It seems curious that audiences are getting a brand new Hellboy movie this week and the general levels of anticipation don’t seem to have advanced beyond ‘meh’. Granted, the film is coming out in the midst of a crowded field for superheroes at the box office, with Shazam! winning over audiences and Captain Marvel a billion dollar smash, and that doesn’t even get into the emotional and record-breaking wait for Avengers: Endgame. Still, it’s not as if we were never excited for the return of Mike Mignola’s most iconic creation. Surely now was the perfect time for a hard R reboot offering an alternative superhero movie to the PG-13 crowd, and one with current geek fave David Harbour in the leading role? Neil Marshall’s directing and the cast includes Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Daniel Dae Kim and Sophie Okonedo. So why aren’t we more hyped for this? Well, I think we may have Guillermo del Toro to blame for that.
It’s been 15 years and about a week since the release of the original Hellboy movie. The king of the Hollywood superhero was Sam Raimi and his iteration of Spider-Man, and the franchise age was in full force as five of the top ten highest grossing movies of the year were sequels (the remaining five films included two animated movies, a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, Troy and The Passion of the Christ). Comic book adaptations were becoming more common in the movie market but they were no guarantee of commercial success. The weekend Hellboy opened in 2004, it faced the waning might of Disney’s 2D animation efforts with Home on the Range and an action movie starring a former wrestler who was gaining popularity with audiences. It took the top spot that weekend but not by much, grossing $23.1m on a $66m budget. Reviews were strong but this wasn’t a moment of the pop culture zeitgeist. It was enough to get them a sequel but there wasn’t an overwhelming sense that this would change the game, so to speak. It’s only now with the hindsight of years past and the growing star power of their director that the original Hellboy movies have gained the credit they deserve. And about time too, because in an over-saturated market of capes and flying and lasers that shoot into the sky, Guillermo del Toro’s take on Hellboy remains one of the most sinfully underrated comic book movies of our generation.
In 2004, Guillermo del Toro had an eclectic filmography. The Mexican director was highly celebrated for his work in his native Spanish but his Hollywood efforts were a more mixed bag. The unabashedly genre focused film-maker loved monsters in all shapes and sizes, from the ornate mechanical scarab that grants vampiric life in Cronos to the genetically mutated insects of Mimic and the hauntingly beautiful ghosts of The Devil’s Backbone. Blend Catholic imagery with old-school Hollywood monster movies, fairy-tales and a touch of Lovecraft, and you have del Toro’s dream. So of course he had to make a Hellboy movie, especially after 2002’s Blade 2 made a lot of money and had some critics proclaiming del Toro’s ‘vomitorium of viscera’ (thank you, Roger Ebert, for that line) to be better than its predecessor. Del Toro, a self-confessed fan of Mignola’s comics, felt like the right fit for this dark horse of a superhero movie: The demon who works for the good guys. Hey, giving Spider-Man to the guy who made Evil Dead worked out okay.
What works so well about Hellboy and its sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army is that del Toro, an elevated fanboy, is as emotionally invested in this story and its characters as he is with everything else in his filmography. He told Twitch Film in 2013 that all of his movies are deeply personal works for him, be they comic book adaptations in the English language of the original stories and critical darlings he made in Spanish. Genre fiction nourishes him and you feel that satisfaction throughout his work.
Hellboy is, forgive the predictable wordplay, a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a family drama dressed up in the baroque, the story of a bullish guy estranged from his dad and fighting with his on-off girlfriend who learns to be emotionally mature and is also the spawn of hell brought to earth by Rasputin and the Nazis. Del Toro has a particular gift with injecting humour and knowing silliness into material that’s often at risk of stifling self-serious, doing so without puncturing the dramatic heft of the narrative. Hellboy himself, played to delicious perfection by Ron Perlman, is exactly the kind of hero you want in your corner, burdened by the weight of his mission but still light-hearted enough to make jokes about it and get on with living his life the best he can. The kinetic frenzy of a demon killing Nazis with a bricked fist while chomping on a cigar is simultaneously thrilling and cheeky, a kind of high-low schlock that feels as at home in the B-movie pulps that inspired the film as it does in the often overwrought canon of superhero cinema.
But the sequel is better.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is to Hellboy what Batman Returns is to Batman. It’s a comic book movie sequel made by an auteur that feels more like a film cut from the cloth of their aesthetic and thematic iconography than that of the source material. With Batman Returns, Tim Burton went wild with his German expressionist inspirations and melodramatic indulgence of broken souls, to the point where you half wonder why Batman even bothered to turn up. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is still a Hellboy movie through and through but what makes it spark is all del Toro. First, he smartly gets rid of the boring audience avatar from the first movie (sorry, Rupert Evans), because he knows that he doesn’t need a mere human to get viewers to emotionally latch onto this curious ensemble. He loves these monsters, each and every one of them, and he knows you will too. That’s why there’s more of them, each more astounding to look at than the last. The sequel is more vibrant, its colour palette more varied and eclectic. The set-pieces are bigger, the jokes funnier, the stakes higher. This is del Toro uncompromised, but it’s also Hellboy at its most lavish and loving.
Superhero movies are essentially soap operas in terms of their ensemble interactions, and The Golden Army embraces that with domestic drama that never feels out of place in a film with tooth fairies and a giant sentient cloud of smoke voiced by Seth Macfarlane with a German accent. The romantic entanglements of Hellboy and Liz Sherman (played by Selma Blair, who’s awesome in these movies) are given as much weight and emotional force as the eye-grabbing set pieces. Why wouldn’t our hero get drunk and sing along to Barry Manilow in the middle of the movie? He’s not the only creature treated with such warmth either. In one set-piece, where the film goes full monster madness in the manner of many a disaster movie, the ultimate death of the rampaging beast is imbued with as much tragedy as if they were the hero.
Of course, by the time Hellboy II: The Golden Army was released, it was 2008 and the superhero craze was in full swing. The Dark Knight was the highest grossing film of the year and a little movie called Iron Man became a surprise hit that signalled a new wave of the genre that would completely rewrite the rulebook of Hollywood film-making. By comparison, The Golden Army, which did make money, was too niche, too weird, too much. Del Toro is now an Oscar winner, one of the most recognizable directors in the business and one who got there by committing to genre works. While it’s not impossible to imagine him directing another big name project or comic book movie in the future - he’s certainly been attached to plenty of them - he’s now at a stage in his career where he could work solely in the realm of his own original stories if he wanted to. His Hellboy was just a few years too soon to get its dues, but in many ways, they’re the works that best exemplify what a del Toro movie is. They’re also Hellboy at his best. I hope the new film is good but for now it’s worth appreciating what came before.
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