This past summer, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige announced that Mahershala Ali would take over the mantle of Blade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course Marvel would want Ali for the role — the transformative actor, who already played a villain on Netflix’s Luke Cage, now has two acting Oscars under his belt. But that he would reportedly choose to play the vampire slayer Blade is an explicit challenge.
When Blade joins eventually joins the MCU, Ali will play a character synonymous with another actor: Wesley Snipes. While Tom Holland as Peter Parker and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner took on roles with cinematic history, those characters had already permeated pop culture in decades worth of comic books and cartoons. The popular conception of Blade comes less from Marvel Comics — where he was a colorfully dressed, jive-talking sidekick in the ‘70s horror title Tomb of Dracula — than from the cinematic invention of director Stephen Norrington, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and the particular qualities and choices of Snipes, a one-of-a-kind actor uniquely suited for the portrayal of super heroes.
Snipes came to Blade with a broad range of acting experiences including work on Broadway (Execution of Justice), TV guest appearances (Miami Vice, A Man Called Hawk), mainstream comedies (Wildcats, Major League, White Men Can’t Jump, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar), crime films (King of New York, New Jack City, Boiling Point, Sugar Hill) and Spike Lee joints (Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever). He’d also practiced martial arts since childhood, studying Hapkido, Shotokan Karate, Capoeira, kung fu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. After Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Drop Zone, Money Train, and U.S. Marshals, Snipes was one of the 1990s’ bona fide action stars.
In his performances as Blade, Snipes projects a mentality and guarded interior life as only a nuanced actor could. As the “Daywalker,” a legendary half-human vampire on a crusade to eradicate his fellow bloodsuckers, he creates the contradictory impression of an antisocial weirdo with the comic timing of a funny, charismatic dude. With all that, he brings the attention to physicality of a screen martial artist. Though almost universally beloved in his performances as Blade, Snipes rarely gets enough credit for bringing all of those facets together.
Blade is not the default Wesley Snipes persona. His usual dextrous shit-talking is deployed only in strategic bursts, punctuating otherwise wordless action scenes. In today’s era of comically riffing motormouth super heroes (see: Iron Man, Deadpool, Ant-Man) it’s stunning to watch one who remains quiet for long stretches, including the openings and climaxes of his films. In between fights, admittedly, he unloads exposition, but he speaks slowly, strongly enunciating, his voice so low it’s sometimes a growl — the polar opposite of so many MCU characters meant to speak in relatable, every-person banter, defensively undercutting any risky melodrama with jokey, self-deprecating awkwardness.
Blade would never do that. Blade is not a guy you would be able to hang out with. Blade is motherfucking Blade.
Snipes’ character does have a soft side, but it’s buried deep in there, like the bone-plated hearts of the “reaper” monsters in Blade II. Clearly he loves his charmingly gruff redneck mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), though he coldly describes their relationship as “a good arrangement.” And he has other allies we never learn much about, like the guy (Keith Leon Williams) who trades garlic serum for stolen jewelry and watches. Blade gives him a pound and a man-hug but doesn’t smile or say goodbye.
And he’s still hung up on his mother (Sanaa Lathan). A brief flash of memory signals that she’s the reason he breaks all of his rules to rescue Karen (N’Bushe Wright) and introduce her to “the real world” beneath “the sugar-coated topping” she knows. The only time his affinity for Karen seems at all sexual is when she allows him to drink her blood. She also uses her hematological expertise to invent weapons that make blood explode. Another good arrangement.
Ali has shown great attention to the power of posture. The ways Juan in Moonlight and Don Shirley in Green Book carry themselves are a big part of why they seem like entirely different people. But Snipes will be a hard act to follow; in my opinion, he’s the greatest creator of superhero poses ever put on film. Watch the ways he stands, crouches, and slinks. The way he whips around, causing his trenchcoat to billow like a cape. He even grits his teeth like a drawing come to life. And he knows when to use stillness: he barely moves while discussing Whistler with Karen, while Frost (Stephen Dorff) tries to offer him a truce, while he watches the gruesome video left for him, or even while he forges silver bullets. Watch him during the reaper autopsy in Blade II — he’s the only one there who doesn’t recoil in disgust.
