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Opinion As we prepare to celebrate ‘Black Panther,’ let’s not forget ‘Blade’

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in a scene from “Black Panther.” (Matt Kennedy via Marvel Studios)
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The worst part of the life cycle of any dörkenkultur event is the week or two ahead of its release, once the swells in the filmblogging community have had a chance to see it while sitting next to celebrities at the premiere and start building up hype on their Twitter feeds, claiming that this new thing is definitely the best thing of all time and also the most original thing of all time and definitely a thing that all people who care about things will need to see.

Monday night’s “Black Panther” premiere was no different, naturally, though it came with an added annoyance of having to hear about the film being the first superhero movie with a lead black character. As USA Today put it, “The first superhero movie to star a black lead character — with Chadwick Boseman playing an African king, and director Ryan Coogler at the helm — had its world premiere on Monday night in Hollywood.”

While I want to be polite, I feel the urge to shout from the rooftops that this is ahistorical bunkum being propagated by people who are either utterly ignorant or unwittingly in the service of Disney’s marketing department. It’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, it’s going to be huge, we don’t need to be lied to, we don’t need to erase our past.

We don’t need to forget about 1998’s “Blade.”

Now, look: “Blade” wasn’t the first superhero movie to star a black lead character either (more on its predecessors in a moment). But it was the movie that served as a proof of concept for Marvel’s jump into the world of big budget licensed filmmaking. If you want to look at the current glut of superhero movies, “Blade” is as good a place to start as any.

Granted, Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Richard Donner’s “Superman” had been smash hits years earlier. But “Blade” — which starred African American Wesley Snipes as the titular half-human, half-vampire daywalker who hunted bloodsuckers — showed that Marvel’s future lay not in glossy-paged comic books but in licensing, in turning its vast library of characters into filmable material that would appeal to the masses.

“Blade” preceded Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” (2000) and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002) by a couple years, showing that you could make something slick and stylish out of disreputable trash. The film took full advantage of the fact that Snipes was one of the great action stars of the 1990s, combining a devilish grin with mediocre martial arts and great comic timing. The special effects capabilities of the film industry weren’t quite there yet — Blade’s final fight with Stephen Dorff’s vampire god was cringeworthy, even at the time, and today it looks like something from the 1960s — but the film served its purpose both artistically and commercially, tripling its budget worldwide.

2002’s “Blade II,” helmed by horror maestro and likely Best Director winner at this year’s Oscars, Guillermo Del Toro, showed that with a little skill behind the camera and a good eye for design, you could turn the slick and stylish into something that is borderline great. A little auteurism never hurt any studio product, and the thing that jumps out most about “Blade II” now is just how much it looks and feels and sounds like a Del Toro production. It wasn’t the first auteurist superhero film (see: Burton, Tim), but it had more life and verve than practically anything from the MCU so far.

We shan’t discuss “Blade: Trinity” (2004).

But “Blade” — which, again, was released two decades ago this year — is neither the first nor the only comic book film to star a black lead. A year before “Blade” came out, the world was introduced to “Spawn,” the Michael Jai White-starring action-horror superhero film from the Image comic of the same name created by industry superstar Todd Macfarlane. Also in 1997 we got “Steel,” starring Shaquille O’Neal. Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier’s “Blankman” (1994) is probably more a parody film than a comic book hero film, but still.

Well, okay, but “Black Panther” is definitely the first mega-budget superhero film to star a black man, right? No, actually: that distinction goes to “Hancock” (2008), the Will Smith-starring antihero action-comedy that had a budget of $150 million. Smith, we should note, has a long history of being a black lead in comic book films, given his role in the three “Men in Black” movies (which were released in 1997, 2002, and 2012) and his starring turn as Deadshot in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

Fine, but “Black Panther” has to be the first superhero film directed by a black person, right? That would be news to Robert Townsend, who directed “The Meteor Man” in 1993, a full quarter century ago.

“Black Panther” may be good. It may be great! It may be the best film of the year and win all the Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards. But please, when you’re writing about it or tweeting about it or chatting about it with friends, don’t describe it as “the first this” or “a groundbreaking that.” Instead, let’s try and label “Black Panther” what it really is: The 18th film in a multi-billion-dollar mega franchise being released by an enormous corporation currently feeling heat for a monopolistic merger that is happy to accept all the political cover it can from the woke set.

This is not to suggest that “Black Panther” is intended solely, or even primarily, as a shiny object to distract from Disney’s proposed $52.4 billion merger with 21st Century Fox, a move that will only narrow the field of options for fans of mid-budget filmmaking. But it’s hard to imagine that the good folks residing in the House of Mouse are upset by a redirection of focus onto their supposedly historically diverse movie and away from antitrust concerns.