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Blade is a character who walks in two worlds. Narratively, the "Daywalker" has to exist simultaneously as a hero who's also a bit of a monster, a human with a vampire's strengths and a vampire's urges who must always keep himself in a certain kind of balance. The same is true not just of the character but of stories featuring Blade. In the right storyteller's hands, Blade can walk in the worlds of both superhero action movie and horror film.
Guillermo del Toro and David S. Goyer both seem to have instinctively understood that distinction, that balance, when they set out to craft Blade II. Released 20 years ago this month, the film still ranks as one of the most celebrated comic book movie sequels, but it doesn't just succeed in that realm. In Del Toro and Goyer's hands, Blade II works almost as well as a monster movie, and remains one of the scariest mainstream sequel movies out there thanks to the master monster maker who occupied the director's chair.
In laying out the foundation for a sequel that would both up the ante on the first film and deliver on what fans had come to expect from a Blade movie, Goyer started with the idea that vampirism is a virus that can mutate, and therefore become even more frightening under the right conditions. So we got the Reapers, super vampires who were immune to most of Blade's weapons; villains so scary that both Blade and the vampires he was used to fighting had reason to fear them. From this foundation, the two worlds of Blade's narrative personality could emerge.
On the superhero action side of things, you've got a Dirty Dozen-inspired reluctant superteam composed of Blade (Wesley Snipes), his old mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), his new gadget guy Scud (Norman Reedus), and a host of vampires including the formidable Dieter (Del Toro good luck charm Ron Perlman). It's a classic The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend setup, and allows Goyer to both build out the vampire universe present in the first film and get in plenty of macho posturing along the way. Blade gets to look cool, establish himself as the good guy, and even occasionally get the upper hand on his collaborators. It works, and it sets up some very compelling action along the way, from vampire ninjas tracking Blade down to his hideout to a climactic battle against a group of familiars.
Then there's the other side, the horror side, and while Del Toro excels at the fight scenes in Blade II, he proves even more skilled at weaving terrifying images into the superhero action of it all. The Reapers themselves, with their bifurcated jaws and proboscis-like tongues, are an extremely effective design that Del Toro's weaves slowly into the action, giving us peeks of their strange bite mechanism before unveiling the whole anatomy later. The scene in which Blade and his crew try to infiltrate a Reaper nest and end up getting chewed to pieces (sometimes literally) plays like a horrifying creature attack sequence out of a 1980s splatterfest, and occasionally Del Toro will paint the walls with blood like he's slipping a little bit of Italian giallo in among the modern comic book carnage. Finally, of course, there's the autopsy scene, where Del Toro takes his knack for monster making to its logical extreme and proves that even a dead Reaper can still be extremely scary.
But Del Toro's knack for making Blade II into something truly scary extends even beyond his ability with the film's monsters, into something he, Goyer, and Snipes managed to achieve in an act of near-perfect collaboration. Sequels are designed to up the ante, of course, but the best ones also tend to upset not just the status quo, but the entire worldview of various characters.
Think about The Empire Strikes Back and its reversal of fortune for our plucky heroes, or Terminator 2 and its use of a former villain as a reprogrammed hero, or Aliens and its war movie pacing. Some of the rules are ultimately the same, but the balance of power is upset in such a way that characters we've grown to care about are rocked to their core. Blade is, in Snipes' portrayal, a largely stoic character, cool as ice water and ready for anything. A lifetime of fighting has made him resistant to showing any sense of weakness, but in Blade II, Del Toro, Goyer, and Snipes spend much of the movie slowly revealing a scenario that can crack that hard exterior. They know you watched Blade, and now they're telling you "Remember that super cool guy with the sword who cracked a joke about ice skating uphill? This is what it takes to scare him." The film upsets Blade's entire conception of what he's fighting and why, to the point that by the end of the film even the alliances he thought he had are falling apart.
Because of the way the film is able to unravel Blade's own sense of self and purpose, alongside Del Toro's knack for creature feature moments of terror, Blade II becomes a sequel capable of really rattling its audience. Even 20 years later, with a new incarnation of Blade on the horizon, it's still capable of casting that spell.