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Twenty Years Later, Blade Still Slays Its Vampire-Flick Competition

Looking back at how the Wesley Snipes movie resurrected the comic-book film and injected new blood into the vampire genre.

by | August 20, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by © New Line Cinema)

Blade truly has the longevity of the undead. Released a full two decades ago – it landed, swords swinging, in theaters on August 21, 1998 – it is remembered as one of, if not the, pre-eminent vampire movie of the ’90s. (That’s against tough competition that includes Interview with the Vampire and the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Critics at the time drove a stake through director Stephen Norrington’s Blade (it has a Tomatometer score of 54%), but the comic-book–inspired vampire martial arts movie had a cultural life long after death. It spawned two sequels – one of them a criminally underrated entry on Guillermo del Toro’s IMDB page – a TV series, an anime series, and a host of imitators. And over the years it has gained an Audience Score of 78%, with almost 500,000 people registering their reviews.

Why are audiences still thirsting for Blade after all this time? Why do we keep going back to the Blade well, some 45 years after the character first appeared in Marvel comics and 2o years after he made his big screen debut? If you dare to continue, we have five reasons why the character and film have stood the test of time.


1. IT WAS A CAREER-DEFINING ROLE FOR WESLEY SNIPES

In the ’90s, Spike Lee alum Wesley Snipes was transitioning out of drama and into action. After a blowout performance in Demolition Man, Snipes found himself in a host of middling action-thrillers until landing the lead role in Blade. Playing the titular half-vampire, Snipes embodied the role he was born to play – a character that allowed him to capitalize on his martial arts prowess and his natural intensity. Snipes became Blade, imbuing the iconic character with tragic humanity along with the badassery, making the vampire slayer an instant icon that resonated with audiences.

So great was Wesley Snipes’ portrayal, audiences rejected the 2006 Blade TV series, which starred Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones instead as the slayer (despite the show not being too bad). To this day, some fans are begging for Marvel to somehow get Blade – Snipes’ Blade – into the MCU, where Marvel’s most successful onscreen black superhero could meet its first.


2. IT COMPLETELY REPACKAGED A COMIC-BOOK CHARACTER FOR MODERN AUDIENCES

It’s no exaggeration to say that Norrington, screenwriter David Goyer, and Wesley Snipes reinvented Blade, a character that had languished to some degree in comic book obscurity. Debuting in Tomb of Dracula #10 (1973), Blade quickly became a fan favorite for his big attitude, immunity to vampire bites, wooden throwing knives, and his relentless quest to kill Deacon Frost, the vampire who’d killed his mother. Only slightly more brash than his Hammer Horror-inspired co-leads, Blade soon found himself adrift, a relic of his era, as the years passed.

Goyer’s script reimagined Blade as the kind of slick, black-leather–wearing martial-artist protagonist who would become the model for post-Matrix action movies of the ’00s. He was again very much of his time, but his time was now – and the reinvention worked. No more wooden blades: Blade used a silver-edged katana and glaives. No more holy water: Blade used anti-vampire serums that made victims explode in waves of gore. Waves of gore!

Forget what you know. This is Blade.


3. IT FEATURED A GREAT SCRIPT BY DAVID GOYER

Once upon a time, Goyer was known for The Crow: City of Angels (a gory 12% on the Tomatometer), the supremely underrated Dark City (Certified Fresh at 74%), and a bevy of direct-to-video features. Blade’s release would kickstart a career turnaround that would make him a household name synonymous with comic-book feature films. He has writing credits on all three Blade movies, all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He has also contributed to the Constantine, Flash, and Krypton TV series – and that’s without mentioning his non-comic book-inspired features.

Goyer’s hardboiled, character-centric approach was key to selling Blade‘s vampire-infested Detroit. It grounded the character’s all-new mythology of secret societies and paranoia. Ultimately, it was instrumental in reviving the comic-book film after Batman & Robin soured critics and audiences the year prior. Which leads us to our next point.


4. IT HELPED RESURRECT COMIC BOOK MOVIES

By the early 1990s, when it came to superhero movies, there was Batman and there was only Batman. So successful had Tim Burton’s two Batman movies been, they became fully emblematic of the superhero genre; so when Batman & Robin failed with critics and audiences, the genre seemed doomed. Blade’s release the following year, however, illustrated many things:

  • Comic-based movies didn’t have to involve superheroes.
  • Comic-based movies didn’t have to be mawkish or over-the-top.
  • Characters other than Batman and Superman could succeed.
  • Superhero fare could be for adult audiences. And very freaking violent.

5. IT WAS R-RATED BEFORE IT WAS COOL

Sometimes we act like like DeadpoolKick-Ass, and Logan are part of some new, violent, and cuss-filled phenomenon, but the Blade series started it all with endless f-bombs, no-holds-barred action, buckets of gore, and, in the sequel, del Toro’s signature creature effects. Again, Blade was an exception in its own time – while rival franchises like Spider-Man adopted a quirky ’60s vibe, and the X-Men films dripped in formality and stilted humor, the Blade series proved that the genre could be slick, versatile, and adult-oriented.

That, too, paved the way for adult-oriented comic-book adaptations including Constantine, V for Vendetta, and The Losers. Even Zack Snyder’s Watchmen owes a debt of gratitude to Blade‘s stylized martial arts and unflinching bloodshed.

And now Deadpool’s doing it, because of course he is.


Blade was released in theaters August 21, 1998

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