Vampire Killer, Super Hero Savior

The name's "Blade." Can you guess why?

A friend sent me an e-mail all geeked after watching The Avengers trailer and he was stoked!   He wanted to know how superheroes became such a fundamental part of the summer movie madness.   My answer was it all started with a Black “hero” who proved there was money to be made in mining comic books for gold.

The superhero movie that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for kick-starting the superhero movie genre is Blade (1998).  Before it the last caped crusaders we had the bloated mess that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997) that croaked the franchise until Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale breathed life back into it minus the Arnold Schwarzenegger quips and nipples on the Bat-suit.

But Marvel was even more dead in the water.  Think about what kind of superhero movies they had cranked out.  The Punisher with a mumbling Dolph Lundgren?  Roger Corman’s made for ten cents version of The Fantastic Four?  Junk.

Then along came a little movie about a third-rate supporting character in the long canceled Tomb of Dracula comic book.   Nobody had any expectations from Blade, but it totally kicked ass with a tough performance from Wesley Snipes and surprisingly stylish direction from Stephen Norrington. It also had one of the coolest openings of any action flick (see below).  Blade kills men, women, guards.  He even kills the d.j. Man, Blade sure does hate techno music.

Blade didn’t make a ton of money (made for $45 million and grossed $75 million), but it did make enough money to show Hollywood there was a market for super hero movies that didn’t insult the intelligence of its audience.

Marvel picked up the lesson.  Next up were Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and that got the superhero movies off the mat and back into the business of being summer movie blockbusters.

Not until Batman Begins (2005) did DC get back in the game and though The Dark Knight Returns is the best superhero movie ever made, Marvel has been far more successful in diversifying their portfolio with multiple characters having lucrative launches while DC has so far failed to generate a similar character (Superman Returns, Jonah Hex, Green Lantern) to build franchises around.

But it all began with Blade and though it’s kind of been forgotten, it shouldn’t be.   The sequels Blade II is just as good as the original while Blade:Trinity is a hot mess that killed the franchise  deader than Batman & Robin.   Despite the 49-year-old Snipes’ problems with the IRS, Blade is a character that deserves to return even if the role has to be recast.

Superhero movies have gone from something Hollywood looked down its nose at to one of the most essential determining factors on whether it’s a profitable year or not.  Paramount and Warner Brothers have millions tied up in next year’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises,  but the expectation is both studios will rake in millions more.

Blade is not a great movie.  It’s not made on the ambitious scale of a Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger.   It’s a B-movie and it’s bloody, cynical and earns its “R” rating.  When Blade growls, “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill” you don’t even care that it’s a badly written line that makes no sense.   Superheroes don’t say “mother fucker,” but then Blade is a vampire slayer, not a superhero.

If not for a vampire slayer who won’t pay his taxes we might not be stuck with superheroes up to our eyeballs..

Blade Runnings

It all began with a guy who killed vampires but wouldn't pay his taxes...

Super heroes don’t exist in the real world, but Hollywood sure believes in them.   At this year’s Comic-Con the buzz wasn’t about comic books as much as it was comic book movies.   There was much raving and drooling by fanboys over the upcoming Green Lantern, Thor and Captain America films in 2011 and Marvel’s biggest gamble yet, the super-hero mash-up of The Avengers with Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man , Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury joining Chris Evans’ Captain America and Chris Hentridge’s Thor with Jeremy Renner, fresh off an Academy Award nomination playing Hawkeye and Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton as the  Hulk.

With The Dark Knight grossing a billion dollars and the two Iron Man movies pulling in nearly $700 million, comic books heroes are no longer simply a part of a studio’s summer hopes for success, they ARE the biggest part of a studio’s strategy.    Where once dressing up in spandex and being suspended from wires held little appeal to serious actors, many of them are now looking for those parts.

Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, two of the greatest actors of their generation,  happily accepted big paydays to slap on wigs and makeup to play respectively Superman’s father, Jor-El and the Batman’s worst enemy, the Joker.    At the time they were being called “sell-outs” for working in such an unworthy genre as comic book movies.   Today Brando and Nicholson look smart.  There may be a small degree of embarrassment into squeezing into a silly costume or playing a comic book character,  but top directors (Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi) and talent (Sir Anthony Hopkins, Christian Bale, Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey Jr., Nicolas Cage,  Don Cheadle, Kevin Spacey, Gwenyth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson,  Morgan Freeman,  Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman) are  among those lining up to cash in on an easy role in big summer movies.

Comic book movies have become cash cows for movies studios and even when they stink (Daredevil, Catwoman, Spider-Man 3,  Jonah Hex) Hollywood keeps cranking them out and making witless sequels.   The  Fantastic Four, Daredevil and the last Spider-Man flick  all made money and in the case of Spider-Man 3, even a muddled and overstuffed entry in the series grossed well over $300 million.  These properties are much too valuable to be abandoned so studios replace the director and casts, overhaul the stories and relaunch them  for another bite of the apple.

There’s one glaring omission here and that’s you don’t even mention the success of Wesley Snipes as Blade, the vampire hunter.   This almost forgotten movie may be most responsible for revitalizing the superhero movie after Joel Schumacher and George Clooney killed it off with the wretched train wreck  that was Batman and Robin.

Made for a relatively cheap $45 million, Blade grossed $70 million domestically and $131 million worldwide and spawned two sequels (one very good and one very bad) and a lousy TV series.

But Blade as it’s Wikipedia entry shows had a greater impact than just its minor success:

“Blade was one of the first successful comic book based films to be released after the disastrous performance of Batman & Robin. Its success convinced Marvel to develop the X-Men film series as well as the Spider-Man film series.”

It's a lot easier killing vampires than fighting the IRS.

It’s not an overstatement to suggest had Blade died an ignoble death at the box office, the super-hero franchise might have remained  dormant.   Marvel saw how an obscure supporting character from their Tomb of Dracula comic could be reimagined for the sliver screen.  Blade as played by Snipes was faithful to his comic book roots to an extent, but abandoned them completely in other ways.

No matter. Between Snipes’ martial arts ass-kicking of vampire butt and an underrated direction by Stephen Norrington, Blade was  a very cool interpretation and gave Snipes his biggest success as an actor.    Too bad it didn’t carry over to his good sense because his IRS problems are sending him away for three years.

Though Snipes is a jail-bird now due to his problems paying his taxes, it’s not too far off-base to suggest it was Blade that has made all these following super hero flicks possible.  Unfortunately, with Snipes locked up for three years,  barring recasting another actor in the role, Blade may not be returning soon to the multiplexes on his mission to kill “suckheads” wherever he finds them.

Too bad,  because I’d really like to turn Blade loose on those wimpy Twilight vampires.   Now those are some suckheads that really could use a social call from the Day Walker.     Blade is underrated and overlooked for its importance in the dominance of comic-book movies at the box office, but there’s no denying its impact upon it.

Barring an early release, next year while audiences settle in their seats to watch Green Lantern and Thor doing their thing, Snipes will be cooling his heels in a federal prison fondly recalling his time as a vampire killing hero.   He should take some small comfort in knowing the success of Blade helped make everything that has followed possible.