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    « 30 Years of "Empire" | Main | Cloudy With a Chance of Pickles? »
    Friday
    Apr092010

    Marveling At The Past - Blade (1998)

    “You had better wake up.  The world you know is just a sugar coated topping.  There is another world beneath it; the real world”.  

    Before you click on the magic red ‘x’ of your browser, thinking this is going to be a pointless review of a film you already have your own opinion on, let me reassure you.  This series of articles (of which there will be one to cover every Marvel Comics film adaptation to date) is really for the fans of the comics, and for fans of nerdvana generally.  I’m going to assume, if you’re reading this that you’ve looked at each of the Marvel film properties produced to date and wondered where it all went wrong.  It applies to practically all of them.  In this series, not only will we explore the reasons but dare to dream about the roads not taken and how different the path would look.  Once we get into 'Spider-man 3' and 'X-Men: The Last Stand' your internet may crash under the weight of it all.  Also, for the fun of it, we will be pondering how different each of the films could have been if they were all controlled and financed by Marvel Studios allowing them to create a cohesive film universe for every character.  Whether this turns out to be pointless, I will leave to your judgment.

    I certainly can’t complain about ‘Blade’.  I remember very specifically how I had no desire to see the film but it became one of those commodities which I don’t see so much anymore; the “word of mouth rental”.  Everyone I knew missed Blade during its theatrical run but discovered it on home video and immediately fell in love with it, spreading the word to all their friends to see it.  Back then I was just taken aback by its sense of supercharged energy and visual flourish as well as its inky black sensibility.  Now I look back even more fondly.  I will launch into this assuming I don’t need to recap the plot for you.

    ‘Blade’ isn’t just an action film.  I myself find a message there which serves as the perfect introduction into the Marvel universe.  It takes a fantastical subject matter and grounds it in reality to the point where the audience can believe that the world exists. Since, as has been said by many people, comic book superheroes are our modern myths, ‘Blade’ is about turning an old myth completely on its head to make way for the new.  Vampires are not eccentric Europeans with a penchant for capes but powerful businessmen, living the American dream in plain sight.  To hammer the point home, THE creepy Euro actor of choice Udo Kier (a man who would be perfectly cast in any film about vampires past or present) plays the head of the vampire council.  You get the impression this is one cat who traded in his cloak a few decades ago for an Armani suit.  By taking one of the most well known myths of all, that of vampire lore, the filmmakers create something accessible to a wide audience and not something which requires tedious amounts of exposition, explaining all the rules of the world created.

    The conversion of old to new is one which reverberates throughout the film.  Blade himself is a new breed of vampire, going against every cliché image once would associate with the term from his appearance to his physical attributes.  Blade’s mission is to completely destroy the vampire race, an ancient way of life which has supposedly existed for centuries.  The character of Karen, a hematologist dragged into Blade’s world after an unfortunate encounter with the damned, is determined to be the first person ever bitten by a vampire to cure herself before she can become one.  And on the other side of the fence, our villain Deacon Frost is determined to wipe out those centuries of tradition which the ruling body of vampires has lived by; killing his masters to pave way for the younger generation.  Oh, and wiping out the human race with the Blood God La Magra; small detail I forgot there.

    Frost leads a new pack of vampires, all of them 20-30 something wild party animals totally ruled by instinct and lust.  It’s actually one of the elements that I find most memorable about the film that rather than Blade facing off against the traditional elegant, calm, controlled and boring vampires of old, he has to defeat a far more volatile enemy.  Frost and his crew are young, mean, ugly, unpredictable, scary and funny to boot.  They aren’t out to protect their way of life or their race in any way.  They have nothing to lose.  They just want to have a good time and unfortunately their idea of that is to unleash Armageddon and when that starts to happen in the third act of the film, you really get the impression of the villains as kids playing with fire, which makes it all the more scary, at least to me.

    The character of Frost himself is quite interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, he was reinvented in the film as a young and cocky upstart, completely going away from the traditional vampire his comic book character was based on.  You can actually understand his motivation.  When he attacks the older vampires for the way they co-exist with the human race (implying some kind of arrangement they have with the higher ups in power to protect their anonymity as well as to feed on certain parts of the population without hassle) rather than just taking it over, you can understand his frustration, especially if you can’t stand back alley politics, which is all the traditional vampires seem to stand for now.  It’s ironic that while they are dealing real estate, the recently converted vampire is the one standing for centuries of tradition and then uses their own ancient prophecy against them.  And you could even (although this is a stretch given the character is an evil sob) feel some sympathy for Frost.  Since he wasn’t born a vampire, merely turned, the council of pure bloods looks on him with disdain and bigotry.   They probably have more respect for Blade than they do for him.  Frost’s plan to unleash La Magra will result in every human caught in its path being turned into vampires, thus eliminating that very prejudice.  And weirdly, Magneto would attempt the very same idea in X-Men two years later.

