The Marvel Cinematic Universe might be – nay, is – the biggest thing in the movie industry right now. It rakes up the biggest payday and has the biggest fanbase – they literally changed the game with their astronomical success. But did you know that Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996? And then, Wesley Snipes played ‘Blade’ – and everything changed forever.
Had it not been for ‘Blade’ and the trilogy’s incredible success, it’s highly doubtful that Marvel Studios would ever go on to become the household name it is today. Yes, a C-list half-man, half-vampire character saved the company, and he is to thank that we have the MCU today. Interested in finding out how? You’re in the right place.
The state of Marvel Comics before ‘Blade’ (1998)
Before we dive into ‘Blade’ and how it changed the game for superhero movies, you need to know the state in which the comic book industry – not just Marvel Comics – was at the time. As years went on, an economic ‘bubble’ formed around the industry. The studios churned out hundreds upon hundreds of titles each year that simply dwindled in quality.
Seeing that they produced more, the production costs went up while the storytelling quality went down. As the quality went down, the public interest went down as well. As costs went up and sales went down, the studios raised the prices. In a matter of a decade or so, the price for a single comic book doubled. It was an unsustainable system that eventually just burst.
On the movie front, things were looking even more grim. DC had several major successes with the ‘Superman’ trilogy with Christopher Reeve and the Tim Burton/Mickael Keaton tam-up on the 1989 ‘Batman’ film. But then, they had flop after flop, culminating in the atrocious ‘Batman & Robin’ film that nearly destroyed the superhero genre in movies forever.
On the other hand, Marvel was so bad that they didn’t even do movies at the time. They released a ‘Howard the Duck’ movie that was meant for kids but was so bad that even the kids hated it. Then they tried making a ‘Fantastic Four’ movie in the mid-1990s that was SO BAD it was never even released!
Things got so bad that eventually, on December 27, 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. They were selling character rights left and right to pay off their debts, but it didn’t help. Enter Blade.
How did ‘Blade’ save Marvel?
In 1997, an idea was pitched to make a movie about Blade – Marvel’s C-list character that was fairly new in the comics (only about two decades old). The movie was green-lit, and it got a $45 million budget, but expectations were that, much like all other superhero films of the decade, it would flop, finally closing the doors of Hollywood for the comic book superhero genre.
And then, a series of phenomenal decisions created a miracle. First, the casting of Wesley Snipes as Blade was absolutely pitch-perfect. His portrayal was iconic, but it all started with the director, Stephen Norrington, who did a masterful job at working with the writer, David S. Goyer, and bringing their vision to the big screen.
Goyer did something rather unconventional for the film, though. Instead of following the comic book version of Blade – making him kind of silly and PG-13 – he opted to mold the character to the actor’s strengths, not the other way around. Blade was humorous but also dark, strong, and brooding, much like Snipes.
Then, they opted not to make it a clearly fictional world. Instead, they grounded the narrative into a parallel world that resembled our world in every way except for having a secret vampire society running the world from behind the scenes. It made the tone of the film feel relatable and ‘possible,’ if you will.
And finally – the movie was R-rated, bloody, and gory, finally aiming at an adult audience instead of trying to make a vampire movie PG-13. Combine everything we’ve just mentioned, and ‘Blade’ earned a hefty $131 million on a $45 million budget. Overall, the trilogy earned well over $400 million – but it wasn’t actually a huge payday for Marvel Comics.
Sources suggest that Marvel only earned around $25000 for the first ‘Blade’ movie. Yes, 25K. So, if it wasn’t actually Marvel’s financial saving grace, why do fans believe ‘Blade’ was so important?
Why is ‘Blade’ so important for Marvel Comics (& MCU)?
‘Blade’ might not have been a huge payday for Marvel, but the important thing was what it accomplished and showed. Having such a successful film with a C-list character – imagine what they could do with their A-listers? You had the blueprint on how to do it; it was just a matter of doing it.
Now, Marvel made tons of bad financial decisions over the years – ergo, the bankruptcy – but this meant that they are finally hitting on something good. That being said, they already sold the rights for many of their characters: the X-Men to Fox and Spider-Man to Sony. And, as it turns out, those two were the next two great hits from Marvel that they didn’t make a ton of money from.
The X-Men were in a production halt for a while, but it wrapped up rather quickly after ‘Blade’ paved the way. And then, we got Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire working on a ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy. It was a nice payday that certainly made a difference for Marvel, as they got a bit over $60 million for the trilogy.
However, it’s peanuts when you consider the fact that the trilogy gained almost $3 billion for the studios. Fast forward a year or two, and an idea gets floated around – why don’t we just make the movies ourselves, and then we can keep ALL the profits? How do we do that?
Well, you know the rest. What ensued was the MCU – the most successful franchise in film history, breaking box office records left and right. The string of successes all started with ‘Blade’ providing the blueprint. And I mean that in a literal sense, too.
Blade was a C-lister – and the MCU made a living out of taking C-list characters and turning them into major profits. Ant-Man, Black Widow, and heck, even Iron Man wasn’t such a household name as he is right now due to, yet again, the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.
Like Blade, the role wasn’t written for the character – it was written for the actor. Play into their strengths, make the character more relatable to them, and if they ‘believe’ the character, the audience will, too. The same can be said for Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, the Hulk (who was recast perfectly)… the list goes on.
It’s crazy to think that Marvel might’ve been gone for good from the film industry hadn’t their first African-American superhero lead ever on the big screen made such an unexpected splash, paving the way for the MCU to take over box office returns decades later.
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