Since its release, Black Panther has been praised for its strong writing, clever expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and memorable cast. This is deserved; Black Panther is arguably one of Marvel’s best movies. While Black Panther has commended by some for its “unprecedented” inclusion of a black lead in a superhero film, another film had achieved this back in 1998 – the action-horror classic Blade.
Based on the Marvel character of the same name, Blade is a blood-pumping thrill-ride of 90s action-horror. Wesley Snipes plays the titular character, a half-vampire whose mother was bitten by whilst pregnant. Although some of the fight scenes are dated, Blade stands the test of time as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of 90s action-horror. Oh, and Blade is black. Between In the Heat of the Night and Moonlight, Blade is one of the most important landmarks for black representation in cinema. It was the first superhero film to achieve commercial and critical success with an African-American leading man. 1997’s Spawn, featuring the first ever black protagonist in a superhero movie, was a critical and commercial flop. Blade deserves the mantle of first successful African-American superhero movie, a whole twenty years before Black Panther. This breakthrough in representation should have cemented Blade a place in cinematic history, and yet in 2018 Chadwick Boseman is mentioned far more than Wesley Snipes as a step forward for African-Americans in superhero films.
Some might not even know that Blade is a superhero movie. This is understandable given the violence of the film, as well as vampires not being as prevalent in modern superhero universes. Blade’s unusually dark themes perhaps over-shadowed its inclusion of a black protagonist, coming out a mere year after Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. Black Panther’s timing was also better regarding the status of superhero movies at the box office. The recent saturation of superhero films made one with a black lead stand out, far more so than in 1998, whilst also capitalising on a zeitgeist for superhero movies that did not exist back when Blade came out. Furthermore, Donald Trump’s election as President in 2016 opened up questions about race relations that had been bubbling under the surface for decades. Trump’s election created a volatile socio-political environment where films like Black Panther and Moonlight are reactionarily championed as victories for black representation in American cinema. In 1998, race relations were perhaps less openly volatile and critics failed to comment on the significance that Blade represented for black cinema.
But should Blade be excluded simply for being ahead of its time? All these reasons do not justify the unliteral praise Black Panther has received for improving black representation in the superhero film genre. Blade was Black Panther’s predecessor, and deserves recognition for that. As one of the most underrated superhero films of the past twenty years, Blade should be acknowledged as a milestone for both black representation and the development of the modern superhero movie.