Snipes’ Blade attitude sparks in combat. I like the way he dismissively pushes Frost’s human lackey (Kevin Patrick Walls) with two fingers to the forehead. Or in one of the vampire slaying scenes when he casually knocks a guy over as he walks away, like he’s brushing dirt off his shoulder. And of course there’s the respect with which he treats his sunglasses, which have no magical powers, but are thrown to him before a fight like they’re Thor’s hammer or Captain America’s shield.
Used in conjunction with his sword, which he’s highly skilled at stylishly sheathing and unsheathing, the shades seem to put him into full samurai mode. As Tsunetomo Yamamoto wrote in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, “No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end.” Surrounded by enemies commanded to “make him hurt BAAAAD,” Blade bows his head and draws a circle on the ground with his sword.
For Blade II, director Guillermo Del Toro transported the character, virtually unaltered, to a weirder eastern European underground to team with enemy vampires and battle their mutual foe, the reapers. Pioneering virtual camera techniques that are still used today (but never with as much style), Del Toro made Blade’s fights even more super-powered than before. Real leaps and landings performed by Snipes or his double are connected with an animated Blade flipping clear across the room. And the camera follows right along, making equally impossible moves. Despite the genre’s basis in exaggerated drawings, rarely has a comic book movie gloried so joyfully in the straight up visual awesomeness of its hero.
Blade: Trinity killed the series. This isn’t necessarily due to lesser quality — I think audiences would’ve been happy to give the Daywalker another chance — but, based on behind-the-scenes reporting, the production created a wedge between Snipes and Goyer, who had graduated to director. The struggle included Snipes allegedly choking Goyer on set, the director arriving the next day with an entourage of bikers, and Snipes only communicating with Post-It Notes signed “from Blade” for much of the shoot.
Snipes didn’t like the premise of teaming Blade with young cool kid vampire slayers Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds) and Abigail Whistler (Jessica Biel), and felt isolated due to what he said was a less racially diverse crew than on the other films. Patton Oswalt, who plays a weapons expert, told The A.V. Club that Snipes would stay in his trailer all day and only come out for close-ups. A Spin article claimed that Snipes would not talk directly to Reynolds, but ask other people to, sending messages like, “tell that cracker to get out of my eye line.”
A year later, Snipes filed a lawsuit against Goyer, New Line Cinema, and executive producer Toby Emmerich that claimed, among other things, that they violated his contract by ignoring his objections to the choice of script and director. It was settled out of court, and Snipes subsequently claimed the suit got him blacklisted in Hollywood. Between Trinity and Brooklyn’s Finest (2009), Snipes starred in seven movies, of which only Chaos (co-starring Jason Statham) was released theatrically.
Like a later Highlander sequel, Trinity has an often rough and chintzy look to it that feels like a betrayal of its intoxicatingly stylish predecessors. And whether by Goyer’s design or from Snipes’s lower level of investment, it gives Blade less focus and less to do. It’s a huge step down, but it does have some good stuff in it. The Blade-mobile returns for a big car chase where it runs right over a motorcycle. Whistler goes out with a bang; the cops yell “Don’t lift a finger!” and he says, “How’s about this one?,” waving the bird with one hand and punching a detonator with the other. Parker Posey is absolutely game as a lead villain with the great vampire name “Danika Talos.” And Reynolds is very funny with presumably improvised wisecracks predicting his later persona as Deadpool. (Snipes’ lawsuit complained of a “juvenile level of humor,” and within the movie itself Blade chastises Hannibal for wearing a sticker that says “Hello, my name is FUCK YOU.”)
But in the midst of all this, Snipes sneaks in some strong Blade moments: a splash-page worthy landing pose after crashing through an upper story police department window, a laugh from saying “gootchy-goo” to a baby in the gravelly Blade voice. Bound to a chair and interrogated by a police psychiatrist (John Michael Higgins) he’s constantly turning his head to look at the ceiling, the walls, the floor, wasting no time planning an escape. My favorite bit is when he’s surrounded by a SWAT team and surrenders. Blade, of course, would never put his hands up, or on his head, or lie face down on the pavement. No, he sits cross-legged and lays his sword on the ground, like a samurai.
After Trinity, Snipes put the sword down. Time will tell if anyone, even Mahershala Ali, can pick it up the right way.