With this month’s release of Doctor Strange, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 14 installments. These movies make up Marvel’s concentrated efforts to adapt its own works, but the page-to-screen jumps go as far back as 1944 with a Captain America serial film series. Looking out at the critical and box-office success of the MCU—not to mention its future plans—it’s hard to imagine a time when the comic giant’s movies weren’t synonymous with tentpole features.
But that’s exactly where we were from the mid-’80s throughout the ’90s, when the heroes who were foiling evildoers were Howard The Duck and Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher. Steve Rogers had found his way onto celluloid in 1990’s Captain America, but that movie—though co-produced by Stan Lee—never got a U.S. release. It wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that Marvel as a studio appeared viable. And this vampire hunter probably wasn’t the character that most readers would’ve appointed to lead the charge. Blade did eventually get his own title after emerging from The Tomb Of Dracula, but he’s never reached the popularity of, say, Iron Man, who’s regarded as the MCU’s “Big Bang,” thanks to an impressive film debut in 2008.
Thanks to Guillermo Del Toro’s gorier, superior sequel in 2002, it looked like we might have a real franchise on our hands. Then Blade: Trinity premiered in 2004 and quashed those dreams. That was a shame, especially since it seemed the movies were on their way to striking a balance between the martial arts, nods to blaxpoitation, and class commentary. The latter was demonstrated through the vampire hierarchy, which treated purebloods as gods on Earth and everyone else as cattle/chattel. But where Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) schemed to reorganize the order, Blade (Wesley Snipes) just wasn’t having any of that shit. As a Daywalker and a black man (vampires are overwhelmingly white in this series), he’d always be outside of it, and since “it” was really a group of killers, he was okay with being left out of this particular club.
Luckily for fans, David S. Goyer got a do-over in 2006. Goyer, who wrote all three movies, produced the series for the fledgling Spike network, which was gradually making its way from syndicated series to original programming. Spike’s mission was to bring all kinds of kickass action to its predominantly male audience (and a little—or a lot—of T&A wouldn’t hurt either). But even though the property found a home on a relatively untested network, it had some serious creative backing. Marvel Entertainment co-produced with New Line, and the comic-book company’s Geoff Johns pitched in on the pilot script. Legit creator Peter O’Fallon, who’d also directed 2006’s Eureka pilot, helmed the double-sized premiere.
When Blade: The Series premiered June 28, 2006, on Spike, it drew over 2 million viewers, despite the summer start date. The two-episode pilot packed a punch, picking up not long after the events of (ugh) Blade: Trinity. But you didn’t need much familiarity with the comics or movies to keep up with these first couple of episodes, which saw Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones step into the leather in Snipes’ stead. It was a confident debut—which you should watch on DVD without O’Fallon’s commentary, unless you want to hear him drool over series co-lead Jill Wagner—that blended world-building with effective fight sequences set against an appropriately muted palette. Goyer and O’Fallon responded to the vote of confidence from Marvel and Spike with a slick, visually appealing premiere.
The series took place in Blade’s hometown of Detroit, where he’d returned to snuff out the vampires that weren’t wiped out by the Daystar virus that was deployed in the third film. It turns out there were a lot of them—a whole 12 houses’ worth, which were all led by purebloods. Blade spent the 13 episodes traveling up the vampire food chain, depleting the world’s supply of silver along the way (he’d ostensibly found the time to invest in a mine). The actor and setting may have changed, but Blade’s mission was the same: seek and destroy.
Goyer had already significantly altered the character’s backstory and personality for his films. In his hands, Blade became a super-powered Daywalker (half-human, half-vampire) instead of merely a guy with a serious grudge against the bloodsuckers who was resistant to vampirism. Snipes’ capable portrayal was of a stoic, myopic slayer, who threw in cool one-liners with the coup de grâce. That was the model for Jones’ iteration, but even though he had twice as many hours and opportunities to nail the role, the Onyx rapper turned actor never fully inhabited it. Jones really did look the part, and he handled the action sequences well. The camera often came in close to show off the bared teeth of hunter and prey, and with his shades in place, Jones sneered with the best of them.
But the series featured just as many beats of rest as skull-thumping action, possibly even more, which was its own problem (more on that later). And in those scenes, Jones consistently fell flat. In his original, comic-book form, Blade was a loquacious guy; he became a silent-killer type for the films, which suited Snipes just fine. Though the actor had previously shown plenty of fast-talking charm in New Jack City and White Men Can’t Jump, Snipes was just as effective a communicator with Blade’s shoot-first, ask-questions-never approach. That probably worked better when limited to the six hours of film reels, but Blade’s recalcitrance often stalled the show’s momentum.
