Loosely in honor of the MCU’s recent announcement of a new Blade picture, and in honor of a film that I think is better than any of the 22 films in the MCU.
Seventeen years on, and with director Guillermo del Toro’s respectable Hollywood bona-fides secured in a Best Picture and Best Director win for a film that, superficial lacquer of oddness aside, is really no less oblique or off-kilter than any other Oscarbait picture, one longs for the freakish B-movie voluptuousness of a film like Blade II. Famously, del Toro only took the film so he could have more control over the film’s follow-up, 2004’s Hellboy, the director may consider it a skeleton in his closet. Frankly though, that sense of hushed disreputability – both a film that isn’t to be spoken about and a film that refuses to easily speak its own mysteries and themes – is what makes Blade II perhaps del Toro’s most pungent English-language film, a dismembered parable of ethnic cleansing less hopelessly literal than Pan’s Labyrinth and more cutting than any of del Toro’s films in the decade since.
While some of his later films bend over backwards to explain their themes to us, Blade II doesn’t feel the itch to sanctify del Toro’s obvious glee at being granted full access to play in the Hollywood toy-box (regardless of what he says about the film). Unlike many of his later films, Blade II does not launder the director’s interests in the fetishistic and the demonic aspects of family lineage and bodily malformation – no less obvious here than elsewhere – in tidily packaged moral schemas. The original Blade played its vampire themes loosely, giving traditional questions of power, marginalization, and the decay and exsanguination of the body a sleek, technological update, but Blade II folds these questions into the action so thickly that they don’t even register as themes. Which may be why it’s something of an ugly duckling in del Toro’s filmography.
This doesn’t always work to Blade II’s benefit, and the manner in which the film dissects the shifting matrices of social control is either ambiguous, if we’re being charitable, or vague, if we’re resistant to the film’s charms or find them nothing more than a grotesque exercise in laundering B-movie thrills in a patina of social conscience. To my mind, Blade II’s allegorical concerns are so thickly caked into the screenplay and style as to avoid the latter critique. Perhaps paradoxically, however, they are almost too complicated for the film’s own good, too ambiguous to parse as an “issue” the film is confronting. Sometimes Blade II’s knotty, naughty interest in body politics (and the body politic) is barely distinguishable from happenstance. For me, though, Blade II’s inconspicuousness about its moral concerns are evidence of the film’s workmanlike ethos in full effect: rather than consciously-confronted themes, the film suggests that its meditations are natural effusions of a narrative, not choices being made by an analyst but unavoidable questions of a drama.
Often, then, Blade II’ reads as little more than a generalized, scattershot reflection on a constellation of concerns, hardly a fine-grained analysis of a more textured motion picture. It isn’t for lack of trying though. David S. Goyer’s screenplay doesn’t exactly manage the coveted trick of turning a mere situation into a genuine story. But in this case, the ambiguity of “the situation” – that it is more sketch than exegesis – is a demonstration of the film’s ego-less-ness, an example of a film recognizing that it cannot support a complete analysis or a deep dive when a series of bold, brash B-movie brushstrokes will do, more an impasto of theme than a portrait.
The situation is thus: half-human/half-vampire Blade (Wesley Snipes), afflicted with all of the vampires’ strengths and none of their weaknesses, temporarily abstains from his day-job (excuse me, night-job) hunting vampires to team up with an elite team of the undead (originally trained to kill Blade no less) in order to hunt a new breed of vampire that feeds on both humans and vampires, thereby disrupting the delicate balance between the species.
We’re initially told that this new breed of vampires represents a physical threat of world domination. In fact, the film insinuates, they represent an existential threat to the vampire’s moral lineage and presumption of “purity”. When we find out later that Nomak (Luke Goss), leader of the new breed, was a failed experiment by vampire aristocrat Damaskinos (Thomas Krestschmann), attempting to homogenize the blood of human and vampire to create a strain of super-predators resistant to the vampires’ natural weaknesses (sunlight, garlic, steel, etc), del Toro ponders a Frankensteinian vision of science gone awry. Exploring a nominally stable leader decentralized by his own pretension to grandeur, Goyer’s screenplay and del Toro’s direction draw us to the new vampires not only as repellant “others” but lost souls, tragic victims of the desire to master life itself.
In essence, and in an elusive way, Blade II is the story of a man temporarily abandoning his moral fight against the aristocratic vampires who silently feed on and exsanguinate the masses of humanity, Blade pragmatically acquiescing to that status quo, both sides uniting in service of a perceived “other” threat. Blade himself is a product of a hybrid identity, a half-human and half-vampire whose double-consciousness is uniquely activated when he has to rationalize his own temporary acceptance of the vampire hierarchy in order to defeat that which is construed as a physical danger to humanity and the vampire alike. Blade is also black, and in 2002, he was probably the most popular African-American superhero in the comic book industry, and certainly in cinema. And his temptation to join the vampire community, to renounce his hybrid nature and uniqueness so that the community can weaponize that very hybridity in ways they see fit, is never far from the film’s consciousness, especially toward the end when our protagonist is himself enslaved and drained for blood. The attempt to create a new strain of super-vampire that imitates Blade himself – bearing the strengths of vampirism, none of the weaknesses – suggests a contrived hybridization that would only homogenize, abstracting and isolating the process of inter-species blurring and turning it into a “tool” for the vampires to control the world.
