An abattoir isn’t exactly the place you would expect to find a nightclub rave, but that’s precisely where the iconic opening of Marvel’s first superhero success Blade (1998) takes place. With a darkcore remix of New Order’s Confusion pumping from speakers, lithe bodies dressed in 90s regalia writhe in the white-tiled space. Among them is Dennis, who ironically kind of looks like Dennis Quaid if you squint just the right way. He’s excited to be there. Grateful, even. Right up until the moment blood begins spraying from the sprinkler system overhead and the movie shows its fangs for the first time: literally. Dennis Not Quaid is bait, he’s prey, with the hunter becoming the hunted as his redheaded date and all those around him are revealed to be vampires.
For those unfamiliar with the cult Marvel comic book, the twist is revealed to the audience at the same time as it is to Dennis. The arrival of the leather-clad Blade only serves to elevate the tension an additional level. If you were to look up the definition of ‘cool’ in the dictionary, there’d likely be an image of Wesley Snipes’ portrayal complete with billowing black trench coat, dark glasses, tatts, and signature fade. Aesthetically, he’s atypical of the late 90s/early 00s sci-fi heroes seen in The Matrix (1999) and Equilibrium (2002) – those guys too had few lines of dialogue and even fewer facial expressions. What’s not atypical, however, is a cheesy grin and triumphant fist pump.
It’s a small moment, just a few seconds at the conclusion of Blade’s first fully-fledged action sequence where he kills no less than 22 vampires with everything from swords, UV-activated bullets, Hunga Mungas, daggers, and – in extenuating circumstances – a punch so hard through the head one vampire explodes when he hits the ceiling. As Blade pins the main villain’s henchman with a crossbow bolt, then another, that’s when the cool façade cracks for the first time, a moment that became so memorable they recreated it for the sequel Blade II (2002) (“hooh ooh, so exciting!”). In a movie full of extremely gifable frames – from “some motherf*cker’s always trying to ice skate uphill” to the mouthed “what the f*ck?” – the fist pump has remained the enduring snippet of Blade that continues to pop up on the internet in the most unlikely of places.
Comments sections and social media only tell a fraction of the tale when it comes to Blade’s lasting impact, however, with the film a commercial hit at the time earning nearly $200M globally on a $45M budget: a feat even more impressive considering its R18+ rating. It spawned two sequels, including the apex of the franchise Blade II which acted as the Hollywood launchpad for director Guillermo del Toro. After flops with Howard The Duck (1986), Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990), this was the first successful film based on a Marvel comic book property. Its viability redefined what the superhero movie could and should look like. When X-Men (2000) came just a few years later, gone were the traditional costumes: instead the heroes wore all-black leather outfits that made them look like extras from Blade. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy would follow not long after and the entire, sweeping expanse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the next 20 years. When Black Panther (2018) became a global phenomenon, it wasn’t without the acknowledgement of Blade who was not the first black superhero on-screen – that honour went to Spawn (1997) – but he was the first successful one.
– Maria Lewis