'Blade II' Pioneers the Marvel Sequel Yet Remains Hopelessly Outdated
If Blade reflected its time in 1998, Blade II, despite of-the-moment visual effects dazzling action, feels like a film from an earlier era.
Blade IIDirector: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman
Studio: New Line Cinema
US Release date: 2002-03-22
After Fox’s hit with X-Men in the summer, only one more superhero film came out in the year 2000. The rare original superhero film, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was a modest hit at the time. However, as a contrast and commentary on fantastical superhero films, it might have fared even better years later when comic book films had taken over Hollywood. By depicting a seemingly ordinary, very human man as he slowly discovers he has extraordinary abilities, Unbreakable mirrored X-Men’s more reality-based approach to the superhero genre.
In 2001, the final year to-date to not see the release of a Marvel film, the reality-based comic book film continued to be the norm. Terry Zwigoff’s wonderful Ghost World, an adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic, was a slice-of-life story about two girls who feel like outsiders in their typical American suburb. Unfortunately, few people saw it and fewer still knew it was based on a comic book, but it was an important representation of the variety of non-superhero fare that can be found in comics. Also released in 2001 was From Hell, based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s impeccably researched fiction about the Jack the Ripper murders. Although greatly simplified from the graphic novel, and fairly fantastical, it was still a comic book film based around real events.
By 2002, the trend of comic book films seemed to be towards the fantastical set in reality. Long gone were the days of the campy '60s Batman television series, or the film it spawned. Gone too were the style-over-substance Batman films of the '80s and '90s, which reached the apex of ridiculousness with Batman & Robin (1997). Comic book films, in their effort to be taken more seriously, were reacting against their overblown, over-stylized predecessors. X-Men was very grounded, and soon Spider-Man would be portrayed as incredibly human.
Although the style and aesthetic of Blade was very much of its time in the late '90s, much of its tone and attitude reflected the dying embers of '80s action films. Wesley Snipes always felt like more of a throwback to '80s strongmen like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme than an action hero for the new age. That may be why, despite some very of-the-moment CGI work, Blade II feels slightly out of step with its time. Its action sequences are dazzling and energetic, but its tone belongs to an earlier time. If Blade reflected its time in 1998, Blade II felt outdated just four years later.
Before I address that further, however, I will first explore the groundbreaking aspect of Blade II: this was the very first Marvel sequel. It's fascinating to explore how the filmmakers worked out the follow-up to Blade, since it was clearly not planned while making the first film. That much was clear from Blade’s opening mission: rescuing his ally, Whistler, who was believed to be killed in the last film. Whistler being attacked and forced to take his own life before becoming a vampire was Blade’s major motivation as he entered the climax of the first film. Here the history is rewritten to explain that Whistler actually turned into a vampire, and has been held by the vampires for the two years since. Clearly, screenwriter David S. Goyer enjoyed the dynamic between Wesley Snipes’ Blade and Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler so much in the first film, he wanted it back. So, Blade rescues his ally, cures him of vampirism overnight and, despite some doubts raised by Blade’s new ally, Scud, Whistler is completely back to normal for the rest of the film.
Had a sequel been planned from the beginning, this whole subplot would have been unnecessary, or less rushed. But Blade belongs to another age of comic book films, when sequels were not assured or planned for, and first films needed to be mildly undone or partially ignored for the story to continue.
In a couple of ways, Blade II does blaze some sequel trails that many Marvel sequels would follow. Once Whistler is safe, Blade is approached by a vampire elder to join his Bloodpack, an elite team of badasses trained to hunt down Blade, to stop the growing threat of Reapers. The Reapers, led by Jared Nomak, are a mutant strain of vampires that feed daily and compulsively (they are compared to crack addicts), and target vampires. Blade takes the offer of a truce as an opportunity to gain intelligence on the vampires, while also eliminating the growing Reaper threat. This plot accomplishes what all sequels should strive for: digging deeper into the world of the films. Blade hinted at the rich depth of the secret world of vampires, but the sequel does a deep dive. We see blood banks run by vampires, secret nightclubs with open feedings and vivisections, vampire research laboratories, as well as the variety of attitudes and viewpoints amongst vampires.
The depth of the world does not coincide with depth of character, however. The plot opens the door for Blade to question his assumptions about the enemies he has hunted for 20 years. Despite a nascent romance with Nyssa, daughter of the vampire elder and “the one good one” in the Bloodpack, Blade never wavers from his anti-vampire convictions. Sure, in one scene Nyssa tells him to trust the Bloodpack more and in the next scene Whistler tells him to stop trusting them so much. But Snipes never sells that Blade is torn in the least. And the vampires prove to be as treacherous as he would expect, so his lack of open-mindedness is ultimately justified. The best comic book sequels to come would endeavour to find an arc that allows the main character to grow and change in each installment. The worst are like Blade II.