The film isn’t tendentious enough to make this argument – or, if we’re not charitable, not concerned enough to even suggest an argument – so it’s obviously equally easy to read the encounter as Blade’s doubly-conscious avenger sacrificing his skepticism about a ruling class in order to vanquish a “greater threat”. But the film’s tragic reading of Nomak at least entertains the alternative, suggesting that Nomak represents a potential point of revolt against his creator’s insular vision, a revolt that is, tragically, corrupted by that very vision. Despite his marginalized status, Nomak’s own vision of racial purity still comes to the fore, a revenge-fueled desire to weaponize his oppressors’ illusion of mastery against them. Nomak is not only a variation on Magneto but resonates with decades of pop-cultural meditations on corrupted otherness violently mobilizing the ideologies of their masters in service of ending their masters’ ownership of the status quo.
Many of these questions were recently pondered in Black Panther, to cite a film with race more overtly on the mind, but while Black Panther starts from the position that its revolutionary other is a psychotic, delusory madman, Blade II views Nomak as a pathogen because he invades the status quo, and thus reveals a central failing of it. While Panther’s Eric Killmonger only becomes more deluded, Nomak’s rage is increasingly moral, and his tragic end isn’t because, as with Killmonger, he supports violent revolution, but because he aspires to the same genocide the vampires do, wanting to make everyone, human or vampire, like him. Nomak is thus a tragic foil and cracked mirror image of the protagonist’s own hybridized self, a similar hybrid with a moral conundrum to confront. When Nomak asks “is the enemy of my enemy my friend, or my enemy?,” he’s referring to Blade and their shared enemy – the vampires. But the film asks whether Blade, himself, should view Nomak as a friend or an enemy.
Again, the more you think about it, the more Goyer’s screenplay falls apart. But it does benefit from a series of bold, brutal thematic implications dancing in the background, and, more importantly, del Toro unleashing his own virulent strain of flesh-focused cinema to expose what plagues powerful figures both physically and mentally. Even if the film’s script isn’t always up to par, then, its look is. Aesthetically, the film’s vampires ironize the early ‘00s fetish for leather, coding it alternately as an aristocrat’s costume and a mock vision of bourgeois Eurotrash, suggesting an implicit affiliation between an old-money aristocracy of self-congratulatory noble blood and youthful techno-ravers. And a phenomenal cavernous encounter mid-film also further abstracts the class implications, exposing dualities between Nomak’s homogenized social underbelly (dressed, it must be mentioned, in clothing coded as working-class) and the more individualized elites and middle-class who live above-ground. Again, the film chooses to be suggestive here rather than definitive, which ultimately means that it is fascinatingly permissive to multiple interpretations, unless you think it is simply incurious and beholden to too short a fuse, too much of a violent thirst, to actually stop and thematize the questions it raises.
Whether or not this is a sign of timidity or courage is up to the viewer, although it’s unlikely that it isn’t both. The same duality could be said of the film in general. To take one example, the extremely abstract sense of physical geography, with characters rushing between scenes without much spatial contiguity between them, can be read as a flaw or an unsuspecting success. Compared to, say, Tim Burton’s sense of extreme gothic excess in the first two tentpole Batman pictures – just to name a director del Toro is often compared to – del Toro’s vision is more hermetic. Burton essayed a frightening, thoroughly disoriented city as a nightmarish assemblage of canted angles and tilted girders, an expressionistic outpouring of a city’s tortured inner soul. Del Toro’s film is equally moody and certainly as noir-influenced, but it takes more from those curdled B-picture noirs of the 1940s like Edgar Ullmer’s Detour where, owing to budget concerns in the former case, geography is almost non-existence. Del Toro essays not a city’s nightmare vision of self, as in Burton, but a city that doesn’t even seem to think of itself at all, or perhaps characters who are too single-minded to pay attention to the world around them. This conspicuous “lack” evokes something about this film’s inner-world (or lack thereof) that may either suggest a severe imaginative handicap, that the nature of this world was an after-thought, or an evocative sliver suggestive of more than it can realize.
(Another, more obvious example: Blade II’s famous “Can you blush?” line – a reference to Blade’s skin color by the white leader of the vampire team –is both highly suggestive and highly dubious in light of the African-American vampire standing right beyond Blade when he’s asked the question).
In some fashion, Blade II a fairly typical tale of tortured souls attempting to preserve a homogeneous lineage and to purify internal contaminants that are ultimately extensions of their own fragile self-preservationist logic. And Blade II is more interested in animating this logic with B-movie freakishness than in genuinely burrowing into the soul of the questions it raises. (Also on the film’s mind: Blade’s own blood-fueled life, which seems to court the lifestyle of those he resents; he fights the film’s metaphor for secret cabals and hidden forces implicitly sucking the life out of average human even as he can’t but feed on it too). But del Toro’s Blade II is still a head-rush of B-movie kineticism, a furious and mildly deranged pop parable about racial and class purity that benefits considerably from Snipes’ frankly astounding essaying of the character and from del Toro’s own deliciously unhinged direction, an action take on horror tropes that doesn’t, for once, necessitate that the horror evacuate the premises entirely. It isn’t great cinema, but unlike so many much “bigger” blockbuster superhero films from recent years with more overtly declamatory pronouncements of their own “artfulness” and more fancifully constructed, arbitrarily convoluted narratives, Blade II is so capacious because it cuts so close to the bone, ambivalently raising and layering questions that we can only gnaw.