In 2002, a certain image of coolness was born. A comic book movie that predated a tidal wave of them set a new ideal, of both aesthetic and attitude. This moment was so cool that it caused industrial ripple effects that are still ongoing. Wesley Snipes, portraying Blade in Blade II, changed Hollywood forever by catching a pair of Oakley sunglasses without even looking over his shoulder.
Blade has just killed Reinhardt, a sassy bald goon played by Ron Perlman who has been annoying him for the whole movie. The man had it coming on sight, and just kept digging himself into a deeper hole with each of his disrespectful little jabs—“jefe,” he calls our hero; “honky tonk,” he calls his best friend, Whistler. The more Reinhardt gets under your skin, the grander his exit from the living has to be, and Blade II is a movie that leaves little doubt about whether it can deliver. By the time Reinhardt thinks he has Blade dead to rights, holding his own sword against him in the movie’s climax, he is delivering a bit of backstory that you just know is going to make his death that much sweeter. “Like my daddy said, right before he killed my mom,” he says, “if you want anything done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
He swings the sword in showy circles, then attempts to stab Blade with it. But Blade catches the sword by its dull sides, holding it tense between his palms, perplexing and paralyzing this high-gusto bad guy with his superhuman strength. He spits a racist early-movie retort of Reinhardt’s back at him—“Can you blush?”—and then flings the sword high up in the air, catches it, and slices his enemy in half. Reinhardt disintegrates, as is custom of Blade’s vanquished vampire foes. That’s when Whistler, standing up on a catwalk, throws Blade the Oakleys. The movie might as well be over. Another showdown happens, and it’s a compelling one, but the style of it all has already climaxed, and we have been left with that indelible image, the one that has lasted in the 20 years since.
The legacy of Blade II, and Blade before it, is not often discussed, but it’s easy to see it as a watershed movie for two since-exploded genres: comic book and vampire movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had not yet been established when it came out, as Hollywood was still gauging people’s appetite for the stuff. We also did not yet have Twilight or True Blood, and vampires were largely understood as “tortured Victorian heroes,” as Blade II director Guillermo del Toro called them. His vision contributed to the conversion of the mythological creatures into the subject of a more postmodern storytelling funhouse (see: What We Do in the Shadows), and was also the biggest hit of his filmmaking career, then a decade old. Blade II was the series’ most successful entry at the box office, granting del Toro both the berth for more auteurist, award-devouring fare like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water and the keys to other big IP franchises like Pacific Rim and the Perlman-starring Hellboy (the author of the Hellboy comics, Mike Mignola, served as a concept artist for Blade II).
Del Toro was brought on to direct the sequel to Blade after Stephen Norrington declined to return, opting instead to work on a smaller scale with The Last Minute, and then on his critically doomed adaptation of a different comic book, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Norrington’s 1998 Blade sets the tone early and never lets go—there are ceiling sprinklers that rain blood for sustenance at a dance party, and there’s some cool blue lighting that mixes with a recurring daytime-elapse narrative transition effect to make for memorable visual storytelling. We also learn of Blade’s tragic attachment to stray vampire victims who remind him of his mom, and a vampire landscape in which there is always a cohort ruining the vibe by being obsessed with racial purity. Stephen Dorff leads the way on this front, portraying the big bad Deacon Frost with a chilly partyboy, blue-eyed terror that might keep you up at night. Donal Logue had a disturbing amount of fun playing a Reinhardt-esque true deplorable named Quinn, who calls Blade “bright eyes,” as well. But the world-building feels belabored, and the action sequences relied heavily on quick camera cuts, with many high-combat blank spaces between them. You had to use a taxing amount of imagination to figure out what the movie couldn’t quite figure out how to show you.
Something more refined, and more vivid was on the way. Del Toro was a natural fit to take over, not just because he was a comic book nerd with a few aesthetically striking movies to his name, but also because he had gracefully balanced his distinct vision with heavier studio input when making 1997’s Mimic: a sci-fi horror thriller about big, freaky cockroaches that demonstrated his feel for the grotesque. That touch came in handy in composing Blade II, in which a synthetic new breed of vampires called Reapers take over. These guys are not allergic to silver or garlic, and have clefted chins that open to reveal some extremely nasty big mouths—tentacle-rich messes, oozing with blood and menace. Peak body horror occurs when Blade, Whistler (the protagonist’s returned mentor/father figure, played by Kris Kristofferson), and their new frenemy Scud (Norman Reedus) perform an autopsy on a dead Reaper. It’s disgusting. Roger Ebert, who loved the movie, called it a “vomitorium of viscera.”
A few words on Scud. He is a classically ridiculous white boy, his ratchet sensibility turned up to 11. He eats Krispy Kreme donuts, lights a cigarette with a welder, watches The Powerpuff Girls, calls Blade “B” and “B-man” as he gives him high-tech weapons he won’t personally use (“I’m a lover, not a fighter”), and barely survives a three-way with two vampire ladies named Janet and Chrissy. Along with Reinhardt and Blade, he is one of the more kookily fun dudes in a movie with a deep roster of them. Whistler, however does not think so; calling him “Skid,” and a “shitbird,” the wizened Alfred to Blade’s Batman does not seem to think that this crew requires a quirked-out little Robin.