One sequel trope is introduced here to pretty great effect: the hero makes an uneasy alliance with his enemies to fight a greater threat. Blade and the Bloodpack are the forerunners of the X-Men joining with Magneto (X2: X-Men United, 2003, X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014), and Thor joining with Loki (Thor: The Dark World, 2013), among other sequels. Director Guillermo Del Toro casts his muse, Ron Perlman, as Reinhardt, the most entertaining hardass of the group. The banter between Team Blade and Team Bloodpack livens up the first half of the film, but it's also the element that makes it feel the most dated.
The winking, old school action movie tone is set from Blade’s first appearance in the film. He busts up a vampire hideout, looking for Whistler, leading to a back alley fight with two vampires on motorcycles. After killing one, and taking his motorcycle, Blade stops to admire his reflection in a car mirror before resuming the fight. Granted, he looks super cool, but it's a moment that belongs to another era. As the film progresses, it never misses a chance at a one-liner or a moment to highlight Snipes’ cool.
When Blade first meets the Bloodpack, the vampire equivalent of the mercenaries from Predator (1987), it's an contest of testosterone-fueled dominance. Surrounded by a horde of Reapers in the sewers, Blade has time to haltingly scream his battle cry: “You obviously do not know who you are FUCKING WITH!!” And, most old school of all: Blade is thrown into a pool of blood to recover from massive blood loss. He emerges, powerful, angry, and ready to take on Reinhardt and his men. But first, Whistler needs to throw Blade his shades. Heaven forbid he fight without his sunglasses. Every one of these elements would be perfectly at home in an '80s action blockbuster.
Four fight choreographers, including Snipes, worked on the the fight scenes in the film. Donnie Yen, also appearing as a silent member of the Bloodpack, can likely be credited with the more dazzling displays of martial arts. One of the others are likely responsible for the many moves that are cribbed from professional wrestling. There's a large crossover between fans of '80s action films and pro wrestling, and these fights seem tailor-made to appeal to that audience. An audience that other comic book films would not work nearly as hard to court.
Not every element of the film feels so outdated, however. After some blessed restraint in Blade and X-Men, this is the first Marvel film to heavily feature computer-generated effects. Of particular note is the digital replacement of characters during fight scenes. Blockbusters of the early '00s are full of CGI characters that are cartoonish, off-model, too springy, and threaten to take the audience out of the film. Audiences seem to be getting more sophisticated with regards to visual effects every year, so groundbreaking effects one year can look simple and obvious just a few years later. In that sense, the effects in Blade II were about average for 2002. To today’s eyes, however, they stick out as badly as the famously gaudy effects in The Mummy Returns (2001) or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
It's worth exploring the impact of Guillermo Del Toro, director of the film. Del Toro’s personality is on full display in his best films, but this feels like the least “Del Toro film” he has made. This is the only film he directed without also having a screenwriting credit, which may account for his style seeming muted. There are flourishes that feel like pure Del Toro, however. The opening scene featuring Nomak infiltrating a vampire blood bank drips with neo-gothic atmosphere and gore. The gross, tentacle-y (Lovecraftian) Reaper mouths are a great, small-scale example of creature designs that would feature prominently in many of his future films. Even the sequence where Blade and the Bloodpack hunt Reapers in the sewer, and Blade escapes through subway tunnels, is repeated in Del Toro’s next film, Hellboy (2004). For the most part, however, Del Toro seems like a pinch hitter on this film, a director plugged into a project to which he does not have a strong connection and doing his best to make it his own.
Blade II was not the breakout sequel for which the filmmakers were clearly striving. It surpassed the box office of the original in North America and worldwide, but not by much. It's a sign of the growing success of comic book films that Blade was considered a surprise hit in 1998, but Blade II (earning slightly more) was considered a disappointment in 2002. Part of the reason is that the film was not the kind of comic book film audiences were craving. Audiences wanted films with depth, grounded in reality, with flawed characters and character growth. Blade II features supercool, unchanging strongmen, throwing back to another decade, with an updated sheen of CGI. Blade II pioneered Marvel sequels, but lagged behind on everything else.
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Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Still no love for Stan the Man in the Blade Universe. I guess the Watchers didn’t think it was important enough.
- None that I could spot. Did any of you catch the first-time involvement of future Marvel cast or crew?
Next Time: Marvel takes the ultimate spin, translating their most popular character into Hollywood mega-success.