“The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it: the real world.”
Wrapping up the month of February – Superhero Month here at SAW – with a bit of a crossover film. (Constantine last week SORTA counts, but John’s not really a superhero. Or even a hero, really.) When Blade came out in 1998 I had no real expectations. I had some vague memories of the character from the old Tomb of Dracula comics, but no real connection or affection for the character beyond that. (I do love me some Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Dracula comics, though.)
In addition, I didn’t have any real faith that a Marvel comic could be adapted well. It’s hard to imagine now, in the wake of The Avengers et al, but at the time Blade was released the most recent Marvel films were Howard the Duck in 1986 and The Punisher in 1989 – neither of which set the box office on fire. Even worse, the only other Marvel property I’d seen in the 90’s was the unreleased Fantastic Four movie produced by Roger Corman. Not exactly a stellar outing.
The bottom line is: I wasn’t expecting much, and I was blown away. It was the first time I’d seen a superhero movie that FELT like a superhero move – at least in the Marvel sense. Superman and Batman were great as well, but with DC films, and those in particular, I always felt a certain distance, a coldness. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those films – Superman in particular – but I’d grown up a Marvel fan, and I felt like Blade upped the action and the drama, gave us a hero with believable flaws and placed him in a world that was like ours, but heightened. The lights were brighter, the shadows darker.
I remember thinking, “damn, maybe we’re finally on the cusp of making some decent Marvel superhero films.” And we were. X-Men in 2000, Spider-Man in 2002 and Iron Man in 2008. Everything since then (DC films included). Would any of them have happened had Blade bombed at the box office? Maybe – Spider-Man in particular had a long gestation period – but I think it would have been harder, and budgets might have been tighter. Who knows, really, but I think of Blade as the first film of the modern Marvel cinematic era. For good or bad.
I decided to watch Blade as a stand-alone film, and this review is based on that without much consideration for the sequels. The followup films may have better effects and even be better films overall (hard to beat Del Toro), but I wanted to give Blade it’s due as a groundbreaking superhero film with a touch of horror.
I have a DVD box set of the three Blade Films. The picture quality isn’t great, but it’s serviceable and there are a bunch of extras on each disk. I’m not sure why I haven’t picked up the 2012 Blu-ray yet, but it’s on the list. If you’re looking for a UHD release, a 4k version came out in December 2020.
For streaming options, Sling is the only service that includes Blade for subs at the moment. It can be rented or purchased at any number of online vendors and shows up regularly on SyFy, if you can handle commercials and edits.
Blade starts strong – first with the literal birth of the main character (and death of his mother) and then by one of the most iconic action sequences in the film. A hapless party boy (Kenny Johnson) is dragged to a rave at a meat packing plant by party girl Racquel (Traci Lords). Unfortunately this is more than just an industrial pop-up party, it’s a literal slaughterhouse where blood rains from the sprinklers and vampires dance to techno, before baring fangs and playing with their food. It’s a striking sequence as the blood flickers in the strobe lights and the beautiful people turn to blood-slicked terrors.
And then Blade (Wesley Snipes) shows up.
This sort of underground undead scene, a hedonistic display of excess, was part of the 90’s revamp (sorry) of the vampire mythos. With roleplaying games like Vampire: The Masquerade, TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ann Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, the gothic bloodsuckers were becoming sexy, modern monsters, whose long life gave them influence in society AND the need to party their unlife away. They were still (mostly) monsters, though – sparkling Byronesque boyfriend vamps were still a decade or so away.
This scene also cements the superhero vibe, despite the horror trappings. Blade is presented in bright light, immobile in black leather as the blood soaked vamps push and tremble and hiss around him. The camera shots are all angled upwards as well, making everything seems bigger, epic. The action sequence that follows looks a little static and staged now, but at the time it was one of the best fight scenes in a comic book film – with guns, stakes, blades, flames and disintegrating vampires everywhere, all set to that pounding techno beat.
