BLADE: The Bleeding Edge of Cinema

Vyce Looks back at this classic with new eyes

It is difficult to quantify just how important Blade is, not just for comic book movies, but film in general. Even now there is still refusal to recognize its impact and its place in history. Some dismiss it via technicality as “not really a comic book movie”, while others fail to see the deeper thematic elements at play that go far beyond a pulpy monster mashup. I am able to look back at that moment in time during its debut and remember its significance to me personally and the rapidly evolving cinematic landscape. Moreover, reappraising this movie after 20 years of growth and change make me realize how next-level it really was.

The release of Blade in 1998 places it within a significant turning point of cinematic history. It sat in the transitional period between conventional ’80s/’90s tough guy action movies and more genre-based fare gaining dominance. It drew from the establishment of CGI special effects (initially the hallmark of big budget studio tent pole blockbusters) becoming commonplace among movie productions of all shapes and sizes. In the realm of comic book properties and adaptations, it came a year after the notoriously derided Batman & Robin, a film which put that particular film adaption franchise out of commission for nearly a decade. It also followed a run of unsuccessful attempts at films featuring black superheroes such as Spawn and the disastrous Steel.

Blade predates both the X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). While those movies and their subsequent sequel entries are considered by many to be the catalyst for the current dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I feel that Blade helped to prime audiences for the superhero special effects blockbuster boom: films which feature character-driven action-movie stunt work in concert with CGI set pieces. Its hard-R, black leather, darkly hued aesthetic also predates the explosive success of the The Matrix as well as the modestly successful but nonetheless enduring Underworld and Resident Evil franchises.

Growing up, I was enraptured by the sight of one of my favorite actors transforming himself and the entire action movie dynamic into this supernatural force of nature. In hindsight, I am equally amazed by how racially charged the film can be and how that permeates so much of the story, elevating what could easily have been a typical run & gun or slasher flick B-movie with some legitimately provocative components. Blade is a peculiar mashup of supernatural, sci-fi, and Hong Kong action elements, but I’ve grown to appreciate its links to the famous Blaxploitation genre of films more and more. This article  from BlackNerdProblems highlights the structural and tonal similarities between the film and Blaxploitation of yore, with the film ultimately echoing the classic setup of black heroes fighting against The Man.

The character himself was originally nothing more than a cliche of contemporary Blaxplolitation stars, but Wesley Snipes infuses Blade with a deft combination of stylish street swagger, samurai nobility, and feral aggression. Stephen Dorff plays the main villain Deacon Frost, and while he cant match the physicality of Blade/Snipes, he makes up for it with a sinister cerebral approach laced with invective dialogue. Frost having a tense verbal standoff with Blade in an attempt to take advantage of him and hurling the “Uncle Tom” insult at him is a seriously loaded scene that also works beautifully as a character moment, as Frost’s insults eventually trigger a lightning reaction of fury from Blade; you simply don’t talk about a black man’s mother.

Blade contains the sub-textual and at times overt inclusion of serious social issues that are still relevant today. The movie takes place in a nameless city (production notes indicate it was partially filmed in Los Angeles) that stands in for any diverse metropolitan area. The control the vampires exert upon day to day life (“…politics, finance, real estate; They already own half of downtown”) is a flexible device that could be a stand-in for any number of insidious organizations in our world, be they real or imagined (the Alt-right or the Illuminati, as per your preference.) The film’s take on the myth of vampirism is also a unique approach that touches on our real world issues. While vampires are most certainly supernatural in Blade, a significant amount of time is taken to flesh out the biology of it all. It is overtly likened to a sexually transmitted disease, reflecting the HIV and AIDS epidemic brought into our collective social consciousness in the early and mid-’90s. There is also a reference to Sickle Cell Disease, a condition known to be more prevalent among people of African decent. I appreciated this mixture of real world ideas and issues that affect marginalized people being meshed together in this way, a great case of effective world-building to help cement some really over the top insanity.

One of my favorite moments of dialogue that encapsulates the entirety of the textual thematics at play takes place in the latter half of the movie when Karen (N’bushe Wright) is being held captive in Frost’s penthouse fortress. Frost once again uses racially and sexually charged invective to try and “turn” Karen, noting her “great skin” and mocking Blade for not “giving it to her”. Karen, a brilliant and powerful black woman in her own right, sees right through him and twists the situation with a counteroffer of her own, promising a cure for his pitiable ailment. Frost snaps back with the fiendish line: “I’ll tell you what we are sista: We’re the top of the fucking food chain.” Shades of the historic sexual abuse of black women, dehumanization of black people, and racial rhetoric once again interwoven into a brilliant character moment brimming with subtext.

