Hellboy (2004)

*. I’m not a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro, but I find it hard not to respond to his own fandom. He genuinely loves movies and comic books. The obvious affection and enthusiasm he has for his various projects, which all seem to be labours of love, is a big part of what sets them apart from the usual run-of-the-mill, superhero/fantasy, CGI epics.
*. It also, I think, allows him a certain creative latitude. Having Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola, on board for this movie probably also helped in this regard. While I think del Toro’s Hellboy is true to the spirit of Mignola’s comic book, it also takes a lot of liberties that another director might not have gotten away with.
*. Another thing that really helps this production is the cast. John Hurt is great as Professor Bruttenholm (pronounced “Broom”). Selma Blair is perfect playing a low-energy Liz Sherman, someone withdrawn without being emo. I didn’t see the point of the Jeffrey Tambor character but he’s always fun to watch. Rupert Evans is Myers, a regular guy not in the comic who serves as a friend to the audience.
*. It’s Ron Perlman though who really makes the movie work. He’s laid-back and low-key as well, but it’s his physicality that sells the role. When he charges into action you don’t get the feeling you’re just watching a CGI cartoon fight but someone really getting knocked around. This is important because Hellboy gets knocked around a lot. It’s one of his defining characteristics, so you have to buy into that.
*. Of course the visuals are great. Del Toro is a natural fit with Mignolo’s mythos, which is all ruined castles and monasteries and strange mechanical creatures. The end looks a bit too much like Tomb Raider for my tastes, but by this time that had become a generic look. It’s all part of the fantasy world we (or at least our movies) live in now.
*. But it’s precisely del Toro’s reliance on visuals that puts me off him as well. Frankly, the story here, which is loosely based on Mignolo’s early Hellboy titles, is just the usual superhero stuff. Hellboy is more of a Marvel type, being the adolescent rebel with special powers that make it hard for him to have a girlfriend and just be a regular guy (something that is emphasized even more here by making the B.P.R.D. into a secret society). There are Nazis to fight. There is a supervillain (Rasputin) who is looking to, you know, destroy the world. He’s going to do this by, you know, opening a portal in the sky to another dimension. How many times has that portal been opened since in superhero movies? Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fantastic Four are a couple of others that come immediately to mind. Hell, they even used it in The LEGO Batman Movie.
*. The moral lesson is also familiar and simple. Learn to like yourself. Resist labels, since you create yourself through the choices you make. That might almost qualify as sub-Marvel, if I thought there were such a thing.
*. I would still, however, rate Hellboy an above-average superhero movie. The cast is good and del Toro gives the film a warmth I rarely find in the video game aesthetic of other comic book/video game adventures. The groovy score by Marco Beltrami is also a big plus. But it’s still a movie where all such praise has to be qualified by acknowleding what kind of movie this is. Shouldn’t “generic fantasy” be an oxymoron? It’s a bit upsetting that it isn’t.

2 thoughts on “Hellboy (2004)

  1. Tom Moody

    I made some blog comments when this movie came out that are close to your view of it (apologies for the belated cross-post):

    >>Good morbid, del Toro touches — I don’t think we’ll be forgetting the Nazi ninja surgery addict with the clockwork heart anytime soon. But if I see one more movie with a big energy monster about to “break through into our world” and cause a narrowly-averted apocalypse, I’ll…

    >>Hellboy has two narrative trajectories — both simplistic, because it’s a Hollywood movie — which converge with the sprouting of his horns at the end. He’s been filing them down to nubs to “blend in” with humans and because he’s in love with a human woman. She has been flirting with a cute FBI agent and Hellboy’s been spying on them jealously. His bad father Rasputin kills her and promises to revive her if Hellboy will open the gates of hell. When Hellboy sprouts horns, they are the monster rack worn in his new role as gatekeeper but also the cuckold’s horns. Suddenly, as he is preparing to let the Squid Monster through the Portal, he hears the voice of his good father, John Hurt (saying what exactly I don’t remember because this dumb movie is already fading fast), and for the greater good of humanity Hellboy abandons his promise to “always protect the girl” and chooses to stop the apocalypse. At this point he snaps off his horns in anger — a good visual. And because it’s a Hollywood movie, there are no consequences to Hellboy’s choice — he saves the world AND the girl mysteriously revives and declares her love for him. Thus does the logic of Greek Tragedy succumb to the logic of the Five Script Doctors.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Good points. I just think there was too much in the Hellboy universe to really cover in a movie. The comics are great, but they’re full of involved storylines that go off in different directions and involve different characters and timelines. And with del Toro’s trilogy cutting short after two movies and the franchise reboot probably not going anywhere I can imagine people who haven’t read the comic being baffled by Hellboy’s mysteriously appearing crown and his connection to the beast of the apocalypse. At least this first movie sort of had a coherence of its own, but you’re still left with a frustrating sense that it’s only a fragment of a chaotic and obscure mythology.


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