The Hellboy film retrospective: The perfect duology

One of my favourite characters is Hellboy, created in 1994 by Mike Mignola. A demon born in the pits of Hell to destroy mankind, Hellboy (or “Red” to his friends) rejects his purpose and instead dedicates his life fighting demons and other paranormal threats. He joins the BRPD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) and leads a squad of other magical beings to defend humanity. I love the comics, but I wouldn’t have read them had I not seen the films by Guillermo del Toro first. With the reboot coming out (I will give my thoughts on it at the end of the post), now would be a great time to look back on the two films, and why they remain one of the best adaptations from a comic book.

The first film, released in 2004, is one of the best origin stories put on film. What better way to open a film than with narration by John Hurt? The opening is vivid, depicting how Hellboy was found by Professor Bruttenholm. The film cuts to the present day, where an adult Hellboy, played perfectly by Ron Perlman in one of the best comic book casting choices ever, is forced to battle a resurrected Rasputin. The great thing about the film is how it explains the BRPD and the complex backstory naturally, through the audience surrogate of John Meyers. Through this character, del Toro explores on of the key themes of the Hellboy mythos, and a favoured trope in his filmography- what makes a man a man?

The pacing of this film is perfect, with a tightly written plot that never bores. The characters presented are all fascinating- Liz is cursed with pyrokinetics, Abe Sapien is an experiment gone wrong, and Hellboy himself is a petulant child. The actions of the villains compel him to grow up and accept his fate as Earth’s defender. The tone is dark and tinged with horror- Sammael, the main monster of the film, is disturbing and has stepped straight out of a Lovecraft story. Del Toro tells the story through the characters- there is an evil plot and a threat to humanity, but the focus is grounded and centered on Hellboy’s journey into becoming a hero. The villains are great too. Rasputin is chilling in his limited screentime, and the awesome clockwork Nazi zombie Kroenen serves as the standout character. I adore the almost melancholic vibe a lot of the film gives. Unlike Batman V Superman, Hellboy is dark in a way that makes sense for the character. This isn’t a superhero, this is a highly flawed being of immense power wrestling with what it means to be human. Del Toro utilises all his trademarks here- Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, rain, father figures, things in jars, fascism, clockwork and complex themes about heroism and not letting the past define you. This is a perfect origin film, and its unique vibe in the annals of comic book films still hasn’t been reached.

Now it’s time for one of the best sequels of all time, Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Simply put, this film is one of the best comic book films of all time. Fresh from his magnum opus Pan’s Labyrinth, de Toro was given free reign for the sequel, creating one of the most visually stunning and unique looking films of all time. Every frame of this film is a gorgeous pallette of gold, red and insane levels of detail. Visuals are nothing without a good story though, and fortunately there is definitely one here. The Prince of the Elves, Prince Nuada, has seized control of the Magical Kingdoms and seeks to control the mythical Golden Army, planning to purge the Earth of humans and machinery. Only Hellboy and the BRPD stand in his way. The stakes are bigger and the action is better, but the story is even more personal this time, with Hellboy being given a choice between the land of magic and his adopted home of the humans.

This film is the perfect sequel in that it takes everything about the original and expands and improves it. The practical effects and makeup is just astounding, and how this film did not win Best Makeup at the Oscars in 2009 is beyond me (that category has always been a joke though). The story being told is deeply compelling. Prince Nuada is a villain, but he’s entirely sympathetic. Far from being a cold hearted monster, he genuinely wants to change the world in his own way, and offers to share the new world with Hellboy. Our hero is decided though- he will fight for humanity, no matter how much they fear him. The character conflicts are deeper this time around. Liz and Hellboy’s relationship is in turmoil, the government is cracking down on the BRPD and Abe Sapien falls for the Princess Nuala. There is drama, tension and humour. This film is funnier than the first and the humour is mostly character driven. The new, awesome character of Johann Krauss provides many of the film’s best laughs, as does the hilarious dynamic of Hellboy and Abe Sapien. My favourite scene of the film is when the two characters sit down to laugh and sing together. Del Toro strips away their monstrous appearances and makes them completely human.

The film reaches its climax as the characters attempt to hunt down Nuada and stop his plan. The third act of this film is actual perfection. Character arcs are resolved, the action is glorious, the story never stops being compelling and the film ends in an optimistic, upbeat note. One of the key plot points that will unfortunately never be resolved is the Angel of Death, featured in one scene as one of Doug Jones’s best roles. To save Hellboy, Liz meets the mysterious figure, who warns her that Hellboy will destroy the world. She risks it for the sake of their relationship and their future. It’s a brilliant scene that promised greater things to come.

So, what happened to Hellboy 3? Well, Universal were stupid and decided to release this masterpiece two weeks before The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s epic completely overshadowed this film. Del Toro was unfettered and decided to work on Hellboy 3, but not before moving to New Zealand to try and make the Hobbit films first. When that fell through, years had past, Ron Perlman was getting too old and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had secured its place in pop culture, establishing comic book dominance. This isn’t all bad though, as we got Pacific Rim and an eventual Oscar for del Toro. I suppose that’s a fair trade. Hellboy 3 could and should have happened, but circumstance just got in the way. It’s unfortunate, but at least we got two great films instead of a limp conclusion. This film franchise really is the Firefly of film franchises.

So, what about the reboot? It would have happened eventually, and I think Hellboy has a better chance of succeeding in this current age of superhero films. I can’t think of a better choice for the part than David Harbour. He looks the part, sounds the part and if Jim Hopper from Stranger Things is anything to go by we’re in for a great Hellboy.

 

We know have the rare comic book character perfectly cast not once but twice, and both times he’s been played by one of my favourite actors. I’m also excited that this film will give David Harbour the gateway into more films*- he’s been in supporting roles for a whole decade and only recently has he been given the opportunity to shine and break out in a lead role on television, so now it’s time to move onto the silver screen (although yes, I am one of those who is now playing catchup on everything he’s done since seeing him as Hopper). However, the reviews for the new film have not been promising. Because of a certain film at the end of the month I don’t feel like I want to spend money so soon after Shazam! so will probably give it a miss in the cinema, but as a fan of Hellboy, Harbour and director Neil Marshall I will check it out eventually. All that I know is that Hellboy will always be one of the best and most unique characters in comics.

*As long as Hopper doesn’t die. Do not kill Hopper. Do. Not.

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One thought on “The Hellboy film retrospective: The perfect duology

  1. I agree with you – Hellboy 1 was an excellent film and Hellboy 2 was even better. I regard the new film as one of the most needless remakes of recent times as I see no way that it can improve on or add to the originals.

    I had wondered why there was never a third film. Thank you for enlightening me.

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