Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II turn 20 years old today – we remember a standout early comic book movie and examine its undoubted legacy.
When Stephen Norrington’s Blade hit cinemas in 1998, it represented something of an outlier: an R-rated comic book movie set within a chillingly inhospitable New York that looked or felt nothing like the previous year’s Happy Meal-friendly superhero blockbuster, Batman & Robin. Whilst it may have been unintentional, Blade’s dark brand of blood-soaked violence felt like a direct response to the garish, neon-soaked toy advert masquerading as a Batman film, signalling a new direction for superhero films as the decade drew to a close.
As the new millennium dawned, Blade II was ready to move into development but as is the nature of Hollywood, Norrington’s fresh approach to superhero filmmaking had already been appropriated by larger comic book projects. Bryan Singer’s X-Men had released to great fanfare in 2000, bringing leather-clad superheroes, each with their own with troubling pasts, firmly into the mainstream and making a lot of money doing so. Norrington himself had passed on directing a sequel, preferring instead to develop another comic book property in the form of 2003’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a decision he would come to bitterly regret.
Enter then, Guillermo del Toro, who here in 2022 stands as one of cinema’s greatest working filmmakers. Two decades prior though, he only had a couple of arthouse films to his name in the form of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, but crucially, he’d also directed 1997’s Mimic for Dimension. That film proved he could bring a stylish special-effects driven movie over the line, all whilst working to a mid-sized budget and dealing with studio demands (the stories of studio interference in Mimic being quite something).
As a filmmaker, del Toro’s instinctual inclination towards horror made him a perfect fit for a franchise which had thus far distinguished itself by leaning into darkness. Blade II would see del Toro combine that inclination, along with his clear love and respect for comic books to create a film which, at twenty years old today, still feels fresh. In Blade II’s rhythms and tone, in its skillful synergy of operatic tragedy and blazing action, you can directly trace its influence on both both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its darker opposite, the DC Extended Universe.
To this day, del Toro remains as much as student of cinema as an architect of it, with the dizzying list of noir movies he watched before beginning work on 2021’s Nightmare Alley just one scrap of evidence of a cine-literary nature that would only become more evident as his filmography grew. Still, the director put that love of movies to good use on Blade II, mixing filmic influences from anime to war movies in his action-horror flick.
Blade II would abandon Norrington’s plan to use Michael Morbius as a key character in the follow-up, an idea that was so well-formed throughout the first film’s production that Norrington had even filmed an unused coda in which Morbius briefly appeared (with none other than the director himself playing the tortured vampire). Whilst del Toro would embrace the Morbius origin idea of scientific-rooted vampires, he would lean more into his horror roots by creating the Reapers, a genetically-designed breed of vampires that feed on the very same bloodsuckers who had once themselves sat at the apex of the food chain.
Going back to those cinematic influences though, the Reapers’ ghastly appearance would be a clear nod to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic vampire film, Nosferatu. However, del Toro was equally inspired by 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, in which the fiendish true nature of the Telepaths reveal them to be scarred creatures with bulging, oversized veins caused by years of overexposure to radiation.
The truly memorable aspect of these creatures would their expanding jaws and protruding mandibles, a design idea which had first occurred to del Toro when formulating ideas for a pitch to Warner Bros for I Am Legend. This monstrous mechanism would enable them to feed from their victims in a far more horrifying fashion than vampires, blending Lovecraftian design with iconography straight out of 1979’s Alien to create something grotesque yet memorable.
This disturbing effect would mark a leap forward in the series’ use of CGI too, but even more importantly it would mark the highpoint for antagonists in the Blade franchise. If the first film has a weakness, it’s that vampires are simply not a match for Blade: in part because he’s Wesley Snipes, but not least because as a character, The Daywalker possesses powers that easily nullify the dark gifts possessed by the nocturnal monsters. As such, Snipes spends so much of the first film casually snuffing out bloodsuckers, it’s like watching some vampire-themed version of those laughably-lopsided 80s pro-wrestling bouts where oiled icons like The Ultimate Warrior would pulverise unheralded local jobbers into hamburger meat, live on TV.
The Reapers however, would change that, shifting the viewer’s perceptions towards vampires. Sure, the Reapers’ ascendancy to the top of the food chain would make bloodsuckers even more vulnerable than in the first film, but Blade II’s introduction of The Bloodpack, a group of vampiric characters that could match them blow-for-blow, would prove that vampires could still be a force to be reckoned with. As a team of vampiric shock troops trained to take out Blade but instead repurposed instead to deal with this new threat, The Bloodpack would restore vampires to a level of legitimate threat, a much-needed rebalancing of the franchise’s lore.
