It’s hard to remember, but in the 90s, doing a straightforward superhero movie wasn’t necessarily a slam-dunk, especially if you were making a Marvel movie. But on August 21, 1998, one relatively obscure Marvel comic book character launched a movie that remains a cult classic. Along the way, this film paved the way for the entire Marvel Cinematic Univesre, long before anybody had an inkling such a thing could exist. Today, the MCU is known for its diversity of tones, but also as a movie brand that is overwhelmingly loved by families. And yet, it probably couldn’t have existed without a very grown-up comic book character kicking the door open.
When Blade was released 25 years ago on August 21, 1998, the MCU wasn’t a thing. This was a time before Marvel movies dominated the box office, predating X-Men and Spider-Man. Not only that, it was an R-rated movie based on a comic book about a Black superhero; both still today! How did this genre-shattering film open the doors for a multi-million-dollar franchise? Let’s just say the stakes were high with this one.
Nobody expected Blade to be a hit. In theory, vampires and Kung Fu are like oil and water. Add superheroes into the recipe, and it’s even more complicated. Somehow, Blade found a perfect balance to mix the three together into one kickass Afrofuturist movie that’s definitely not for kids, even though tweens and teens of the 90s loved this one.
Wesley Snipes is Blade (in more ways than one), a leather-clad vampire hunter with the unique trait of being a “daywalker.” Blade is a hybrid human-vampire who was born from a mom who fell victim to vampires. He inherited vampire abilities but lacks the negatives like harm from sunlight, or aversion to Italian food. Fast forward to Los Angeles in the ’90s, as adult Blade seeks the end of all lycanthropes with help from a weapon-making mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristoffersen), who also curbs Blade’s appetite by providing him with Capri-Sun packs of a blood-like serum.
What Blade wasn’t prepared for was falling in love with Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), a hematologist he rescued from suffering a fate like his mom. Together, this group battles against Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a power-hungry vampire after human domination, and the highest chair of the Vampyr upper crust.
Keep in mind, this was the era of Interview with the Vampire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a time when these creatures of the night were miles away from frightening. Blade re-established these bloodsuckers as something ferocious, and Snipes was equally fierce when it came time to slice and dice them. The Matrix was just a year away from changing the action genre, but Blade brought that 90’s martial arts energy to comic book heroes and helped this movie become a box-office triumph, making a combined global total of $ 131.2 million during its theatrical run.
The comic book origin of Blade
Blade was an unlikely Marvel character to focus a film on, but was seemingly all they had. The company was in a corner, on the verge of bankruptcy while selling the film rights to some of their bigger properties to different studios. Enter New Line Cinema, ready to work with Marvel, but not willing to spend a ton while doing that. Their vision was a low-budget Marvel movie featuring a Black character. Out of their long box of ideas, Screenwriter David S. Goyer pulled Blade.
Blade had been around since 1972, seen in their popular The Tomb of Dracula comic series. This Blaxploitation side-character was a vampire hunter who had the looks of NFL legend Jim Brown, with a penchant for throwing knives and a fanatical hatred for bloodsuckers. Over time, fans demanded more, and soon he spun off into his own popular series. Blade didn’t gain his day-walking powers until roughly a year after the movie was released, the first time a Marvel Comics character changed something based on a movie.
Wesley Snipes was the perfect casting choice, a true comic fan who brought serious credibility to this film. Before Blade, Snipes tried to make a Black Panther film with Marvel which never came to fruition but pounced on this property when given the chance. New Line wanted to make a comedy, and at one point even wanted Blade to be white. The creative team refused and brought Snipes on board. He added so much style and savagery to the character, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else running as far with this role as he did. Snipes’ inspirations ranged from William Marshall’s portrayal of Blacula, Gene Kelly, and Douglas Fairbanks, all the way to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. “Blade had a coat back in The Tomb of Dracula,” Snipes said in an interview with Vice. “But Shaft’s coat was better.”
The Triumph of Snipes
Upon completion in 1997, the first cut of the film bombed with test audiences, delaying its release for over a year while changes were made. Sadly, one of the changes included cutting what would have been Stan Lee’s first Marvel movie cameo ever, playing a cop investigating the aftermath of the notorious Blood Rave.
Following the popularity of the first film (with revenue nearly tripled what it cost to make), Blade enjoyed a pair of sequels. The successful follow-up, Blade II, arrived in 2002, directed by Guillermo del Toro early in his American career. Two years later, Blade: Trinity hit theaters, adding two new vampire hunters into the fray. Before he was Deadpool, the first Marvel role for Ryan Reynolds was Hannibal King, a member of the lycanthrope-busting “Nightstalkers,” alongside Jessica Biel’s Abigail Whistler.
Wesley Snipes kept the duster jacket on as Blade for all three movies, but didn’t return for the long-forgotten Spike TV show, Blade: The Series, in 2006. Kirk Jones (better known as Sticky Fingaz to rap and hip-hop fans) picked up the mantle for Spike’s first attempt at original scripted programming. It wasn’t the trailblazer the network hoped it would be and lasted one season before the plug was pulled. Why didn’t Snipes reprise the role he made so famous? Put those fangs away, there’s a lot of drama to unravel. Turns out the actor wasn’t too happy with the threequel, and the behind-the-scenes stories from that set was the real horror movie. (Though, Snipes did hilariously appear in What We Do In the Shadows, indicating that maybe Blade exists in that vampire universe.)
Over two decades later, Blade is finally joining the MCU in 2025 with his own reboot. This time, Mahershala Ali takes over the slaying duties, and Snipes has already given him the seal of approval to battle the undead in his place. Blade went through a journey from obscurity to overwhelming popularity, and we owe a debt of gratitude to this film for laying the first stone that in time piled up to become the MCU we know today. Families might love the Avengers, but it’s very possible without Blade, we would have never seen any of those folks assembling.