It’s a common complaint that too many major studio movies these days are based on superhero comic books. I personally am someone who enjoys these types of stories, so I can kind of give it a pass, but it’s impossible to deny that the comic book has suddenly taken a shockingly prominent role in popular culture, especially when considering the fact that the comics industry itself is in a perpetual state of decline. But, while it’s the superhero properties of the Big Two, Marvel and DC, that get the most attention, it’s also worth noting that a whole bunch of movies based on comics that don’t fall into those two categories are getting made to. Now, I feel like it’s kind of debatable if the character of Hellboy can be considered a superhero in the traditional sense, but regardless of how you’d classify him, he’s one of my favorite comic book characters. I love Hellboy and his macabre adventures, and I’ve largely been really sad that we haven’t had a third live action adventure featuring Big Red. Guillermo Del Toro made two really fun movies based on Hellboy’s adventures, that maybe didn’t quite become the same thing as the comics, but still remained really fun movies. But, thanks to a whole lot of behind the scenes drama, Del Toro was unable to finish off what appeared to have been a trilogy of stories, placing Hellboy fans into a holding pattern until someone decided to try and reboot the property. And, a few years ago, we learned that that was on the horizon. This film had Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s full support, and we were told that this new film was going to be far closer to the comics than the Del Toro films, a true celebration of what Hellboy is. But, then the marketing started, and I got pretty worried. It all looked a little too ridiculous, too goofy, and generally just fixed with a strangely petulant tone. But, good movies are marketed poorly all the time, so I went into Neil Marshall’s Hellboy with as open a mind as possible. And, folks? It’s a mess.
This film isn’t connected with Del Toro’s films at all, but still features quite a bit of similar elements. We have Hellboy, of course, a demon who was raised from Hell during a secret Nazi ceremony. He was taken in by a man named Trevor Bruttenholm, and raised to be a paranormal investigator for an organization known as the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Hellboy appears to be somewhat famous, travelling the world as an accepted entity and fighting monsters. And, after being forced to kill a former friend and agent who has been turned into a vampire in Mexico. He’s brought in by Buttenholm and is told that his presence has been requested by a similar paranormal group known as the Osiris Club in England. So, Hellboy heads to England and meets with the ancient Osiris Club, who are getting ready to hunt a trio of giants who are terrorizing the English countryside. However, this ends up being a trick, because once they get Hellboy out into the country the Club turns on him and attempts to kill him, citing a prophecy that he will bring about the end of the world, and the vision that a medium recently had saying that that prophecy is about to come true. Hellboy survives though, and after a fight with some giants is saved by a young woman named Alice who Hellboy saved from fairies when she was an infant, giving her abilities to talk to the dead.
Bruttenholm finds Hellboy, and along with a BPRD agent named Ben Daimio they comes get Hellboy and tell him some bad news. A hog-like creature known as Gruagach, who Hellboy has previously humiliated, has been stealing a series of holy boxes hidden around the world which contain the severed body parts of an immortal witch named Nimue, who was defeated by King Arthur, and is planning on restoring her power. This seems to be why the Osiris Club was targeting Hellboy, thinking that he would side with Nimue when she’s revitalized. So, they need to find Nimue. Luckily, Hellboy is abducted by the Baba Yaga, a powerful mythical being who agrees to tell Hellboy where Nimue is in exchange for one of his eyes. Hellboy wiggles out of this arrangement, and together with Alice and Daimio Hellboy storms an ancient hill where Nimue is gaining all of her magical powers. She escapes though, but not before poisoning Alice in way that can only be cured by one person. Merlin. Luckily, Hellboy knows where Merlin is, and they go to him to save Alice. Merlin is able to save her life, but also informs Hellboy that he shares blood with King Arthur, is the rightful king of England, and will be able to wield Excalibur. Hellboy refuses to take the sword though, sensing that that would cause him to become the being that would destroy the world. So, with Alice cured the trio head to Longdon where Nimue is setting up her plans. They fight with Nimue and Gruagach, before uncovering a secret tomb with Excalibur. Nimue wants Hellboy to reach his potential, and ends up killing Buttenholm to spur him on to take the sword. And, when he does, Hellboy opens a series of portals to Hell, beginning the apocalypse. But, Alice is able to channel the soul of Bruttenholm who gives Hellboy a speech, telling him he’s more than his destiny, which gives Hellboy the confidence to kill Nimue with Excalibur and end the apocalypse. He then says goodbye to his father, and begins a new chapter of his life, running around as a team with Alice and Daimio.
