Marvel’s cinematic success is built on the accumulated goodwill of decades-old nerd properties. Captain America from the 40s, Daredevil from the 60s, Wolverine from the 70s—resuscitate the icons, slap the name across a movie trailer, and watch the fans revel in memories of heroism past, from Hulk to Ant-Man.
One hero, though, seems even less resuscitate-able than Ant Man. Marvel wants us to remember every Thanos and Vision in its four-color back catalog. But Blade seems almost deliberately forgotten.
The current, seemingly endless era of Marvel film success is often said to have started with the first X-Men film in 2000. But two years before that, the super-powered vampire –fighter Blade stalked out of obscurity in the comics and onto the big screen. The film raked in $70 million and showed Marvel that, notwithstanding turkeys like Howard the Duck, there was gold on those there screens.
Rewatching Blade some 17 years later, it’s easy to see why it’s rarely mentioned in discussions of Marvel’s recent era of success. For the most part, Marvel’s films have been all-ages, bright, shiny, CGI romps, filled with sleek lines, hardware and bright-eyed quips.
Blade has a funkier vision, and not just because its title character (played by Wesley Snipes) is black. The film is rated R, and characters spew the word “fuck” like they’re trying out for bit parts in Goodfellas.
Instead of the clean visuals of CGI, the effects are a John Carpenter horror movie gorefest; the most spectacular sequences involve vampires bloating, tumescing and then exploding in buckets of blood.
Blade isn’t part of some military-industrial task force; he lurks about on street-level, toting grungy futuristic tech, driving a cool-ass car and beating the tar out of corrupt wannabe-vampire cops. Tellingly, as a kind of hybrid vampire, Blade has to periodically inject a formula to control his blood lust; he’s a super-IV drug user.
The closest parallel with the latter day Marvel universe isn’t the films, but the Netflix Daredevil series, which is also full of blood and grit and the language of addiction (though Daredevil’s crime-fighting jones is more safely metaphorical than Blade’s need for heroin-in-all-but-name.)
But even Daredevil isn’t much like its predecessor. As Jeet Heer has pointed out, the Daredevil series is based around Hell’s Kitchen as home to a “cohesive, white working-class.” The 60s comic was rooted in a vision of an urban ethnic enclave that was backwards-looking even at the time and is now hopelessly passé.
Matt Murdock’s obsession with his Irish-American boxer father, in thrall to the mob, is also an obsession with a vanished past and a vanished community. Daredevil may be determinedly “realistic” in its violence and brutality, but the setting for that violence and brutality is one of resolute nostalgia.
And that’s the real difference between Blade and the superhero franchises that have followed. Blade was never a big-name character in the first place. So there wasn’t a whole lot of retro-geek enthusiasm associated with the character. But more than that, Blade, the film, simply isn’t backwards-looking.
There’s none of the Greatest Generation boosterism that clings to the Captain America franchise, for example. Nor do we get from Blade the home front 50s stay-at-home mom-with-kids meme that pops up incongruously in Age of Ultron when we get to meet Hawkeye’s secret, perfect family.
Instead, Blade is deliberately, defiantly hip. Motherhood isn’t idealized; on the contrary, one of the queasier moments of the film involves Blade ruthlessly offing his feral, incestuously sexual, evil vampire mom. If there is nostalgia, it’s for blaxploitation’s up-to-the-minute cool.
The movie’s first grinding, sweaty, sex-and-blood drenched night club scene hasn’t dated at all. Nor has the Afrocentric incense store where Blade buys his formula fix, nor the black, brotherhood embrace between that store’s owner and the hero. There’s a notable lack of cell phones, of course, and the computer graphics prophesying the coming of the blood god look rather dated. But there’s little question that, as much as it’s able, the film is looking forward not back.
And part of the reason it’s looking forward, I think, is race. Blade—unlike most superhero films—is set in a meaningfully integrated world. That Afrocentric shop suggests, quietly but definitely, that Blade is part of a black community and that that community matters to him. One of his two crime-fighting companions Dr. Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright), is also black.
The diverse cast, and the acknowledgement of diverse communities, is part of why the film still feels and looks relevant. Here, after all, is a narrative that was fulfilling the call for more diverse superhero movies before superhero movies were even a thing.
But beyond that, Blade makes clear the extent to which nostalgia and whiteness are inextricably bound together in so much of the superhero genre. Retooling old, old pop-culture heroes means, inevitably, dreaming about white saviors and about a time when white people were the only ones who were allowed to be heroes.
At the end of the film, Blade rejects a cure of his condition; he’s not going to go back to being human, because there are still vampires to fight. For Blade, the only way forward is forward.
Perhaps there’s a metaphor there for why so much American cultural innovation has come from black people, for whom the past can never be quite the idyllic inspiration it so often seems in white super-fantasies.
Blade built a future of S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers and Netflix streaming, and then he was largely forgotten in favor of a whiter, imaginary origin story. With Ant-Man and all the rest furtively sucking Blade’s blood, it’s worth taking a minute to go back and watch the original cutting down the vampires, like he knew they were coming all along.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.