Speaking of sexuality, certain elements of the movie which relate to that topic resonated with me as a teen and continue to do so to this day, while there are other parts that I couldn’t truly appreciate until the experiences of my later years. The sexuality of the black man and woman is somehow still a strange sort of taboo in our culture, a taboo designed dehumanize us and rob us of our agency. You know what I’m talking about, but let me spell it out for you: the prevalent perception of black men as lustful savage beasts that tear up women with their big dicks, or the degradation of black women as hoes and “thots” when the sobering reality is that they are victims of sexual abuse and assault in alarming numbers. My peers and I had to deal with this to varying degrees. In the schoolyard and locker room, I was constantly pressured to chase sex, whereas the girls I knew (or even the ones I didn’t know that I saw on my daily commute) were constantly hounded by dogs young and old lusting after them. The whole experience is sickening. I found it fascinating how Blade works through a lot of that nastiness in its own way. I spoke about how moments of dialogue speak on this, but I was particularly moved by what happens in the final act.

Blade is a violent contradiction of tempered focus and animal rage, an internal struggle which comes to a head in the climactic battle. Drained of life after the resurrection ritual for the Blood God, Blade requires blood to survive. In desperation, Karen offers her own blood. Blade, no longer able to withstand, lets the thirst take over and embraces her like a a devouring predator would its prey, the two writhing in agonizing ecstasy, the sweat glistening off their dark skin. Soon, the pain becomes too great and Karen quietly pleads for Blade to stop. Blood drunk, he ignores her pleas, but eventually comes to his senses and releases her, revitalized and ready to put an end to their tormentors. I am not a superhuman hero, but the description of this encounter describes many moments of intercourse with my wife to an alarming degree, her demeanor and anatomy at times ill prepared to receive me. All throughout my adolescence and maturity, I had to fight with the hormonal storm that we all go through while also contending with the toxic messages being pressed into me that would debase me as just another animal to be put down. Seeing this conflict expressed outwardly on the big screen was and is, in no small way, life changing.

Look…If me getting uncomfortably candid with my sexuality is what it takes for me to contextualize the greatness within Blade so that you all recognize and understand it, then I’m willing to take that leap.

Perhaps you were expecting a more straightforward retrospective on this action movie classic. There are already plenty of articles that can get into the minutiae of financial records and tell you how important the movie was to Marvel comics and the eventual MCU/Disney empire. Elsewhere, you are sure to find pieces on the cultural importance of Blade as one of the first successful black superhero movies and what that success means to live action adaptations of black superheroes in the future. My goal here instead was to hopefully allow you to think of Blade in a new light. Not just as a stepping stone in comic book movies or a fond bit of nostalgia, but to show how even the most absurd of films can approach deep tissue themes via the most unlikely of angles, and how the most outlandish and seemingly inconsequential of stories can resonate so profoundly and deeply with their audience. Whatever awaits us, I won’t cast it aside as mere corporate fluff, not when I know there are whose lives will potentially be changed, just as mine has been.

  • Ντοκιμαντέρ Σμιθ

    Terrific essay, Vyce —it makes me mournful of modern pop cinema, which seems to have been drained of such rich, weird subtexts. While I believe in the potential of international co-productions to raise filmmaking to higher heights, looking back on films like Blade, I remember the undiluted potency of storytelling when it was directed at a narrow swath of viewers. Can we ever return to populist filmmaking capable of both thrilling and burning the spirit raw in such a way?

    • VyceVictus

      I was going to take one step further to comment on how this urban fantasy tale simultaneously reaches for grander Greek Tragedy/Iconic heights with its Oedipal element featuring the lovely Sanaa Lathan as Blade’s mother….but truthfully I was to emotionally raw to continue any further. As you indicate, that it had the gall to put something like that 20 years ago was phenomenal, yet the neutered action figures in the current MCU barely even kiss but maybe once every 4 movies.

