Blade at 25: Blazing the Trail for Wick

I was somewhere in the middle of John Wick: Chapter 4 when the déjà vu began to take hold.

With all due respect to the Wick saga, this was perhaps to be expected. All the franchise’s hours and hours of well-tailored, well-choreographed violence would eventually have to fold in on themselves, becoming a mosaic of elegant brutality where the boundaries would become fuzzy. If it’s Chapter 2, this must be Italy, right? When did Halle Berry and her attack dogs show up? Was Laurence Fishburne there from the very beginning?

But there was something else to the nagging feeling of recognition that predated the Continental, the gold coins, and even Baba Yaga his bad self. The Wick universe felt familiar for another reason. And then, as Keanu Reeves punched, kicked, stabbed and shot – especially shot – his way through yet another cadre of henchpeople, it hit me, like a point-blank headshot from JW.

Wesley Snipes. More specifically, Wesley Snipes as Blade.

There are differences, of course, between these two characters. Before returning to the baroque underworld where he was the resident boogeyman, Keanu’s Wick at least made an effort to go straight, briefly living a peaceful domestic life with a beloved wife.

Snipes’ Blade, on the other hand, has completely eschewed any trappings of such an existence – his true home is the murky netherworld beneath the “sugar-coated topping” of the human world, his true love is Whistler (Kris Kristoffersen), the grizzled old bastard who rescued him from life as a feral teenage bloodsucker, and his raison d’etre is gleefully fucking up vampires.

Some backstory, perhaps: introduced in 1973 as a supporting character in Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula, initially as a human immune to the bite of the vampire and later reimagined as a half-human/half-vampire himself, Blade appeared in a variety of Marvel’s supernatural-tinged titles, occasionally doing battle with or alongside similarly spooky characters like Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider and Morbius, the Living Vampire.

However, when Blade made it to the big screen in 1998 (after a prolonged development process that saw everyone from Richard Roundtree to LL Cool J considered for the role), the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe was yet to be developed, and Snipes’ ‘Daywalker’ existed in his own dark, sleek environment, one seemingly dissimilar to any vampiric environment that preceded it.

Watching Blade upon its release 25 years ago, what struck me was the organization and hierarchy of its vampire race, a marked contrast to the lone creatures, predatory packs and loose-knit aristocracies that had characterized the subgenre until then. There was something so threatening about a ruthless, remorseless mechanism running parallel with the real world, something that regularly emerges to snatch up an innocent and drain them dry (as illustrated in Blade’s unforgettable opening sequence, a techno-scored nightmare in which a hapless fuckboy’s date with Traci Lords turns horribly crimson).

Still, despite their long history, arcane mythology, and veneer of sophistication and propriety (exemplified by soft-spoken European power-broker Dragonetti, played by – who else – Udo Kier), the movie’s vampires are really a dog-eat-dog bunch, ready to betray and incinerate one another to gain a small sliver of power or a larger slice of the pie. And while such shadowy organizations are studded throughout fiction, and have been for some time, recently revisiting the John Wick franchise in its entirety made the similarities between it and the Blade movies clearly stand out.

Naturally, there is the lone avenger violently dismantling the power structure. But there are also the uneasy or unexpected alliances formed to take down a common enemy or achieve a shared goal (often with a touch of backstabbing thrown in for good measure). The vicious young usurper, happy to bend or break the rules to ascend the ladder or maintain a classicist status quo (Stephen Dorff as insolent Deacon Frost in Blade; Bill Skarsgard’s coldblooded Marquis Vincent Bisset de Gramont in Wick 4).

But maybe the standout similarity is what really gets the blood pumping for fans of these franchises: carnage in cool nightclubs. Honestly, who doesn’t enjoy a place usually reserved for drinking, dancing, and romancing becoming an arena in which our hero lays waste to villain after villain?

With that in mind, one imagines that the Marvel Studios brain trust might take the opportunity of its mooted Blade reboot to bloody up the MCU a little, although the delays and staff replacement accompanying Mahershala Ali’s revival of the character, even before the added complications of the writers’ and actors’ strike, gave the whole project the feeling of a motherfucker trying to ice-skate uphill.

Folding a vampire-hunting narrative into its intricate superhero universe could well be untenable for Marvel, as this marvelous morsel of fan fiction demonstrates. Could it be time to take a detour, and travel down some darker streets?

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