Twenty-five years ago — on August 21st, 1998 — the superhero cinema age began with Wesley Snipes’ Blade. Marvel would go on to create a slew of stunningly popular, interconnected movies featuring violently gritty martial arts, grotesque horror special effects, monosyllabic protagonists, and uncomfortable incest themes.
Or maybe that didn’t exactly happen. A quarter century on, rewatching Blade, what’s most striking about it is how utterly divorced it is from the tone, themes, and approach of X-Men and the MCU films to follow. Blade is less the start of something than it is a road emphatically not taken—a super-flight where the super-flier refused to leap into the sky, and instead insisted on heading for some dank sewer, ripe with weirdness.
The non-MCUness of Blade begins at the conception. Blade the character was created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan in 1973 as a bit player in a not especially well-known horror title, The Tomb of Dracula. He was substantially reworked for the film by writer David Goyer and director Stephen Norrington with little protest from a fandom that was not the main audience for the movie in any case. There was no real nostalgic synergy to get butts in seats or goose pre-release hype, nor was there meant to be. For better or worse, Blade stood on his own.
Where he stood was in a horror/pulp/Blaxploitation/B-movie byway rarely explored by his successors. In this version, Blade is a child born to a woman who herself had just been vampire bit. When he grows up he has a vampire’s lust for blood, strength, and healing, but no weaknesses to garlic, silver, or sunlight. He creates a formula to keep the bloodlust at bay, and with the help of his trusty crotchety assistant Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), he dedicates himself to killing vampires.
The movie sets about with that vampire killing almost immediately. Superhero films these days generally spend a lot of narrative introducing the characters before they get powers; the moment when our hero builds the armor or gets injected with the super-soldier serum or first leaps across the rooftops has a big buildup, complete with soaring music to signal self-actualization.
Not Blade, though. After a brief flashback, we’re led into a sweaty, sexy vampire techno dance floor, with a sprinkler system that improbably sprays blood. The vamps are about to start in sucking on a terrified victim when Blade shows up with very large silver-bullet-shooting guns, swords and various other implements of destruction. He then starts in killing absolutely everyone.
Wesley Snipes is an accomplished martial artist who enjoys doing his own stunts, and his leather-clad, sunglass-wearing, impassive Blade is impossibly cool as he blasts, slashes, and high-kicks his way through an endless supply of hapless stuntmen, each of whom dutifully explodes in a shower of skeletal fragments and sparks when they are dispatched, thanks to charmingly rudimentary CGI. The fights are obviously inspired by Hong Kong cinema, and you feel every sweat-soaked, blood-soaked bone break. It’s a far cry from the sleek, quasi-animated, computer graphics-everywhere style of the MCU.
Blade’s off-the-shelf plot is more familiar—an upstart megalomaniac vampire dude named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) is trying to bring about some sort of ill-defined vampire apocalypse using Blade’s magical Daywalker blood. But since Blade doesn’t have to set up a slew of franchise plot points or launch other superheroes for other movies, it can treat its narrative scaffolding as background, and focus more on those awesome fight scenes and other assorted set pieces.
Which it does, to great effect. There’s a marvelous chase scene in a subway tunnel, with lights from the passing trains turning the fights and stunts into a surreal expressionless strobe. There’s the squicky, almost off-hand revelation that Blade’s mother Vanessa (Sanaa Lathan) didn’t die and is now a cheerily amoral vampire mass murderer with maybe unmotherly designs on her son. There’s the blood-drinking consummation of Blade’s will-they/won’t they relationship with hematologist Karen Jensen (N’Bushe Wright).
And there’s a wonderful scene where Blade goes to pick up his formula from an Afrocentric head shop. The cool, hip owner seems fully apprised of Blade’s vampire status and unique addiction, and he and our hero exchange heartfelt dap and clasp post purchase.
That small love-nod to Black culture and Black community echoes throughout the film. Superhero movies have started featuring non-white protagonists over the past five years or so, but a movie in which a Black man is the sole hero fighting a white guy who wants to feed on his blood still feels unusually forthright twenty-five years on. Deacon Frost calls Blade an “Uncle Tom” for killing other vampires, and Snipes’ response is utterly expressionless contempt. The white guy doesn’t get to dictate what it means to be true to the cause of liberation. Not in this movie.
I’ll admit, I’d probably overall like the MCU more if it were less clean line CGI and witty quips and more bizarre semi-surreal one-liners like “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill” delivered by Snipes with a disturbingly, incongruously cheerful smile. Ultimately, though, I think the reason Blade feels so refreshing is less because it picked this particular grungy, funky R-rated path than because it so decisively chose a path of its own.
The MCU can be fun, and it’s even had some success incorporating the work of creators with idiosyncratic visions, styles and contributions, from the ad-libbing Robert Downey, Jr. to director Taika Waititi to Wakanda costume designer Ruth E. Carter. (We’ll have to wait until 2025 to find out whether the reboot of Blade with Mahershala Ali in the title role continues on this path.) Even at its best, though, the MCU always feels very conscious of its own logistics, as it tries to get this character to that plot point while staying within the carefully delineated boundaries of a well-established house style.
Blade had less baggage and more room to find the movie it wanted to be, Afrocentric head shop, uphill ice-skates and all. I don’t think many people would call it great or world-changing or ground-breaking. But it’s a movie that doesn’t feel like it wants to be, or even could be, anything but itself. As a result, even on rewatching, it retains the ability to surprise, to delight, and to make you exclaim, “Oh my god, grotesquely exploding vampire heads…why?!” When you look into those mirrored sunglasses, it’s hard not to think that superhero movies were maybe better before superhero movies figured out exactly what they were going to be, and filed down the fangs.