      • That’s because Blade at the time was more like Deadpool now. Nobody at the studios wanted it, so there was no one looking to interfere with the project, and make it more marketable

  • Lunaman

    “The world you live in is a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it, the REAL world.”

    Fuck yea, Blade. Fantastic piece, Vyce.

  • ChateauArusi

    … WELL now.

  • YayMayorBee

    First: Vyce is the bravest dude alive for speaking the simple truth of what makes BLADE so personally important for him. Few would be so goddamn honest about the connection between BLADE’s depiction of (black) sexuality and their own personal experience. Fewer still would be able to talk about it in a sensitive and real way, rather than as an opportunity some gross bro-humor nonsense. Vyce could have talked about all kinds of interesting stuff to avoid getting this real, but he went right for it. Legend.

    Second: I remember hanging out in a friend’s basement, eating junk food and watching BLADE in between PS1 or D&D games for months on end in 1999 and 2000. It was on such heavy rotation that can still hum the New Order remix that opens the film. It makes me smile knowing young Vyce was grooving on the same wavelength.

    • I was doing the same thing, but I was unemployed, so it was nothing but smokin’ and Mariokart on N64 all day long.

      • YayMayorBee

        You’re an old man, Hansen. I was about 16 or so.

        • How many diapers did you go through a day back then?

          • YayMayorBee

            Diapers would have seriously improved my GOLDENEYE performance. Motherfuckers never respected the bathroom break.

          • That’s too bad, bathroom breaks, as long as the game hasn’t started, should always be respected. We had a ranking system. The one with the most loses was known as the “Video Butt” and they had to wear a butt medallion and fetch drinks and whatnot

          • YayMayorBee

            Our games were lawless chaos. If you moved from your spot, dropped your controller, left to pick up the phone–anything–that was on you. Did you dare to risk it?

          • Fah! Children! In GLAMKA, we had respect for the Silver Crown of Glory

    • VyceVictus

      One thing worth mentioning was how the DVD release itself was a cutting edge item. It was right during the transition from VHS to DVD (at least for me, because that was the first year that our family could afford a DVD player and it was among the first we ever bought). It had really outstanding menu animation graphics that felt like a digital book with pages being turned and secrets being unlocked as you flipped through the special features. I don’t have the sales numbers to back it up right now, believe it really became one of the highlight/selling points of the DVD changeover. If you put that DVD in right now, the opening blood rave scene has an awesome light particle effect that stilll stands out even with more current Blu Ray/HD technology

      • YayMayorBee

        Oh shit, yes! I’d forgotten about the menu animations but you just jogged my memory! We were in literal awe of that at the time.

      • Ντοκιμαντέρ Σμιθ

        same here — blade and the matrix were my family’s first dvds.

        • Linkfx

          And the phantom menace lol

      • jeves23

        I bought 4 DVDs when I bought my first DVD player, and BLADE was easily the best, and most memorable film out of those 4. I still remember being absolutely flabbergasted by the extras on the disc – a commentary! A doc about vampires! Deleted Scenes! (the original Blood God was…. not good).
        I upgraded to Blu a few years ago (which has all the same extras, I believe), but am kind of nostalgic for that old DVD….

  • Lilgreenman

    I doubt it was completely intentional, but I think the movie gets a lot from having most of its location shooting be in Manhattan (including that grand old Redbird subway car sequence!), with all the establishing shots and vehicle scenes being of downtown LA.

    It gives the whole story a generalized specificity; a Matrix-presaging concept that this is a world you recognize, but not the one you know. Just unreal enough that when there’s an ancient blood god temple under a high-rise’s foundations, you buy it without a word.

  • MK

    Holy shit dude, this is one of the best, most honest pieces of film analysis I’ve read in a while.

    A lot of people can write about how the latest prestige picture touched them personally (nothing wrong with that BTW!) but I feel like it’s just as special to see people be candid about various pieces of genre/populist cinema that they love. It’s a great reminder that “serious” film criticism doesn’t always have to be done with an upturned nose if that makes any sense.

    In any case, thank you for putting yourself out there like this Vyce. Much appreciated.

  • Jason Lasica

    I don’t have much to contribute but to say, “Fuck, I loved this.” The best film writing is this personable, and thank you for sharing a perspective I’ve not seen done again and again. And I will never not want to see BLADE get talked about more often.

