It can be easy to forget that we haven’t always lived in a superhero age. Over the past decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to so thoroughly dominate the modern entertainment industry that it seems silly to consider a time where such stories weren't guaranteed critical and commercial hits. These sagas are, of course, nothing new. The old serials of the Golden Age had plenty of men in tights and the 1990s were in part defined by everyone's attempts to replicate the success of Batman. What is so striking about Tim Burton's industry-shaking film is how its copycats didn't go the expected routes. Batman's titan success didn't lead to, say, a splurge of other Gotham-adjacent adaptations or dives into the classic characters of Marvel and DC. Instead, we got deep cuts into the pulp age of Batman's origins, like Disney's much-hyped Dick Tracy or the adaptation of cult comic Tank Girl. The comic book movie age had officially started but not in the way history had predicted, and Marvel wouldn't make its first major mark in a way anyone could have anticipated.
Twenty years ago, Blade premiered. Directed by Stephen Norrington, written by David S. Goyer and starring Wesley Snipes, Blade was not an obvious choice for either a comic book adaptation or a traditional summer blockbuster. It hadn’t been Snipes’ first choice either, as he had originally hoped to star in an adaptation of Black Panther. Snipes would later confess that, when he was approached with Blade, he thought the story was a spoof. Vampire movies had their moment earlier in the decade with Interview with the Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had premiered in 1997, but the notion of a slick, ultra-stylish R-rated vampire action horror with a black protagonist and tinges of Afrofuturism that was adapted from a Marvel comic was new territory. It didn’t help that it would be only the second Marvel property to get a wide theatrical release in the United States. The first was Howard the Duck, and we all know how that went.
Yet Blade was a major hit, making back almost three times its $45m budget and kickstarting a franchise that would gross over $415m worldwide. Talk has bubbled for a few years of a Blade reboot, now that the film rights have reverted back to Marvel Studios, but it’s worth revisiting that first film to understand what it kickstarted for the brand long before Iron Man made it a powerhouse.
Blade is so very 1990s in style. The thumping drum & bass music, the sea of black leather, the presence of Stephen Dorff… but wonky special effects aside, there’s much here that really stands the test of time. Blade commits to its silvery noir aesthetic on every front and takes itself just seriously enough. This is a vampire movie with a bleak backstory, but Blade himself isn’t above throwing in the occasional "motherf*cker." Certain elements have not aged well, such as the morbidly obese vampire Pearl, who squeals like a small child and whose gargantuan size is positioned as the ultimate display of grotesque greed. It’s also a reminder of how far cinema has come in terms of CGI, as blood effects and dismembered torsos as crafted through 1998 technology bear more resemblance to dough than reality.
Where Blade helped to pave the way for the Marvel mania that would follow is in its steadfast commitment to taking its comic book origins seriously. Batman had done that before but that was for DC. Howard the Duck and the unreleased-in-America one-two punch of Captain America and Fantastic Four gave the distinct impression that Marvel wasn’t or couldn’t take itself seriously enough to pull off a comic book blockbuster for the mainstream. Blade doesn’t water down its own concept or insert fourth wall breaking moments to reassure the audience that yes, this is all rather silly, isn’t it? It asks you to fully embrace this vampire tale of leather jackets, UV lights, ancient texts, life or death battles, and Udo Kier. It wants audiences – decidedly adult ones at that – to delve into this aesthetic without shame or cynicism. It eschews the origin story foundations and, apart from a short opening scene, throws its audience into the midst of the plot and expects them to keep up. Audiences are now so used to the superhero origin formula, but Blade has no such concerns. In the current context of the genre, that feels downright brave.
Before the genre got jaded, it was possible to be grim and fun at the same time, and Blade nails it on both fronts. How can you not have fun with this much blood flying around? (And this film did not skimp on the blood.) The movie and its protagonist – Wesley Snipes has a ball with this brand of stoic coolness – achieve the perfect balance between 1990s action and grungy horror, and the acrobatic fight choreography feels like the obvious forefather to franchises like The Matrix, Underworld, and Resident Evil: films that take themselves seriously without sacrificing the sheer visceral pleasure of their genre roots. They would also go on to reinvent the vocabulary of the modern blockbuster, another way Blade feels ahead of its time as a comic book movie.
It seems surprising that Blade isn’t talked about more for its comic book movie lineage especially given its status as a franchise driven by a black protagonist, something that remains a depressing rarity to this day. It doesn’t help that Marvel seems to have no idea what to do with the property now that they own it once more. A vampire hunting dhampir whose roots are more in horror than the traditional superhero genre probably feels like an ill fit in the age of the expanded universe, but surely making vampires canon is no weirder than anything they did once Doctor Strange joined the crew? Over at Sony and their attempts at a Spider-Man expanded universe, Jared Leto is attached to an adaptation of Morbius, so vampires are coming to feast on the caped ones.
There’s so much Marvel could do with Blade and so many incredible people who could do wonders with that property. Think of a film with John Boyega or John David Washington in the lead, directed by Dee Rees or Antoine Fuqua, or perhaps a new Netflix series with Salim and Mara Brock Akil as showrunners. Blade is an undisputed, if oft-overlooked, pioneer in Marvel’s history and it deserves better than to languish in the shadows. As we celebrate 20 years of Blade on the big screen, perhaps it’s time for Kevin Feige to reconsider the character’s fate.