Twenty years before “Black Panther”, Marvel partnered with New Line to release a black-led superhero movie which would see them help kick-start the current superhero boom as well as changing the course of their movie adaptations to that point.
Born as his mother was dying from a vampire attack, Blade (Wesley Snipes) possesses all of the vampire’s strengths and none of their weaknesses, save one: he thirsts for blood, a craving he keeps at bay with a special serum. Guided by his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), he wages a one-man war against the hidden vampire race, making him the only one who can stop ambitious vampire Deacon Frost (Steven Dorff) and his plan to transform himself into La Magra, the vampire blood god.
This is the film where Marvel as we’ve come to know them started. With flops like “Howard: A New Breed Of Hero” and straight-to-video underperformers such as 1989’s “The Punisher” starring Dolph Lundgren and 1992’s “Captain America” starring Matt Singer, this was their first theatrically released success and, ironically, it came in the form of a dark and violent take on superheroism, written for the screen by Davis S Goyer and produced by a division of Warner Bros.
Goyer blended the character’s comic book adventures to bring him to the screen fully formed, as opposed to the gradual evolution of the powers and abilities of the character through his conflicts with Deacon Frost, Dracula and Morbius. Blade’s origin story is told briefly and economically over the opening credits, meaning we get straight to the action – and what action it is! Director Stephen Norrington – still five years away from having his artistic confidence shattered by Sean Connery – brings an illicit underground energy to the opening scenes, leaving viewers in little doubt as to what’s in store thanks to a pulsating club scene which leaves the cast and screen drenched in blood. Rarely has a superhero exploded onto the mainstream stage in such gloriously deranged fashion.
“Blade” opens with a set-piece which most action horrors would be lucky to count as their grand finale and while some of the vampire dusting effects may be showing their age a little, borrowed as they were from TV’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, they’re still mightily effective.
The film works so well because it works as an effective vampire horror movie and a superhero tale simultaneously, without ever doing either down. Snipes is tailor-made for the role of Blade and, one goofy fist-pump early on aside, exudes taciturn coolness, leaving much of the curmudgeonly comic relief to Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler, a grizzled mentor figure so integral to the success of the main character that his death in this movie would be retconned for the sequel. Not that Snipes is devoid of dialogue, making Blade a man of few words but choice ones nonetheless.
It does a good job of building a credible world where vampires could exist alongside humanity without ever really being discovered, the gritty urban setting providing a myriad of shadows, cloisters and structures in which to lurk and thrive.
Dorff’s Deacon Frost is a very 1990’s take on vampirism, all swaggering, smouldering sex appeal and brash, grungy insolence. There’s an underplayed racial tension at the heart of his plan to tear down the stultifying vampire status quo, run by a council of purebloods led by Dragonetti (Udo Kier, alas not reprising his haematemetic turn from “Andy Warhol’s Blood For Dracula”). Frost sees the world differently and is tired of his leaders making backroom deals with what he sees as food.
He’s an effective villain although you never really get the sense that he’s an insurmountable threat to Blade, the drama coming more from how much collateral damage Blade will suffer in taking him down.
Although it would have been Stan Lee’s first theatrical movie cameo in a Marvel film, his brief appearance as a cop at the aftermath of the blood club ended up on the cutting room floor. He may not have ended up in the finished film – he’d have to wait until 2000’s “X-Men” for his Marvel movie debut proper – “Blade” is absolutely the reason he would have the chance to stand on that beach and gawk at the freshly mutated Senator Kelly emerging from the waves, setting off an unparalleled series of cameos which would see him eclipse even Alfred Hitchcock as the king of walk-on appearances.
“Blade” was the first real evidence that a previously unknown (to the general audience) superhero movie could succeed without the cache of name recognition that the big hitters like “Batman” and “Superman” had been able to leverage. Without it there would be no “X-Men”, no “Spider-Man” and no MCU. If it didn’t deserve to be rewatched and celebrated on its own merits (and it absolutely does), then its legacy alone would earn it a place in the superhero movie hall of fame.