Maybe it was just a question of charisma: Snipes had far more of it than Jones, who more often appeared to be posing than emoting. If the focus had remained solely on him, the series might have been mistaken for silent film outtakes. But Goyer’s expansion of the movies’ world added many new characters to the mix, including two partners for the taciturn guy to play off of, should Jones ever decide to deliver his lines as anything other than an irritated response or conversation ender. A new trio was born, which, despite featuring some of the drawbacks of the Trinity, worked surprisingly well. There was Nelson Lee as Shen, Blade’s weaponsmith who wasn’t allergic to humor, and who had a tragic backstory for his vampire-hunting mission. (For better and worse, that wasn’t introduced until the penultimate episode of the series.)
Most of these characters’ exchanges saw Shen trying to bounce jokes off of Blade, who usually responded by pointing a gun at someone or thing. It wasn’t all Jones’ fault; the writing didn’t give him much to work with in the personality department, suggesting that the production team also took Blade’s mission a little too seriously. And boy, did the episodes love to demonstrate just how heavy Blade’s burden was. If you hadn’t gotten the impression from the movies, Goyer and his team wanted to remind you at every point that Blade was at war with himself as well as the nocturnal monsters he hunted. As a half-vampire, Blade suppressed the same bloodthirst that his brethren reveled in—this kind of denial meant he couldn’t lose focus.
These were important, established elements of the character, but they often tied Jones’ hands in his portrayal. When you’re running all over town killing vampires while outfitted in a leather duster and silver stakes, “restraint” doesn’t really appear to be the order of the day. Not all of the time, anyway. Since Jones was a relative newcomer to acting, he wasn’t equipped to lend much nuance to the characterization—all he could really do was his best impression of Snipes. So the show gave him another partner/sounding board with some of his qualities and quandaries rather than just hone their Blade. This foil was Krista Starr (played by Jill Wagner), an Iraq War veteran who got in over her head while infiltrating Chthon, the vampire house represented by head Detroit vampire Marcus Van Sciver.
Krista’s admittance into the “No Nosferatus” club hinged upon her entry into Chthon, where she could feed Blade and Shen with information. She dove headfirst into pursuit of her brother’s killer, which was how she ended up converted by Marcus. Wagner sold the romance with Van Sciver, but Krista didn’t prove to be much of a contemporary or counterpoint for Blade. Wagner was believable as a plucky sidekick, but suddenly, Blade: The Series was trucking in crime series and procedurals in addition to horror. Krista was a victim and a mole, as well as a newly minted someone with a predisposition for killing. Wagner had just a handful of guest spots before landing this co-lead role (you might also recognize her from a string of Mercury auto commercials in the early aughts). And while you could see the effort behind most of the dramatic heavy lifting, her appeal extended beyond her good looks. But even a more seasoned performer would have wrestled with the genre fusion that Goyer et al. were attempting, so Wagner often mirrored her character’s struggle to understand what was going on around her.
But if Krista (or viewers) felt confused, it wasn’t for lack of exposition in the series. The show often stalled between Blade-vs.-vampire showdowns to allow characters to discuss just how bad things were getting, or to have a flashback (or, in Blade’s parlance, an “After Death Experience”). These stops produced an uneven mix, one that seemed to be the result of Goyer, Johns, and the rest wanting to keep the plot-to-jugs-and-ammo ratio somewhere near 1:1. But even if they’d won that war, they still have to contend with their own worst practices—namely, wanting to cram too much story into the series.
In addition to the shades of crime dramas like Donnie Brasco, this intermittent action fest also toyed with monsters of the week and a diverging storyline for a renegade vampire. It shouldn’t be surprising that the creators of a show with such a thumping soundtrack and fountains of blood would have trouble reining in some of their impulses, and Goyer and his writers—which included Tomb Of Dracula’s Marv Wolfman—left most of theirs unchecked. Where they didn’t go wild was in imagining the vampires, who mostly looked the same, whether they were the well-dressed, alabaster-skinned purebloods or the well-dressed, alabaster-skinned halfbloods who did their bidding.
But at least the vampiric hierarchy was fleshed out, with Marcus Van Sciver at the center of the class struggle. He was “turned” against his will, and spurred on by vengeance against a pureblood whose evil deeds were so numerous, he couldn’t recall having done Marcus wrong. But that just made his uneasy alliance with Blade all the more necessary. This was one arc that the show managed to follow right up to its messy conclusion. It wasn’t the most satisfying resolution, but the drama and redemption (where it could be found) felt somewhat earned.
Viewers didn’t feel the same way, though, as Blade: The Series’ ratings remained in a steady decline throughout its run. But looking back at its many moving pieces, the show appears almost prescient. There’s the use of Detroit as the backdrop for the horror scenarios, as well as providing social commentary through horror on the small screen (years before The Walking Dead picked up this thread from George Romero). The series also got the jump on the MCU, in a sense. It’s temping to describe it as overly ambitious, but it’s probably more apt to view the storytelling as a blood-spatter pattern, the kind that’s examined to help determine the cause of death, i.e., cancellation.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe, with some wondrous possibilities.