In the 1990s, Wesley Snipes was riding high. After moving between Florida and New York his whole life growing up, he found himself right at home in Hollywood. He excelled in comedies like Major League and White Men Can’t Jump, socially conscious dramas like Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, and action thrillers like New Jack City and Demolition Man. The son of a teacher’s assistant and an airplane engineer became a bankable star, one able to make a project happen if he was willing to throw his weight around.
The ‘90s were a low period for Marvel, having spread itself thin and forced into bankruptcy. The idea of revitalizing its franchises through movies was appealing, but studios were still unsure if audiences would turn out for superhero movies. There were a number of problems, Snipes would later tell The Hollywood Reporter in a 2018 interview.
“We were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book," he said.
Snipes quickly pivoted to Blade, which would be far from a second prize.
“It was a natural progression and a readjustment," he said. "They both had nobility. They both were fighters. So I thought, hey, we can’t do the King of Wakanda and the Vibranium and the hidden kingdom in Africa, let’s do a black vampire."
It’s just as well that Stephen Norrington’s 1998 movie doesn’t fit as neatly inside Marvel canon as Black Panther. The film’s opening during a “Blood Bath” rave, where blood from sprinklers douses hopped up techno vampires, is far beyond anything that would appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in terms of blood and gore.
More than other comic book movies of the decade (see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy) Blade’s influences lie in edgy ‘90s thrillers like Cruel Intentions where drugs and sex are in every breath the characters take. The rave is just one in a series of parties hosted by Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost, and the movie makes a small push for viewers to consider that all of the rich, beautiful people in penthouses may secretly be bloodsucking vampires.
But Blade isn’t about social commentary. It’s about Blade killing vampires. And he does do that, a lot. UV rays, swords, darts. He’s slicing and dicing them and it’s cool as Hell. The vampires are mostly hot, young, and melting into ashes, but a few are so grotesque it’s almost like they walked in from a Monty Python movie. Norrington is a limited director, and the series would be well-served by Guillermo del Toro’s turn in the director’s chair for Blade II.
There's an important subtext of Snipes as Blade, of course: live-action black superheroes were extraordinarily rare at the time, and both protagonist and antagonist in the movie see themselves as outsiders forever drawn to a community that rejects them over and over again.
But there’s not a lot to the movie outside of Snipes killing vampire after vampire. He only manages solid chemistry with Kris Kristofferson, who plays father figure and weaponsmith Abraham Whistler. There’s a reason that neither Dorff nor N'Bushe Wright (as Dr. Karen Jenson) came back for the sequels.
Blade was the financial success that Marvel execs needed to carry the company through dark times. it also gave Hollywood the greenlight for the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises that preceded the MCU. And after two successful sequels and a long rest, Marvel has teased a Blade revival starring Maharshala Ali.
Now that the technology has finally caught up with the dreams of black superhero movies of the ‘90s, it should be something to see.
Blade and Blade II are streaming on Hulu through November 30 in the U.S.