With a smattering of recognisable faces such as Ron Perlman, Donnie Yen and Red Dwarf’s Danny John Jules making up The Bloodpack, the sequel also gained the kind of stakes that were largely absent in the first film, that being the very real and unforgiving face of Death. Whilst nobody believes that Snipes’ vampire hunter is ever really in danger of being dispatched throughout the Blade trilogy, surrounding him with a Dirty Dozen-style group of vampiric fighters and seeing them get picked off one-by-one serves the story well. Death, often horrific, sometimes even poetic is ever-present in Blade II and the film is much better for it.
As well as dispensing with the original story plans for Blade II, del Toro would also leave behind the New York setting that gave the first film such a haunting tone. Whilst it’s become clichéd to say that a city can be a character within a movie, there’s few better ways of stating it when describing 1998’s Blade. However, with del Toro looking to imbue the broodingly dark tone of the first film with a more comic book sensibility, out went The City That Never Sleeps (because seemingly everybody’s a bloody vampire) and in came Prague. Whilst this writer still prefers the chilling tone of the first film’s New York milieu, del Toro’s trademark attention to detail with production design would bring colour, texture and a comic book lushness to the series that undoubtedly works.
Carol Spier’s production design would make the balance between darkness and colour work, with contrast being key to the film’s evolving style. Prague is rendered in a typically baroque fashion, whilst the underground lair of the film’s Big Bad, Damaskinos, is a fun marriage of ancient haven and scientific compound. Lots of Blade II’s visual flourishes nod to its turn-of-the-century origin: The Bloodpack, clad in leather and shades, engage in the kind of dual-wielding gunplay that can’t help but remind you of 1999’s The Matrix, whilst Gabriel Beristain’s camera zooms around the fight sequences, tightly framing key moments in the action with the kinetic artificiality of a late 1990s Fincher flick.
And what about that action?
The Blade series (or indeed comic book movies of any ilk) would struggle to match the fight sequences in del Toro’s film for the decade to come, with the possible exception of Nolan’s Batman Begins and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen which would release some seven years later. Blade II would harness the martial arts style of the first film, throw in some cyberpunk gun-fu and even add in some of that aforementioned pro-wrestling with a third act battle between Blade, Luke Goss’ Nomak and some vampiric henchmen breaking out the elbow drops and suplexes.
It makes for a wonderfully bone-crunching stylistic clash that’s as fun to watch as it is to write about. With legendary comic book artists Mike Mignola and Timothy Bradstreet working on the project as conceptual artists, you can see del Toro’s commitment to that lurid comic book aesthetic, not least the Jack Kirby-style ‘power dots’ that accompany some of the film’s explosions. To del Toro’s credit, he juxtaposes this style expertly with the requisite darkness that a Blade movie needs, not least in the scene where Blade uses his katana to take out a clutch of Reapers in the high-contrast silhouette of a UV light detonation.
Snipes is once again brilliant as the brooding vampire hunter and because of The Bloodpack’s emergence, the fact that he spends the majority of the film’s first hour somewhat in the background is not as problematic as it is perhaps in some of the Batman films. His conflicted relationship with the team creates drama and works well to then pick up some of the more interesting character threads from the first film, a theme of man’s capacity for monstrousness that’s further underlined by a subplot featuring the returning Kris Kristofferson.
So, what is the legacy of Blade II?
Whilst the third film would be directed by series writer, David S. Goyer, it wouldn’t reach the heights of Blade II, with the production reportedly descending into comical fallouts that are well documented. With a new Blade (played by Mahershala Ali) set to join the MCU, we already know the days of an R-rated Daywalker have likely passed. With the multiverse in play though, the chances of a Wesley Snipes return are always there, but beyond the core character, Blade II reminds us of a time early in the Marvel gold-rush when it was possible to meld competing styles into something unique, rather than producing a film to a house formula.
Ironically, Blade II’s successful alchemy of such binary tones may have served as an MCU blueprint of sorts, showing a then-young Kevin Feige (then the executive in charge of production on 2002’s Spider-Man) how talented young filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro could impose their identity upon a film, whilst still honouring and adhering to clear comic book traditions.
It’s a process that has been refined to make Marvel Studios’ untold billions, but one you don’t necessarily arrive at, without Blade II.
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