Josh Reviews Hellboy
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is one of my very favorite comic book characters. Over the past 25 years, the comic book universe surrounding this big red paranormal investigator has grown and deepened into a fantastically fun and complex epic-scale saga. The various Hellboy-universe comic books continually top my list of my favorite comic book series each year, and I have written extensively about these amazing comics here on the site. I loved the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro. Neither is perfect, and while there are aspects of the comic-book series and the characters that they get exactly right, there are also many instances in which the movies are less a faithful adaptation of the comics and more a version of the comics filtered through Guillermo del Toro’s particular vision. But a Guillermo del Toro version of Hellboy is a spectacular thing, and there are so many aspects of those two movies that are just so wonderful, in particular Ron Perlman’s absolute perfect embodiment of the title character. The ending of the second film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, seemed to set the stage for a trilogy-capping third film, and it’s one of the great cinematic disappointments that this third film never materialized. I was disappointed when I heard that they’d be rebooting the Hellboy film series, but I also saw potential in the idea of a more faithful adaptation of the comic book source material, and I thought the casting of Stranger Things‘ David Harbour as Hellboy was a great idea. So, how was the finished film?
It’s a disappointment, honestly. There are a lot of interesting moments and ideas in the film, certain concepts and scenes that work great. But for every moment that works, it feels like there are three that are huge missed opportunities, and I didn’t feel that the film came together into a coherent and enjoyable whole.
Hellboy feels, frankly, like a B-movie. There are several reasons for this:
First, the film is overstuffed with over-the-top gore and violence that is cartoonishly silly. When I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, I was completely unprepared for the intensity of the violence. I wasn’t expecting so much blood and violence in a fantasy movie! That intensity elevated the movie; it showed that this was a movie to be taken seriously, one with real dramatic heft. But here, in Hellboy, the blood and gore feels to me like it makes the movie LESS serious. The over-the-top crazy violence feels silly and juvenile to me, like a teenager’s idea of “yeah, cool!!” but not something to be taken seriously.
The entire film feels unrelentingly loud and in-your face in a way I didn’t enjoy. Part of that is the continual gore, but also the actual volume of the film. The film is LOUD, but not, in my opinion, in a pleasant way. The rock-and-roll soundtrack is too much and, again, to me feels more like a teenager’s idea of cool — or, even worse, some older studio dude’s idea of what a teenager might think is cool. (The carefully chosen song soundtrack of a film like Guardians of the Galaxy elevated that film, but here the hard-rock soundtrack choices worked against the film in my opinion.) The whole film felt too loud to me, with too much noise and explosions and too much yelling. David Harbour chooses to yell most of his lines of dialogue as Hellboy, and it’s not a choice that works for me. (More on this below.)
Finally, there’s something about the blue-grey look of the film that feels very B-movie to me, very generic, very uninspired. I understand that Hellboy was made on a much smaller budget than, say, any of the Marvel movies being released these days. But a small-budget movie can still look like a big movie if done well. (See: Alex Garland’s sci-fi movies Ex Machina or Annihilation.) But I felt Hellboy often looked sort of cheap.
What works about the film?
I love that the filmmakers tried to hew more closely to specific storylines from the Hellboy comic books, specifically the mini-series The Wild Hunt. It’s fun to see lots of imagery from that series brought to life on the big screen: the British men on horses hunting giants, the Baba Yaga’s walking house, the Gruagach, Nimue, etc. There are lots of other fun deep cuts from Hellboy lore that excited me to see, such as mentions of the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra and the Oannes Club, and I was delighted to see Lobster Johnson!! I was not expecting that! I loved the inclusion of Lobster Johnson in the recounting of Hellboy’s origin. (In the original Seed of Destruction comic book series, the pulp hero was John Byrne’s pulp character the Torch of Liberty. But since that was a crossover with a character from outside of Mr. Mignola’s Hellboy universe, future references to Hellboy’s origin in the comics have generally excluded the Torch. It was a very cool idea to take this other pulp hero character, who was introduced later in the Hellboy series, and include him in Hellboy’s origin in the Torch’s place. And to have the character played by Thomas Hayden Church? Perfect!! I wish we’d seen more of the Lobster in the film!!)
It’s hard to imagine anyone filling Ron Perlman’s shoes as Hellboy, but David Harbour was an inspired choice, and in the film’s quieter moments I felt he really nailed the character. He’s able to blend a tough world-weariness with a gentle soul that is central to the character. Hellboy is often in very serious situations, but he’s a very funny character, and Mr. Harbour seems to understand that. But I don’t like, as I mentioned above, that Mr. Harbour winds up shouting so much of his dialogue in the film. This tips the balance of the character slightly, and makes him a little too abrasive, and results in some jokes not landing as well as they should. (As an example: I didn’t think the joke of “I’m on your side!” worked in the film’s trailers; I was hoping the moment would land better in context in the film, but nope — I though that yelling delivery sunk the joke.)
