Dave Gutierrez lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife, Julia, and their two kids. When he’s not arguing about nerd stuff on the internet, he’s playing board games or binge-watching TV shows. He’s also pretty invested in establishing his kids’ geek cred early with a steady diet of Star Wars, Batman, and LEGO Marvel Avengers. Dave frequently performs his actual job in domestic logistics as well, but who wants to hear about that?
I know it’s difficult to imagine in a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has over 20 films and another dozen on deck, but there was a time when digging deep into the Marvel back catalogue was a real gamble. Before there was an Infinity War, before Marvel was backed with Disney muscle, before comics deep cuts like Inhumans and Cloak & Dagger were being scraped from the bottom of the barrel for TV series, Marvel Studios was a brand-new and unproven production house just trying to find a groove.
There was no grand plan yet, but they knew they wanted to prove that superhero movies could play to grown-up audiences instead of catering directly to kids. Bizarre as it seems today, in 1998 it was a hard sell to convince anyone that comic-book characters could move out of the Saturday-morning cartoons (yes kids, back in my day you had to watch your cartoons on Saturday morning, not whenever you felt like it) and appeal to grown-up audiences. To be fair, after Howard the Duck bombed in the ’80s, it sure seemed like adults had weighed in. (Why it didn’t occur to anyone that Howard the Duck was just a completely terrible movie remains a mystery.) If you were a comic-book nerd, you had X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons after school and not much else.
It was certainly a surprise to everyone when Marvel Studios launched its film-production division not with Spidey or the X-Men or one of their more popular and predictable heroes, but instead with a dark, ultraviolent take on the vampire-hunter genre featuring a little-known supporting character from the 1970s named Blade. The resulting movie is both magnificently ambitious and inescapably flawed. Blade isn’t perfect, but it laid the groundwork for the Marvel juggernaut and proved to the world that adults would tolerate the lore and world-building of a comics universe. Especially if they carefully meted out all that lore and back story between legitimately kick-ass fight sequences.
Blade definitely comes heavy with the lore. Vampires are ancient hunters, preying on mankind for centuries. They’re allergic to silver — like all allergies, it causes them to instantly incinerate and collapse in a pile of ash — and to garlic (this one just makes their skin melt), and they are completely vulnerable to the sun’s UV light. They use human familiars to carry out most of their dirty work during the day. By contrast, Blade (Wesley Snipes, in all his ’90s glory) is a Daywalker, a child who was converted to vampirism in the womb when his mother was bitten and, as a result, has all of the cool ninja skills with none of the inconvenient downsides. Well, besides the constant compulsion to drain humans of their blood, which he keeps at bay with a homemade antidote.
He roams the underworld with Whistler (a delightfully cranky Kris Kristofferson), his assistant / gadget guy / father figure. They track vampires, then kill them with a variety of over-the-top weapons to a pounding techno soundtrack. When Blade saves a hematologist (N’bushe Wright) from a vampire attack and takes her under his protection, he pits himself against an ambitious young vampire named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff, from back when Stephen Dorff was a thing), who just happens to be trying to raise the blood god and take over the world and so on and so forth. It’s standard vampire killer fare, straight out of the Buffy playbook.
There’s an important difference between this and Buffy, though: Blade is a superhero for grown-ups. The movie is unapologetically rated R. Between Blade’s F-bombs and the ever more bloody and elaborate death scenes, there was no chance of anything less. What the movie lacks in coherent plot, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. The violence is persistent and over the top, but it’s notable that almost every exploding corpse or decapitation is clearly a vampire; as in the later Marvel films, the filmmakers seem to realize people are far more tolerant of that kind of thing if the bad guys aren’t “real” people. (Captain America punches Nazis but tears the arms off of Chitauri.) It keeps the fight scenes flowing without the audience ever having to think too much about the implications, an important lesson borne out over and over through the MCU’s monstrous aliens and rogue androids.
There was another magic to Blade for me, though. Something deeper and more important, something that spoke to the nerd in me in a way that the garishly neon Batman flicks and dopey goody-two-shoes Superman movies never did. This was a real comic-book hero, fighting and swearing and feeling like a comic book brought to life. This was a comic-book movie that had brought our world to the non-nerds, where suddenly people who would never have set foot in a comics store were watching one of our guys and thinking, “This is awesome!”
It’s a little dizzying to think about now that Marvel and Star Wars and Game of Thrones have dominated the last decade of pop culture and brought “nerd” culture solidly to the mainstream, but in the ’90s there was no buzz for a Marvel movie. A lot of people didn’t even realize it was based on a comic! X-Men sealed the deal, but Blade put it out there first. Comic characters could be cool. No brightly colored spandex suits, no silly cartoon plotlines, no laughably outlandish secret identities.
There are definite misses here. The screenplay reaches and misses badly with a subplot regarding the hero’s mother that makes no sense for the story or the character. There’s an unforgivably terrible scene where Frost confronts Blade in the park in broad daylight by using protective makeup that just undermines every rule the movie has set about vampires. (Seriously, if some liberally applied foundation and a pair of gloves are enough to keep you safe from the sun, why are the vampires even bothering with the whole nighttime thing? They seem to have billions of dollars at hand and they’re immortal, but no one has bothered to improve on this cosmetic technology enough to counter their biggest weakness?) In the opening fight scene, Blade kills a vampire, looks into the camera and fist pumps in the most perfectly ’90s way you’ll ever see. The CGI was clumsy and looks extremely dated at times.
That’s all true, but it’s worth a look anyway. It’s the beginning of the revolution, the first pass at what would become the dominant pop culture movement of the 2000s. Superheroes are cool, and Blade was the first to prove it out on the big screen. It’s ambitious, it’s bloody, and even after all these years, it’s still fun as hell.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle
Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris
Captain Kronos – Bob Bloom
Alien – Nicole Brooks
The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler – Lou Harry
Pet Sematary (1989) – Heather Knight
Marianne – Alys Caviness-Gober
Orphan – Greg Lindberg
Vamp – James Ledesma
NEKRomantik – Andrew Kimmel