the superhero film, were it not for Iron Man kicking off the MCU the year before. Equally, Batman and Robin (1997) may have been a death knell had Blade (1998) not come along the year after and proven to studios that even C-level Marvel properties could make money. Much like how characters infamously cannot stay dead in comic books, the cinematic genre keeps being reborn.

All of this is to say that a revitalization of the Blade character now, at another point where critics, scholars, and fans keep prognosticating a saturation point for the superhero film as new entries continue to make recording breaking profits, would slot perfectly into the new apparent saving grace for the genre: diversity. Like how Iron Man’s inclusion of serialized continuity saved the genre back in 2008, films like Wonder Woman (2017), Black Panther (2018), and future releases like Captain Marvel (2019), Ava DuVernay’s New Gods, and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, suggest a possible shot-in-the-arm in the form of fresh voices in front of or behind the camera. Blade, whose film, as you correctly state above, initiated the whole cycle that has lasted from the early 2000s to the present deserves to once again be a factor in the genre’s continuation. With Snipes or without, I look forward to the character’s (possible) return.

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