Years Before Black Panther, We Had Blade: The Black Superhero We Forgot

Pop Culture

Years Before Black Panther, We Had Blade: The Black Superhero We Forgot

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Earlier this year, Marvel’s Black Panther made history as one of the first superhero films to unapologetically embrace its protagonist’s African identity, in a refreshing break from the conveyor belt of Caucasian faces that usually feature on the posters of these comic book movies. I was one of the fans who contributed to Black Panther’s success, booking a ticket to Wakanda… and I had a great time. However, I can’t say the same for the people sitting on either side of me in the theatre, because I spent a considerable amount of time being the insufferable nerd who went, “Well, actually, Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero to get a mainstream Hollywood release.” Sorry King T’Challa, but that honour goes to Blade.

The year was 1998. Superhero movies were far from being the all-consuming entertainment juggernaut that they are today, with a new one arriving with greater frequency than BEST buses. Back then, the genre was still reeling from the campy, cartoonish embarrassment that was Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring George Clooney’s latex Bat-nipples. While the comic-book source material was getting increasingly mature, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns releasing in ’87, Hollywood studios still thought only kids want to watch superheroes, leading to the glut of childish crap like the Batman disaster and Superman franchise, which only got worse with time.

Then, along came Blade.

Just as its titular half-human, half-vampire, complete badass of a protagonist was cast from a completely different mould than his predecessors Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, the movie marked a departure from the child-friendly aesthetic the genre had adopted up to that point. Vibrant colours were replaced by dark, gothic tones, except for the bright red of spilled blood, of which there is no shortage in Blade. It was the first superhero film to garner an R rating, long before Deadpool and Logan made it cool again.

That’s not the only new ground Blade broke for Marvel on screen; it was also the first film featuring a Marvel character to achieve mainstream success, which up to that point had belonged solely to DC stalwarts Batman and Superman. Captain America and Iron Man owe their undisputed dominance over schoolkids’ bags and lunchboxes to Blade, without whom Marvel might never had its first taste of box office glory.

The effect Blade had on the genre was profound, if poorly remembered.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that the year was 1998. Robert Downey Jr was still two years away from his career-resuscitating turn on Ally McBeal, and nearly a decade away from the role of Tony Stark. Nobody even knew what a Thanos was. Today, it’s easy to take Marvel’s preeminent position in pop culture for granted, with three of the year’s top five highest grossing films featuring properties from the studio – Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Deadpool 2. But 20 years ago, a comic book adaptation was a risky gamble for a studio to take. Still, Blade managed to impress both the critics and commercial audiences, proving viable enough to sire two sequels.

The effect Blade had on the genre was profound, if poorly remembered. The next two releases, X-Men and Spider Man, followed the trail blazed by Blade in adapting the comic books more faithfully, making films that appealed to all ages, not just children. And while many Nolan fanboys will tell you that Batman Begins started the trend of dark and gritty superhero films in 2005, the Blade franchise had already covered that territory in three feature-length films by 2004. Also, with African-American actor Wesley Snipes playing the lead, it was revolutionary by virtue of featuring a black hero, something that remains newsworthy even in 2018, when Black Panther felt like an oasis of diversity in a genre still lost in the desert of unfair representation.

Now, as nerds across the world wait with bated breath for the next Avengers, I can’t help but wonder if Blade survived Thanos’ infamous finger-snap from Infinity War (five-month-old spoiler alert), or if he’s even part of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. On the 20th anniversary of his film debut, it would be a shame to leave Blade out of the conversation surrounding how comic book movies became the most popular genre of entertainment today.

By reshaping public perception of what the genre could be, taking it from wholesome entertainment for kids to a medium for complex and dark storytelling, and by proving audiences will accept a non-traditional hero, he rewrote what was possible for the films which followed. No one predicted the runaway success of superheroes back in ’98, but as Blade says himself, “When you understand the nature of a thing, you know what it’s capable of.”