  • Fantastic. I loved this film. I was living in L.A. at the time, and my cousin and I went to it several times, often as the only ones in the theatre. You’re dead on here, the film is a blast, with lots of great action, but it’s deeper than you would expect. This was a great write-up of a great film

  • I don’t have much to add to this stellar piece of writing. I’ll only say that this movie has one of the greatest opening sequences of all time.

  • Public Mistake

    Vyce’s writing is always made stronger by the inclusion of relevant, deeply personal explorations that heighten his readings. Really happy to read you here again.

  • ryanrochnroll

    Oh man I loved reading this so much.
    Thank you so much for taking on BLADE for us, Vyce. And for doing it in this particular way.
    It’s really important that we don’t allow this film to get relegated to “important cuz Black Action” or “important cuz Black Comic Book Movie” status, alone. This movie hit me like a ton of bricks in high school, and every rewatch yields more potent rewards.

    Last time I watched this I was struck by how willing to jump right into racial politics it was, similar to what you describe, without simple “Black dudes are bad ass and we’re all a little afraid of them but attracted to the power we place on them” goofery. This movie shows cops getting flat out UNHINGED by the mere existence of an armored and armed Black man, shooting at him maniacally almost out of a primal need to set the world around them right again. The interplay between Dorff’s pretender and appropriator Frost and Snipes’ torn but dutiful Blade is so thematically rich, without being easy or pat. Norrington was playing with some heady stuff, and having a stylish blast. But it never loses that edge under the ‘sugar coated topping’.

    I loved reading this man. Thanks again for writing it.

  • Awesome stuff, man. The personal is the touch that makes it. Good art is personal and invites reactions like this.

    As a side note, I like the movie because it totes plays into my interest in the occult and secret societies and all sorts of stuff, so there.

  • BarryBlamalow

    BLADE came out when I was in my “I ONLY WATCH KUNG-FU FLICKS AND HONG MOVIES” phase, so I initially dismissed it until a friend made me watch it (that same friend forced me to watch THE MATRIX not long after).

    That first scene – the introduction of Blade in the vampire night club – just knocked my fucking head off. BLADE is as near a masterpiece of action cinema as a film can get.

    Brilliant piece Vyce.

    • VyceVictus

      I didn’t want to get into the weeds if the martial arts because people have done so already to great effect, but Blade should be held up as a master class of physical movement informing character. In the dvd commentary, Wesley notes that even though he’s doing this stylish Kung fu, “Blade is still a brother”, and that’s reflected in his style and mannerisms. One of my favorite moments is during the attack on the penthouse where he encounters the Henchmen twins. You can tell they are bad mother fuckers, and when Blade squares off he immediately takes this awesome bouncing stance that’s half Bruce Lee half Holyfield. He’s like “I know Kung Fu too, but what you know about these hands?” All without a word. Incredible stuff.

      • Lunaman

        This one’s more obvious, but what always got me was the little fist pump he does when he pins Donal Logue to the wall with shotgun stakes, like he’s celebrating a goal during a sports game. He’s not just a stone cold badass, he’s having FUN, like he’s dancing. Just seemed like the coolest thing ever to my young mind.

  • dianec

    I am going to rewatch Blade now, with a fresh perspective. Wonderful piece, Vyce.

    • The Dwayne Allen

      It’s been too long since I’ve seen it. I’m way overdue for a rewatch

  • Allen

    Vyce I don’t say it enough, but I’m so happy to have you contributing to the site, great work dude.

  • jeves23

    Awesome article, Vyce!

    I have fond memories of seeing this in the theatre with a friend and instantly loving it. My friend was less enamoured with it, but I had never seen anything like it and couldn’t get it out of my mind for months afterwards. It had (and has) an edge to it that gave it a sense of danger; there was an impression of peeking into an alternate reality that threatened to cross over into ours if you stared at it too long.

    • Lunaman

      That’s a great turn of phrase.

  • Linkfx

    Great dive into a classic film. Not just for comic book cinema but a nearly unparalleled badass action movie with like you said, many different layers of subtext all working beautifully in chaos together to sell us this outlandish but still grounded world. I love Snipes and N’bushe Wright in this film because they like very real people dealing with real shit outside of this nutty situation. They are emotionally present in ways that make the interactions with Dorff’s amazing white supremacist Frost unpredictable, vulnerable and scary. This movie rocks and it’s honestly kind of magic that it worked out so well.