In the decades to come, the case of duelling Hellboy films will make a fascinating case for some film historian. How can two films with the same source material be so wildly different in style and tone? Where as Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 Hellboy enjoyed the advantage of a light comic book movie omniverse and the attentions of its director’s auteur-like touch, Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is a modern comic book movie through and through; Big, loud, and thoroughly convinced there’s a whole franchise ahead of it.
Now let’s begin by saying this, Hellboy (2019) is fine. It’s heavy metal compared to del Toro’s smooth jazz, but if you can survive the drastic change in tone, and are a really big fan of the Mike Mignola comic book series, you will likely have a good time. To me, Marshall’s Hellboy suffers from what I’m calling “The Amazing Spider-Man problem”. Sam Raimi left such an indelible impression as to what a Spider-Man movie should look like, and how the material should be handled (see: Spider-Man 2). It’s hard to explain exactly why we need a new version of the character other than the ancient reason to do anything: Because We Can.
“Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is a modern comic book movie through and through; Big, loud, and thoroughly convinced there’s a whole franchise ahead of it.”
What you notice right away about this Hellboy is that it’s gory. The opening shot is of a crow eating the eyeball out of a corpse’s head. From there we see Milla Jovovich’s Blood Queen impaled by King Arthur before being carved into box-sized portions to be buried for all eternity. Her CGI blood is also absorbed into a tree, and all this before we even get the title card. So this is not your father’s Hellboy. That message is sent loud and clear from the first few minutes.
The plot follows Hellboy (David Harbour) in the modern era, as he tries to stop the servants of evil from putting the pieces of the Blood Queen back together so she can wipe the Earth clean of humans, and make a world for all the monsters. Unlike his cinematic predecessor though, Harbour’s Hellboy has extraordinary doubts about the mission, and often wonders allowed why he’s the one killing monsters instead of fighting with his own kind. Part of this has to do with a particularly abrasive relationship with his adopted father, Professor Broom. Ian McShane doesn’t try to project fatherly warmth in the same way that the late great John Hurt did when he played Broom in the 2004 film, and while del Toro enjoyed the back and forth of the unusual father/son dynamic of Broom and Hellboy, Marshall seems uninterested in why Broom would invest so much in Hellboy. Or why Hellboy is so invested in standing by a man who seemed to keep him around only to turn him into a weapon.
It’s not the first film that should come to mind, but McShane’s Broom reminded me of his stepfather role in Hot Rod, pummelling his step son in weekly physical contest that’s supposed to build character, but seems really meant for the stepdad’s own personal amusement. That’s not to say that McShane is no good. He brings a wily quality to Broom that’s enjoyable to watch even if it tells you nothing about the character, or his relationship with his adopted son.
Hellboy gets two new sidekicks in this film, a psychic named Alice played by Sasha Lane, and were-jaguar Maj. Ben Daimio played by Daniel Dae Kim. Kim, at least, looks like he’s having a fun time playing the straight man in the film, and Lane does an okay job with the thankless role of being the receptacle through which exposition gets dumped through because Alice is new to all the paranormal shenanigans.
“…all sorts of bizarro creatures that seem like H.R. Giger and Clive Barker got drunk in a cabin somewhere for the weekend and tried to out do each other in a game of “Who can come up with the most gruesome monster?”
If there’s one thing that the movie does well, it’s capturing that sense of the randomly weird that Mignola does so well in the comics by combining two very different things into one character, like a luchador vampire, for example. There’s a great scene where Alice literally barfs up a ghost, and an elaborate sequence with Baba Yaga, who lives in an alternative dimension, in a house that walks around on chicken legs. The finale apocalypse also features all sorts of bizarro creatures that seem like H.R. Giger and Clive Barker got drunk in a cabin somewhere for the weekend and tried to out do each other in a game of “Who can come up with the most gruesome monster?”
As for the main monster, Harbour’s Hellboy, you can see that the actor is struggling. Harbour has spent most of his career as a reliable character actor, an ensemble player, but in the spotlight he seems like a man feeling the weight of opening night. Not to mention the fact that he’s also stepping into the oversized shoes of Ron Perlman, another great character actor who took centre stage under Hellboy’s shaved off horns. Harbour doesn’t quite make the role his own, but there might be potential. He certainly sells Hellboy’s sense of indignation about being a hero-demon in a human world.
The script by Andrew Cosby makes a lot of the same mistakes that other comic book movies, being so preoccupied with the vastness of the universe that there’s really no time for small character moments. There’s always a new creature, a new detail, and new plot hitch that requires some kind of explanation. There is never a more creative way to be given that explanation other than to have some character just say it out loud.
You can make the case that del Toro’s Hellboy had some of that, but those movies always felt like they were being driven by character, while our new Hellboy is being driven by plot. Certain details are withheld from characters only in order to create tension, new powers only reveal themselves when convenient to the story, and there are too many bad guys with too many different motivations that they all kind of sideline the main villain. The Blood Queen is already hindered because Jovovich is such a wonderful physical actress, and the movie doesn’t really give her anything physical to do.
“…in spite of the criticisms, Hellboy, like all comic book movies, is certain of its own longevity [but] long-term thinking hinders the short term needs of letting a film stand on its own”
The best moments of Hellboy is when it just lets itself be weird without trying to talk about it. The first time Daimio turns into a were-jaguar, it’s just allowed to happen. We watch him struggle with some kind of malady throughout the movie, we seem him inject himself with something, but the moment he turns into a jaguar man, the script treats us as smart enough to get it. Hellboy does not suffer from a lack of ideas, but they’re not always executed in the best way.
But in spite of the criticisms, Hellboy, like all comic book movies, is certain of its own longevity. There’s a couple of pro forma post credits scenes, and a couple of Easter eggs that make the point that there are already ideas for more Hellboy. In so much as I’m a fan of the comic book Hellboy and appreciate finally seeing Lobster Johnson on screen (as portrayed wonderfully by Thomas Haden Church), the appearance of Lobster Johnson seems to service only the desire to have Lobster Johnson in the film.
Hellboy seems like it’s trying to prove to you that it’s done the reading, and if you’ve done the reading, then you can fill the movie with all kinds of hints and directions from which you can build sequels and spin-offs on. This long-term thinking hinders the short term needs of letting a film stand on its own, and in the final scene, you can see that Hellboy is already thinking about further adventures in spite of any mixed feelings you have about the movie you just watched. In the end, del Toro’s Hellboy was, at least, only focused on meeting its own ends, but that was a different time.
Now it might be unfair to compare this Hellboy to del Toro’s. Marshall is undeniably talented in his own way, and there are times in Hellboy where I feel like he’s channeling the style he brought to Doomsday, his misunderstood genre-bending hit that was 28 Days Later meets The Road Warrior. In Doomsday, the action was frantic and gory and with a kind of adrenaline kick that blasted you through the movie, but in Hellboy those moments are gone too soon, and I’m not sure the budget was able to keep up with Marshall’s vision in the computer effects department.
For Hellboy fans though, there is probably a lot to recommend to this remake. It’s got some good ideas, and, at least, a basis to proceed with all-new, and all-different adventures for Harbour’s demon spawn. Let’s call it “beginner’s luck”. Are you planning to see Neil Marshall’s Hellboy this weekend? Let us know your thoughts of the new adaptation on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!