In the last decade, the Marvel cinematic universe has become a seemingly unstoppable box office juggernaut, but it was an adaptation of a horror comic released 20 years ago that proved Marvel comics could be successful in movie form. Released in theaters on August 21, 1998, Blade slayed at the box office and set the blueprint for not just the two sequels that followed but all future Marvel features; bankable leads and a director with a distinct visual style tailor-made for the eponymous Marvel character equals success. Twenty years later, Blade holds up well not just as an action horror film but for its historical relevance to the dominating genre of superhero adaptations.
In the case of Blade, having Wesley Snipes at the height of his popularity in the starring role plus special effects artist turned director Stephen Norrington meant bringing something wholly new to the big screen. Even better, at least from a horror standpoint, is that the studio behind the film is none other than New Line Cinema, or “The House that Freddy Built.” The dark tone is established from the opening sequence, with Traci Lords’ vampire seductress luring her victim into the bowels of a meat processing plant where a rave is being held. She loses her guest in the thick of the crowd just in time for the sprinkler system to unleash a torrential downpour of blood. It’s right as the unsuspecting date is about to become vampire chow that we’re introduced to Snipes’ Blade, a ruthless vampire hunter that easily dispatches all of the hired vampire security in the room.
Snipes plays Blade as a stoic killing machine; his mother was bitten by a vampire while giving birth, leaving him with the thirst and strength of a vampire, but the tolerance of the sun and garlic as a human. Blade is dubbed the protector of humans, but he’s really just a mean slaying machine embittered by his situation. When one of Blade’s victims escapes his clutches and bites hematologist Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), Karen then becomes the audience proxy to submerge us in Blade’s violent, bloody world.
Through Karen, we learn the vampire world has a structured hierarchy in place, and that the primary antagonist is looking to become the blood god La Magra and rule the vampire race. That villain, Deacon Frost, bears no resemblance to his comic counterpart but that’s also a major win for the movie. Stephen Dorff is a highlight of the film, his ambitious but youthful vampire a perfect balance to the quiet detachment of Blade.
With an antihero that never loses focus on his sole mission of vampire genocide, it helps to make the vampires monstrous, and Blade nailed that aspect. Refreshingly, this action-horror doesn’t romanticize its bloodsucking beasts. Frost’s minion Quinn (Donal Logue) is gruesome as a burnt crispy corpse that tries to make Karen a meal. Pearl answered the question of what happens when an older vampire becomes morbidly obese, which in turn begs the question; how much does a vampire have to eat to become to large? It set the stage for the more horrific type of vampires that would follow in the sequels.
Blade is a character of few words, and both the script (by David S. Goyer) and the actors imbue the characters with depth without dialogue. Blade’s main ally and mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) is seen in one of his earliest scenes haphazardly filling Blade’s Charger with fuel, spilling it everywhere, and then immediately striking up a match to smoke. It’s an unspoken moment that paints Whistler as a character with disregard for his own life, followed up later with the reveal that his character is dying from cancer. Frost’s lover and second in command, Mercury (Arly Jover), barely has a handful of lines in the entire film, yet she feels like a fully realized character because of her actions and facial expressions.
Blade demonstrated that a Marvel movie could be more than just action. The fight sequences, action scenes, and high energy soundtrack all made for an addictive action movie, sure, but Blade has more depth than it could’ve gotten away with. Snipes is Blade, and Deacon Frost is easily the best villain of the trilogy thanks to Dorff. It’s appropriate that 2018 marks the year that Marvel finally returns to horror with the upcoming Venom (and The New Mutants had it not gotten pushed back), 20 years after Blade’s release. But at the same time, Blade proved there was a fanbase for horror comic adaptations, so what took so long? Either way, save for some CG work that shows its age, Blade holds up remarkably well. Here’s to 20 more years.