    Looking back on the film, I found it to have quite a degree of cynicism, if not downright pessimism which makes it stand out from every other Marvel movie.  If you just take a look at the characters of Karen and Curtis Webb, the doctor she works with in her opening scenes examining the burnt corpse of a vampire, you see it clearly.  Both Karen and Curtis are bitten by that not so dead vampire and both end up on very different paths.  Karen is rescued by Blade and Whistler but is set loose the day after with nothing but a gun and a piece of advice to use it on herself if she starts to turn, which is apparently only a matter of time.  Karen is left with no hope and her only comfort is the realization of what the world around her really is; a place run by vampires.  What kind of comic book movie are we dealing with where the heroes rescue the girl but say they can’t save her?  Curtis Webb is killed in the attack we are told, only to make a surprise appearance near the end of the film as a vampire/zombie freak hybrid unexpectedly mutated as a result of his bite.  In a thoroughly creepy scene (which almost feels like it is from a different film), Karen is thrown into a dark and desolate pit and reunited with the hideous creature Curtis has become.  Before he even has a chance to consider eating her flesh, Karen smashes his face in with an implement and crawls out of the hole leaving Curtis blindly crawling on his belly screaming her name in agony, abandoned, alone and forgotten.  What happens to Curtis (who just comes across in his introductory scene as a harmless loser) puts things into perspective for the audience that getting bitten by a vampire, just in case they were under any illusions that it is nothing more than a ticket to an immortal rock and roll existence, can have horrifying repercussions.

    And then there’s Whistler, who seems to have the most tragedy heaped upon him.  His family was butchered in front of him.  He has cancer.  And because he is the wise old mentor figure in a sci-fi action film, the villains have to kill him as kick off the third act and launch the hero on a mission of retribution.  It is quite disheartening to see a film which has displayed such originality up to that point fall back on that tired cliché.  What makes it worse if you are watching Blade as a trilogy is that the sequels rob the character’s death scene of any meaning.  It doesn’t resonate because we know Whistler will be back on his feet with everything back to normal by 30 minutes into the second film.  And the continuity between how he dies in the first film and returns in the second just does not match.  Whistler is found by Blade, bitten and bleeding to death, ready to turn into a vampire.  The irony of course is that he is faced with the very same no-win scenario that he posed to Karen earlier in the film.  Either he can turn or he can kill himself.  He tells Blade to hand him a pistol and then to walk away.  We don’t actually see Whistler’s head explode but we hear the gun shot and see his dead hand carrying the gun fall to the floor.  And then we find out in Blade 2 that Whistler has been turned into a vampire and is being held captive by some Euro-trash goons in a tank of goo.  I’m sure plenty of people will leave comments explaining how this makes a lick of sense and I’ll gladly listen but right now, it doesn’t.  It’s a move which smells of desperation to bring the popular character back for that very reason; popularity.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as the continuity matches.  And it could have been so easily fixed.  Imagine if, as Blade is walking away from Whistler as instructed, we hear the gunshot and then see him leap out of his chair in the background and run into the open.  Whistler had already turned by the time Blade arrived and has either become evil or simply doesn’t have the courage to take his own life (as you could probably say for most people faced with the choice).  Imagine the sight of Blade seeing his only friend becoming enemy and coward right in front of him, letting him go but full acceptant of the fact that he will one day have to track him down as well; ever faithful to the cause they started together.  It would feel like a much stronger lead into any sequel because now you have created anticipation for that inevitable showdown.  I’ll be talking more about this thread in my 'Blade II' article in a few weeks time. 

    But how does a society seemingly overrun and controlled by vampires mesh with the rest of the Marvel universe and characters?  Maybe it doesn’t.  The film is actually set, not in New York but Detroit, although this is never mentioned and the point seems to be that this could take place in any city.  If the film were a part of the Marvel film universe, it would make sense to maintain a sense of distance from the more colorful characters like Spider-man.  Besides, Marvel’s version of New York has more than enough superheroes.  But it would have been nice to throw a few nods and winks to that larger world.  Blade tells Karen early in the film that if she has any sense she’ll get herself out of the city immediately.  It would have been cute to hear him suggest she move to a more tranquil city like New York; a joke only comic book fans would get.  Blade also has an ally who runs a Chinese medicine shop but secretly provides the serum which suppresses his thirst for blood.  We never see this character again and it seems to be begging itself for some kind of reference that the serum has actually been shipped over by Doctor Strange or Reed Richards; the kind of genius who could come up with a dues ex machina cocktail that keeps Blade alive.  I think fans really appreciate the notion that all these superheroes know each other and help one another out.

    Apart from that moment though, I don’t think I would change anything about 'Blade'.  It’s an incredibly slick and confident piece of action filmmaking which still holds up (are you ready for this?) 12 years later.  Do you feel old now?  It is a good starting point in this series of article because, hopefully, it shows you the kind of crazy passion I have for the Marvel movies.  As we go further down the chain and discuss the, shall we say lesser films, we will be getting into far more detail about the roads not taken, the storylines and story points which could have saved their series’, the characters we wanted to see but didn’t, the character that never should have been used and generally use filmmakers’ hard work as a springboard to bitch and moan as if I actually know more about making films than they do.  But heck, it’s all just in good fun and what better place to venture next than Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’?  I hope you’ll join me for that next week.

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