There’s a lot about this movie that I should really appreciate. I love Hellboy, and his vast and weird mythology is one of my favorite to explore. And, this movie does at least play lip service to a lot of weird stuff from Hellboy’s world. The whole King Arthur stuff is taken straight from one of Hellboy’s best stories, and we even get flashes of stuff like Lobster Johnson, the Baba Yaga, and a last minute tease of Abe Sapien. But, that’s all sandwiched in a movie that feels like it may have originally been four hours long, and was absolutely slashed to ribbons. As you maybe could have told from my attempt to recap the plot, a lot happens in this movie, and it all occurs at breakneck speed, just rushing through a staggering amount of plot, never slowing down for any of it. I understand that the Del Toro movies weren’t exactly what the Hellboy comics were, but at least they had time for character growth. Instead, this movie is just rushing through an overly complicated plot, attempting to check off as many boxes as possible, all while getting the tone and truth of the comics completely wrong. The Hellboy comics are dark and moody, with Hellboy just kind of drifting from one horrific experience to another, fighting spirits, monsters, and eldritch gods, with an occasional wry joke and punch to the face thrown in. It’s a gothic detective story, one full of well-researched lore and respect for the mythologies that Hellboy is punching. But, while this movie was espoused as being a wonderful return to everything that makes Hellboy great, I cant help but feel like it got everything about the character and his world wrong.
I understand the urge to lean into an almost heavy metal aesthetic with Hellboy. He’s a giant demon with a stone hand after all. That’s something that really could work with that world. But, that’s not how Hellboy usually is, and not where he works best. I don’t agree with that urge, but I understand it. What I don’t really understand was the urge to make this movie appeal directly to moody teenage boys. Because that’s the vibe I got from this movie. This is a Hellboy who hates homework, who likes to piss off his dad, who is sarcastic and belittling to everyone around him, and who generally just wants no part in doing anything that isn’t punching monsters. And, that’s not really Hellboy. Hellboy certainly punches monsters, and he makes a lot of jokes to lighten the horrors around him, but he’s not usually a shitty teenager. He’s not someone who loves gory violence, and while he does struggle quite a bit with his identity and the nature of the prophecies that surround his life, he’s not really a character who gets all bent out of shape over his dad not respecting him. Everything about this character reads as a petulant teenager, and it’s just strange to me. The idea of a character rejecting his “fate,” and making his own destiny is an interesting one, and one that has worked well for Hellboy. But, to take all of that and make it sit on the back burner while we watch Hellboy snark his way through a cartoonishly violent movie that makes almost no sense is a profound bummer. Say what you will about the Del Toro movies, but they seemed deadset on portraying Hellboy as a shockingly gentle and deep person. His gruff demonic exterior and personality is an act meant to throw people off from the fact that at his core he’s a very good person trying to do good things and help people. But, this Hellboy is like a poster child for toxic masculinity, just wanting to yell at his dad and kill monsters. I guess that’s what some people want, but it really left me cold.
I guess I’m just the type of guy who would rather see Hellboy drunkenly singing songs with a friend than hacking a witch to bloody pieces with a flaming sword.
Hellboy was written by Andrew Cosby, directed by Neil Marshall, and released by Lionsgate, 2019
Categories: Reel Talk