(I also didn’t love the Hellboy make-up and prosthetics in this film. They tried to give Hellboy a more realistic and lived-in look than the slightly plastic look in the del Toro films, which was a worthy goal. But the design just didn’t really look to me like Hellboy from the comics. His long flowing hair looked wrong; his chin looked wrong. There were some moments in the film in which the makeup looked great — there were some close-ups that really wowed me — but there were also a lot of moments when I didn’t think the look was quite right.)
While I missed seeing Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, I was pleased to see the film pick out two other fantastic characters from the Hellboy comics to include as Hellboy’s partners on this adventure: Alice Monaghan and Captain Daimio.
Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) was well-cast as Captain Daimio. Here’s someone who is of a very different personality than Hellboy, and so it’s natural that they’d butt heads. And I loved the visual effects of Daimio’s transformation into a jaguar-god. That was a great aspect of the character from the comics that it was fun to see on screen. But I wish the character hadn’t been so one-dimensional. I wanted to see more of his heart; I wanted to see more of his tortured soul. (Here’s a man hunting monsters who is even more of a monster than Hellboy himself! That should have played out more powerfully in the film.)
Sasha Lane was terrific as Alice. I love that they chose to cast an African-American actress in this part that is a white woman in the comics. I liked Alice’s spunk and energy, and I like that they made Alice funnier and more adventurous than she was in the comics. (They also made the right choice not to develop a romantic relationship between Hellboy and Alice, as happened in the comics.)
My favorite scene in the movie is the flashback to how Hellboy rescued Alice as a baby. That sequence is a direct adaptation of a short story from the comics, and it is absolutely perfect. It’s a dangerous scene with true stakes, but it’s also clever and original (showing us imagery and ideas we haven’t seen in a million movies before) and it’s also very funny. David Harbour is perfect as Hellboy here, smart and brave and VERY funny. Why couldn’t the rest of the film have been like this?
Probably my favorite character in the film is actually the pig-creature the Gruagach! I loved this character in the comics, and I was very impressed by how well he was brought to life on film. Stephen Graham’s voice was perfect, and I though the CGI that animated the character was so great. This was the best CGI in the film! I loved how alive the Gurauach’s face was. This character was dangerous and also very funny. This is the balance that Hellboy stories and characters should find, that was missing from much of the film.
For a film that was supposed to be a more faithful adaptation of the Hellboy comics, Ian McShane’s Professor Bruttenholm was VERY different from the comic book character!! BUT that was OK, as I loved Mr. McShane’s gruff, profane interpretation. This Bruttenholm was very tough and very funny. I only wish they’d found a way to better use the character. (Although he’s in a lot of scenes, Professor Bruttenholm doesn’t actually have much of importance to DO in the story.)
Milla Jovovich’s Nimue didn’t really work for me. Something about the tone of her performance felt off. She wasn’t helped by the one-dimensional way this character was scripted. She’s pretty much just evil, with not much beyond that. The film halfheartedly tries to make a case that she’s acting on behalf of all the magical creatures that Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. have been hunting down and killing, but nothing in the way her character is presented demonstrates that she isn’t just 100% selfish and evil.
The film also tries and fails to use that idea as a source of self-doubt and conflict for Hellboy. I did like the tense scene in the middle of the movie between Hellboy and Professor Bruttenholm, in which Hellboy expresses anger and regret at how his whole life has been hunting down creatures like himself. It’s a great scene. But the characters didn’t have enough development leading up to that point for the scene to land as well as it should have, and this conflict didn’t seem to go anywhere after that scene. We can see Nimue is pure evil and we know Hellboy is going to have to fight and defeat her, so there’s not much real drama or emotional weight here. (What this movie needed was a scene as beautiful and melancholy as the death of the elemental forest god in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in which we see the death of one of these “monsters” as a true tragedy, rather than a victory.)
I was intrigued that the film brought the Arthur aspect of Hellboy’s history from the comics into the story. On the one hand, this is such an unusual and surprising idea from the comics that I can see the appeal of using it in the film. This is certainly not something that general audiences would be expecting. But like much of the film, this is an interesting idea that, as executed, doesn’t really work. We don’t yet know this version of Hellboy very well, so these revelations about his true origin and the identity of his parents don’t land with the impact they should have. (This would probably have been a more effective reveal to save for a second or third film… though, sadly, I don’t expect any sequels to this reboot will ever actually get made.) Also, as structured in the film, it doesn’t make any sense to me why Nimue would attempt to ally herself with Hellboy and want him to take up Excalibur. The instant he does, that spells curtains for her. Surely she knows this? Even if she truly believed that Hellboy would ally himself with her and rule by her side, the evil Nimue we’ve seen to that point doesn’t seem like a character who would be content to share power with anyone.
The post-credits scenes are fun. I loved the mid-credits scene with the Lobster. I wish he’d been in the film more! (I assume they were planting seeds for a future sequel which we’ll likely never see.) The final post-credit scene is a nice introduction of Abe Sapien to this rebooted series, though again, this is a tease for a future film that we’ll likely never see, so it feels a little bittersweet and useless. Oh well.
I love Hellboy and these characters and this universe. I am confident that many amazing movies could be made from this source material! But this attempt to reboot and relaunch the Hellboy film series feels to me like a big swing and a miss. It’s a shame.
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