The plot matters at least a little bit here, and it is pretty solid: The Bloodpack, a group of elite vampires—including Reinhardt—that’s been trained to kill Blade, is sent to make good with him in the face of the bigger evil on the loose, the Reapers. They hold fort in a cool, angularly brutalist headquarters in Prague, where much of the movie was filmed. Blade never really trusts the Bloodpack, especially not Reinhardt; he attaches a remote bomb to Reinhardt’s head when he first meets him to keep him in check, which creates a great recurring bit. And as they battle the Reapers together, the inevitable conflict between Blade and the Bloodpack is the simmering game-within-the-game. The internecine unfolding of this interplay makes for the details of the plot: sides between Blade, his own people, the Reapers, the Bloodpack, and their oily leader Damaskinos blur, break, and re-shape in a gory and dizzying round of musical chairs. Damaskinos has a couple of tragic children, too: his daughter Nyssa, who is Blade’s love interest in a fairly vague way (mommy issues, meet daddy issues), and his son Jared Nomak—the ultimate product of science gone wrong as the nascent Reaper, and the only character in the movie whose power truly rivals Blade’s.
All of this is tightly written, but also absurd in the way comic book stories fundamentally are, and it wouldn’t work without a singular persona at its core. Snipes is exactly that, and Blade II is perhaps best remembered as his last real dance in the limelight. After an unparalleled run of blockbuster sizzle in the ’80s and ’90s that included Major League, White Men Can’t Jump, Demolition Man, New Jack City, and Jungle Fever, he stepped into his final big role, and his most iconic one yet, as Marvel’s heroic dhampir—that’s bloodsucker talk for the child of a woman who was vampire-bitten deep into her pregnancy, resulting in a rare cross-breeding that allows Blade to become an infamous and fearsome “Daywalker” who has all the strengths of a vampire but none of their weaknesses (except for the dietary need for blood, which he takes clinically and stoically by way of injection).
Snipes is an accomplished martial artist who brought a level of physicality to the Blade franchise that many performers now go to MCU boot camp to try to match. He did his own stunts, did them damn well, and brought not just an unusual athleticism to action movies, but a snarling confidence and charisma to the character that no one else could. For many, the chief appeal of the Blade movies is simply watching Snipes be cool as hell. There is a specific joy, found nowhere else, in seeing him crack his neck before battle, suplex vampires through glass, backflip onto a speeding motorcycle, twirl and toss knives, wear leather better than anyone, and bare his teeth in his own special way. Through every little gesture, witticism, and combat maneuver, Snipes is absolutely cooking on screen, every second of the way.
Since Blade II, Snipes has been in 20 movies, but it’s unlikely you’ve heard of many of them. His 21st century is far more defined by his legal troubles than his work. Since being released from prison in 2013, he has had just a few minor roles in more notable movies—Coming 2 America, Chi-Raq, The Expendables 3—but certainly nothing comes close to the high-water mark of Blade II. The big screen has been worse without him on it—del Toro agrees.
We will always have 2002, though, when Snipes and del Toro plotted a future for the MCU, and for vampires to be a wider range of things, including but not limited to rave-attending, turn-of-the-century freaks vibing out to a clubby industrial and trip-hop soundtrack featuring a Mos Def–Massive Attack collaboration. After Blade hit the big screen, imaginary bloodsuckers never felt the same again, and superhero movies, despite turning into a genre so big that they threaten to take over every screen of every theater, have not quite matched the levels of stylized ass-kicking that Snipes and del Toro mastered. The quips are there, sure, but the personalized flourishes of Blade II, delivered perfectly through a gruesome grindhouse-style action gauntlet, made for something both darker and more playful than anything the genre has since wrought. Blade II is gothic annihilation, but Blade II is also campy bliss. The comic book movie party has expanded tremendously in the past two decades, but there is no recapturing the spark of those early nights.
Blade, like every pulpy myth, must now be rebooted. He is set to return to the MCU, played by Mahershala Ali, who has Snipes’s blessing but also a lot to live up to. Without the R rating that New Line Cinema was willing to allow the original Blade movies to brandish, Ali is unlikely to have as uncanny and gutsy a playground to move around in. Disney will probably not grant him the privilege of saying “motherfucker.” In other Marvel vampire developments, Jared Leto will star in Morbius this April, providing a new cinematic portrayal of another vampire from the Blade-verse. Snipes walked so that Leto, Ali, and many others could run, and man, he (and del Toro) was so good at walking. There has been a lot of fun stuff on the comic book movie screen in the past 20 years, but you really just had to be there when a virtuoso of gross-out horror created a delightfully disgusting obstacle course for a truly great action icon to stunt his way through. In another iteration of the world, they might have done it together forever.
John Wilmes is a writer and professor in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwilmeswords.