Way back in 2009, when I started writing my doctoral dissertation on superhero movies and post-9/11 American politics, it seemed totally plausible that the superhero genre was entering its twilight years. After a few early hits like X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), every major Hollywood studio had hastily joined the superhero bandwagon, churning out a handful of cinematic origin stories for comic book heroes on a remarkably regular basis. But a decade later, superhero movies have become basically synonymous with franchised transmedia entertainment, with the Disney-owned Marvel Studios alone delivering several blockbuster movies, Netflix series, and network TV shows each year.
This spring, Marvel Studios’ eighteenth feature Black Panther became the biggest superhero movie yet. More than just a box office smash, Black Panther was also an important cultural phenomenon, drawing as it did on Afrofuturist cultural frameworks and making its fictional African state of Wakanda a utopian enclave that avoided the historical atrocities of colonialism, slavery, and racism.
But long before the MCU was even being considered, the recently-bankrupted Marvel started experimenting with film adaptations by licensing their characters to film studios in the late 1990s. Blade (1998) was the first of these experiments, and its success laid the most basic groundwork for Marvel’s ongoing reign in the pop-cultural arena.
There is some painful irony to the fact that a franchise that devoted its first seventeen (!!) serialized feature films to white male protagonists not only finds its greatest financial success in a black superhero, but also in the fact that another black icon had marked this journey’s beginning. Perhaps a key reason why Blade doesn’t often get the credit it deserves is that it’s an R-rated action film that is more horror than science-fantasy. While it shares later Marvel movies’ trademark combination of fast-paced but generic action and self-reflexive humor, it’s also clearly a movie designed for genre fans rather than mainstream audiences.
It’s important therefore to remember that there is a longer history of black superhero movies that goes back several decades. And since Marvel’s own twenty-year history in developing superhero movies was built on foundations laid by Blade’s success, their reluctance to develop this further for all those years becomes all the more egregious. One step in the right direction would at least be for Marvel to bring back Blade, and give him the place he deserves in the MCU pantheon.