A black superhero kicks stereotypes

Casting of Snipes gave star power to vampire story

Film

December 19, 2004|By Maisha Elonai | Maisha Elonai,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

He's tough as nails and more lethal than the Nosferatu.

He wears shades after dark and lives in the light.

He's Blade, the death-dealing vampire hunter at the center of a third feature film, Blade: Trinity.

And the surprise is, he's black - and he's a hit.

Rare as it is to see an African-American character survive in an action/horror film at all, let alone as a champion of good, Blade's thirst for vengeance has captivated moviegoers worldwide.

"What's cooler than a black superhero who's a vampire and can kick [butt]?" asked Eric "The Smoke" Moran, a 34-year-old pro wrestler and "Blade" fan.

Blade's story left a legacy that has stretched across the Marvel Universe for the last 30 years.

The vampire killer first appeared in issue No. 10 of The Tomb of Dracula comics, recalled Martin King of Atomic City Comics in Philadelphia. Written by Marv Wolfman in the 1970s, the series focused on a team of vampire slayers.

"Blade was very visceral, one of the most popular characters" in the series, King said. "It was very well-received."

But Blade has evolved from his origins. The early character wasn't even part vampire, just an angry black man immune to Dracula's curse because the fiend bit Blade's pregnant mother while she was in labor. His bloodsucking foes soon learned to fear the wooden knives he threw - made of ebony, of course.

"A black, jive-talking guy was hunting Dracula. As a kid, that appealed to me," said screenwriter David Goyer, the creative mind behind all three Blade films, and director of Trinity.

This new take on the classic story lured Goyer back to the character in the 1990s, when he was looking to write a script with a black superhero.

"By today's standard, [the original character] was somewhat dated," says Goyer, who is white. "But I liked his name, Blade, so I thought `Well, he has to have a sword.' And I liked the fact that he was a ronin, a master-less samurai."

Goyer resurrected Blade with a new look, a new dental record (half vampire, he now sports fangs) and the same rage-driven vendetta against the undead.

It wasn't easy pitching a film with such an unconventional lead character to distributors.

"The studio said, `Can you make him white?' and I said, `No, you can't,' and fortunately New Line backed it," Goyer said. "I don't think any other studio would have done that."

The casting of Wesley Snipes (Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne were mentioned as possibilities) lent star power and credibility to the series.

"The lore is that films overseas that have a black superhero generally don't do as well ... and they [New Line] were really worried how Blade was going to perform. But amazingly, both Blade films did even better overseas than they did here."

Worldwide grosses for both movies were almost double the domestic take - 1998's Blade scored $70 million in the United States and $131 million globally, while 2002's Blade 2 raked in $81 million at home and $154 million overseas.

The international success of the first film enabled Marvel Studios to embark on other comic-to-movie projects such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). Goyer's calculated risks revitalized a genre for a studio that hadn't created a major film since Howard the Duck in 1986.

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