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October 25th 2021

Close Up: Blade

Close Up: Blade

We couldn't be more excited about Halloween this week, not least our 4K rerelease of 1998 iconic horror classic Blade back into cinemas this Friday 29 October.

To celebrate, as part of our Close Up series, where we take a deep dive into our catalogue for a closer look at what some iconic films mean to all of us, and why, we asked our friends at We are Parable to explore the ground-breaking film, which saw Wesley Snipes as both star and producer, twenty years before Marvel's Black Panther.

We are Parable is an award-winning film exhibition company, behind events such as 'Spike is 60' Film Festival, 'The Art of The Black Visual Album' nationwide season as well as their recent, UK wide project Who We Are, designed to celebrate Black Cinema from around the world.

Ever since the news of Blade’s introduction into Phase 4 of Marvel’s cinematic universe, anticipation has been at an all time high, in part because of the announcement that two-time Academy Award® winner Mahershala Ali is set to play the human-vampire hybrid.

Despite the general excitement around the film, there has been some discussion about how Blade fits into the future of the MCU, and if the character is still on brand for the juggernaut superhero franchise. The sceptics may have forgotten that Marvel Studios owes a huge debt to the original Blade film which upon its release was the studio's first success, and arguably kickstarted the second wave of superhero films. The original film, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Stephen Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes not only influenced superhero movies, but it also is an important entry into the Black genre movie canon.

With the recent renaissance in Black horror films, and the upcoming slate of Black superhero films: Black Panther 2, Into the Spiderverse 2, Static, Black Adam, Spawn and rumours of Black Superman swirling, it’s time to look at the film that started it all, and changed the face of superhero films at large.

African American Superheroes: Too Black, Too Strong?

Based on an obscure comic by Milestone Comics Incorporated, a partnership of Black artists and creators, Blade tells the story of a human-vampire hunter on a never-ending mission to save the human race.

What differentiated it from other superhero films that came before it was that the relative obscurity of the Blade comics meant that it did not have the pressure to live up to audience expectations, or stay true to the comic book iterations of him. The original comic book character first appeared in the horror comic The Tomb of Dracula (1973) as a side character, adorned with an afro and seventies bell-bottoms before being given a streamlined movie-makeover that matched the visual aesthetics of the 90’s.

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A perfect example of this is the now iconic 'blood rave’ opening scene, which remains one of the most visually arresting scenes in superhero film history. We are introduced to a female vampire luring her prey to death in a club that sprays blood from the ceiling - it is revealed that all of the clubbers are vampires except for one horrified human.

Blade’s appearance amongst the crowds of bloodsoaked bodies signalled a shift in aesthetics and possibilities for a superhero film. The rave scene is the epitome of 90’s rave, grunge and gothic culture. Before Blade no superhero film had dared to transcend the rigid confines of the comic book narrative and place the action into the modern world that felt familiar to audiences.

The action scenes also feel innovative, Blade was highly proficient in melee combat, which would pave the way for Netflix and Marvels Defenders who similarly situated the superhero into a low fantasy setting - a gritty, urbanised world. The recent DC comics book adaptations also feel indebted to this darker, moody style of superhero movie.

Blade’s characterisation also vastly differed from the traditional ‘good superhero’ that we had seen so many times before. Traditionally, the male superhero is a hypermasculine figure. He is the defender of the damned and quintessentially masculine meaning hard, strong, reserved and active, defined by their toughness and an overwhelming loyalty to whatever community they have vowed to protect. They are selfless, messianic, cis, straight, and more often than not, white. These masculine tropes are slightly problematised with Black male superheroes. Even without superpowers, the Black male body has always been regarded as a site of hypermasculinity, characterised by sexual voracity and intimidation, and more often than not, Black male bodies have been seen as both perpetrating and enduring tremendous violence.

The Blaxploitation era that began in the 1970’s ushered a new type of Black action hero on screen. These action stars were unapologetically Black, brimming with machismo and fighting against the system. Luke Cage, the first Black marvel superhero character was created in 1972 and directly channels the energy of the Blaxploitation genre.

Similarly, the first Blade comics came out a year after the blaxploitation horror flick Blacula (1972) was released. One of the better entries into the Blaxploitation canon, Blacula followed another enigmatic Black vampire that ostensibly fought against a corrupt white police force.

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Blacula (1972)

Credit: image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, All rights reserved

We are currently in a golden age for Black horror films, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Jordan Peele’s Get Out sparked a renaissance in the subgenre, allowing filmmakers and writers to defiantly discuss the traumas of racism.

Similarly the Black superhero film has become a commodity that is not only commercially triumphant, but also serious critical successes. Into the Spiderverse made history by being the first superhero film to win best animated picture at the Oscars®.

The wild success of Black Panther - both critically and commercially, it is the highest grossing Marvel superhero film (not including the ensemble Avengers films) and the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars® - shows that there is an appetite for diversity in the genre.

Blade’s influence on both genres has not always been lauded as it should, but it set the tone for things to come.

We are looking forward to Phase 4 Blade - where we can hope that it will take cues from the Black horror movement and use the tropes and mechanics of both genres to widely interrogate Black masculinity and race at large.

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Black Panther (2018)

Credit: Image courtesy of Disney