Nothing else in the film quite lives up to that introduction, but it’s still all neo noir cool, with Blade driving around the city in his suped-up Dodge Charger, the sunset mostly seen as shadows growing on the sides of buildings until the darkness engulfs the city, black leather coats flapping in non-existent breezes and industrial safehouses looking like the depths of Morlock country.
One of Blade’s victims from the party, Quinn (Donal Logue), ends up at the local morgue. He’s not really dead, despite his crispy appearance, and he bites hematologist Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright) before escaping from a returning Blade. Karen is brought to Blade’s safehouse where his associate, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) tries to save her from becoming a vampire. Here she learns about Blade – that he’s half-human and half-vampire and possesses some of their abilities while being immune to sunlight – and about his and Whistler’s campaign to kill vampires.
She takes this fairly well, considering.
Vampires in Blade are a well-establish oligarchy, ruling mankind from the shadows and exerting their influence on daily life from the politicians to the police to the corporations. It’s really their world, and we just live in it. For Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a second-class vampire (there’s a distinction between those ‘born’ as vampires, and those “merely turned”), this isn’t enough. He’s tired of living in a world where vampires have to hide from their food. He wants to RULE.
Watching the film now there’s all sorts of subtext that I either missed in the action rush the first time or is just more obvious at this late date. Deacon insists that he and Blade have a lot in common – they both resist a status quo that favors the rich and the powerful over the average person. It just happens that their definition of “person” differs. Blade’s comment to Karen about “there is another world beneath” the one she’s been living in also resonates when spoken by a black man in a world where “Black Lives Matter” is a rallying cry. And then there’s the whole concept of the world being better if everyone gets turned into a vampire – it’ll all be okay if we’re all just like the white guy trying to save us.
The threads of Frost’s machinations to usurp the vampire hierarchy and bring about the return of an ancient blood god called La Magra, Blade’s attempt to take him down, and Karen’s research into a cure (for both Blade’s condition and hers – Whistler’s ministrations having failed to completely stop her vampiric infection) all come to a head in an ancient vampire temple. Blade – the Daywalker – turns out to be the key to La Magra’s summoning. These scenes mix Oedipal conflict, dodgy CGI, excellent set design and some mixed-results combat into a mélange that actually still works fairly well, even if the sword fight looks almost as dodgy as flying CGI skeletons.
One of the things I remember distinctly from watching this film the first time is a fairly minor consideration in the long term. When Blade lands (“superhero landing!”) or gets a punch in or anything else fairly robust happens in the scene the camera shakes. Like the impact is so strong that it even affects the third-person construct of the viewer. That’s a normal part of most action films now, but I first saw it in Blade and I was impressed and excited about it – it made it feel super-heroic, epic, and pointed the way to a heightened visual sensibility that superhero films require. Minor, but pivotal.
The original ending for Blade saw Deacon winning – the summoning of La Magra would send out a wave around the world that turned the vast majority of humankind into vampires, setting up a sequel in which Blade and a handful of humans were the minority (shades of Last Man on Earth). With a sequel not guaranteed the ending was changed, but I wonder about that story sometimes.
Instead, Blade turns down Karen’s cure, preferring to stay in the shadows and continue the fight. (Sans Whistler, who dies off-screen – leaving his return a possibility, though one that isn’t followed up on.)
While some parts of the film have aged less well than others – some acting seems incredibly flat and affectless now, for instance, and some action scenes suffer in comparison to modern fight choreography – Blade remains surprisingly effective and enjoyable, with more depth than it seemed at first glance. It misses being a true classic of the genre by being a bit short in artistic vision, but only a bit. (Screenwriter David S. Goyer says that David Fincher was a possible director at one point, and I can’t help but wonder what THAT film would have looked like.)
The Bottom Line
Blade is still a damn cool movie, with plenty of action, blood and iconic imagery bolstered by decent performances (Kristofferson is particularly good) and a great soundtrack. Blade did exceptionally well at the box office, spawning two sequels and a TV series (and an upcoming remake starring Mahershala Ali), and paving the way for the modern superhero film. I may be overstating its importance to the modern superhero film, but for me this is where it all started.