This week is the 20th anniversary of 1998’s Blade. There had been plenty of movies that had superhero characters before it, but superhero films had not yet developed the tropes and clichés we now take for granted.
The genre would not truly begin to fully crystallize until the early 21st century with the release of X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The superhero movies that came before this were radically different in tone and content. Tim Burton’s noir take on Batman didn’t feel like it was in the same genre as the bright Superman from Richard Donner, which was a mash-up of the screwball comedy and disaster film genres. The campy 1966 Batman feels like a James Bond spoof, and earlier examples that carried some superhero DNA, such as The Mark of Zorro, were swashbucklers.
Because the genre did not yet have an identity, the filmmakers behind Blade had a bit more freedom than they might have today. This freedom leads to one of the most unusual (and, frankly, best) character introductions in superhero movie history. Blade opens with a woman (played by Traci Lords) walking a man into a meat-packing plant. After leading him through grungy freezers and past hanging meat carcasses, she guides him past a bouncer and into an underground rave. Enjoying himself at first, a sign reading “Blood Bath” appears behind the DJ and the sprinkler system sprays blood over the ravers.
Freaking out, as one would, the man tries to get away, but the other dancers prevent his escape, revealing their fangs. Everyone and everything in the room is soaked in blood; it makes the ending of Carrie look restrained. We follow the man, crawling to escape, until he reaches a pair of black leather boots. The camera then pans up to reveal Blade (Wesley Snipes), his clean black costume contrasting with the red of the blood-soaked dancefloor. At this point, the scene shifts from horror to action, giving us a very enjoyable sequence reminiscent of a Hong Kong action film, with Blade mowing down one vampire after another.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a superhero film beginning this way today. Because the expectations of the genre were still fluid, Blade could open like a horror film, frightening the viewer by putting them in the perspective of a man lured into a trap by bloodsucking monsters. The scene prepares us to be frightened, but when Blade arrives, the tone abruptly shifts. With virtually no dialogue, we know exactly who Blade is. He is a badass. He enters a scene from a horror film and immediately the predatory monsters become fodder to be dispatched. Through his entrance, the character has changed the genre of the movie, and our expectations.
If I were to list the top ten superhero movie scenes, that opening scene would probably still make the list. Blade never quite reaches that level again, but it remains enjoyable throughout. Blade is a half-vampire who hunts other vampires with the help of his mechanic/weaponsmith sidekick, Whistler. One night, Blade saves a human doctor (and haematologist) from a vampire attack. She uses her expertise in blood to work on a cure for Blade’s bloodlust as well as her own vampiric infection. Meanwhile, Blade must go up against young vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who is planning a coup against the vampire hierarchy, which will have dire implications for humanity.
Even though the film is 20 years old, the plot’s social commentary, both implied and direct, feels timely even today. Blade doesn’t shy away from confronting the racial dynamics of vampirism; screenwriter David S. Goyer recently told Entertainment Weekly that he “wanted to talk about race in a subversive way,” and while flawed, Blade accomplishes this. In the past, the vampire myth has been used as a xenophobic metaphor for the Other (Dracula is at least in part the story of a dangerous Eastern European immigrant threatening a Western family), but Blade turns that tradition on its head. Here, the vampire hunter and the doctor working to cure vampirism are African-American and the vampires are, almost exclusively, white. Extending the metaphor, the vampires control the systems that control society, from banks and real estate markets to the police. In the era of Black Lives Matter, the image of a black superhero challenging a white power structure, vampiric or otherwise, continues to hold relevance.
The vampires are also coded with socioeconomic privilege. When we are introduced to the vampire council, they are sitting around a long table wearing expensive suits. They look more like a Fortune 500 company’s board of directors than supernatural monsters. They even make passing references to real estate holdings and “off-shore accounts.” Frost, meanwhile, is representative of the cool, young Silicon Valley billionaires created by the tech boom. Indeed, the innovative use of technology plays a large role in Frost’s corporate takeover of the vampire world. In one scene he is shown listening to music while surrounded by digital vampire archives and a super computer working on translating the ancient texts that will allow Frost to take over the world.
Frost’s conflict with the vampire council is largely generational, but there is a racial component here as well. He was turned rather than born a vampire and so is not considered a “pure blood” (the aristocracy of the vampire hierarchy). To drive this point home, the film uses real-world racial epithets such as “half-breed” and “Uncle Tom” to describe turned vampires and vampires who work with humans, such as Blade. The racial allegory gets a bit muddled here, and doesn’t quite work, but it is interesting that both the hero and the villain are fighting against supremacist bigotry. In Frost’s case, this is the Pureblood supremacy of the vampire council. In Blade’s, it is the vampire supremacy of Frost, and on a metaphorical level, white supremacy in that he is a black hero fighting almost exclusively white enemies. The best villains are dark reflections of their heroes, so this parallel creates an effective (if not fully explored) dynamic.
Aside from the interesting commentary on race and social class, Blade also has some fantastic fight scenes. None of them are on the level of The Matrix, but it is never boring to watch Wesley Snipes pull out a sword to fight wave after wave of vampires. The film’s biggest failing is that after the rave, it doesn’t successfully use the tropes of the horror genre again. There are a lot of attempts at body horror that fall completely flat due to the limitations of early CGI. Blade eventually gets a weapon that causes vampires’ blood to swell and explode, and the effect is just terrible (CGI blood still doesn’t look good, back then it was simply god awful). They should have stuck to practical effects and continued to play off of the horror tropes.
Still, while not perfect, Blade remains a fun action movie with some surprising social commentary. Obviously superhero movies would become much more sophisticated after this, and plenty of them are better films, but the roughness of the genre at this point gives Blade a certain charm. There is something to be said for being free to play around in a genre that does not yet have firmly defined boundaries and expectations.