Hellboy (2004) was a moderate success that, today, would be labeled a total failure. But back in 2004 it did well enough for its director to plan out a trilogy, which used to be the highest level of success to which a franchise film could aspire. We were supposed to see Hellboy 2 sometime in 2006…but Hellboy 1‘s distributor, Colombia Pictures (a division of Sony), declined to renew its contract with Hellboy 1‘s production company, Revolution Studios.
The gods only know why – but I can guess. Revolution’s contract was up, and the Colombia of 2007 was very different from the Colombia of today. Flush with Spider-Man cash, Sony probably figured,
Evil Me: We’ve got Spider-Man 3 coming up and Ghost Rider right after that. Plus the Playstation 3 just came out. Who needs another weird, classic monster movie fan running around, making movies based on niche comics that aren’t published by Marvel?
Then Pan’s Labyrinth came out, winning three Oscars, three BAFTAs, two Saturns, and a Hugo, on top of being the best movie Guillermo del Toro’s ever made…well, ok, maybe second best, now…but we’ll litigate that when I’m not in the middle of a story. Pan’s Labyrinth also made four times its budget back, signaling to every vampire squid in Hollywood that, yes, this del Toro guy was ready for the Big Time, and that partnering with any company producing his movies was a deal worth making.
Thus The Golden Army is a Universal Studios film, so it can use thematically appropriate clips from – for example – Bride of Frankenstein without getting into trouble. Del Toro originally planned to make this a stealth remake one of the classic Universal Monster movies but, glory be, he and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola scrapped that in favor of an original story. Making Hellboy 2 a textbook example of how to do a Good Sequel, picking up on all the things in the first movie that worked and literally shipping those that didn’t off to Antarctica, where we’ll never see them again. (RIP Special Agent Myers – we hardly knew ya because you were a nothing character who didn’t need to exist in the first place.)
Instead of translating a Hellboy comic into the language of cinema (like they did last time) they made a movie I could easily see published as a three- or four- or five-issue Hellboy miniseries. The result is a massive improvement over the first film in nearly every category. The performances are more natural because the actors are returning for another fun go-round…and even if six hours in a make-up chair every day isn’t fun (spoiler alert: it isn’t), I don’t notice, because only the fun wound up in the can. The special effects are better because this production had twenty extra million dollars to play with, and more time to integrate them into the live action footage. The characters are fully established, so we get to spend a whole two hours watching them play off each other. The new characters have to establish themselves, of course, but we only get one new guy on the BPRD side – Dr. Krauss, the rules and regs-obsessed New Boss, called down on everyone’s heads by the brass once Hellboy makes himself known to the public. Will time bonding with Team Hellboy soften Dr. Krauss’ procedural fundamentalism, leading him to say something like, “To hell with regulations!” at some dramatic point at the start of Act Three? Only people who’ve watched more than two other movies know for sure.
The rest of the new characters pop up on the side of our antagonist. An antagonist who is the real mover and shaker of this story, in accordance with that Serialized Storytelling 101 format I dinged Hellboy one over. I got a comment on that review from long-timer Shadowman4710, saying, “Oddly enough, I thought the second Hellboy film was better than the first,” and that’s not odd at all. That indicates only that you are still sane.
Feels funny to say that now because, back in 2008, I treated Hellboy 2 as that summer’s “also ran.” We all did, because we were all fools. Our Antagonist, Nuada, Prince of the Elves, calls us “[p]roud, empty things,” and he’s so right it gives me the shivers. I don’t even want to call him “Our Villain,” because he’s right about everything in a way modern comic book movie villains are not…no matter what their Reddit and Twitter troll armies might tell you. “The humans have forgotten the gods and destroyed the earth,” Nuada tells his father’s court, “and for what? Parking lots. Shopping malls…They will never have enough!” If I had a sword, I’d swear it to this dude and proclaim him King Someone Knows the Truth. I’d be the Benedict Arnold of the Elf-Human Wars and, unlike General Arnold, I’d be on the right side of history.
Elves have talked like that ever since Tolkien turned the child-snatching, corgi-riding forest sprites he heard about as a kid into a civilization of immortal, occasionally militant animists with various flavors of psychic powers. Tolkien’s successors refined that formula down through the years, and Peter Jackson’s movies introduced it to a mass audience that’s either allergic to reading or too busy to organize a full Dungeons and Dragons party. As in Middle-Earth, the Elves here are essential to the whole world’s origin story…which we finally see dramatized, appropriately, as a bedtime story Professor Bruttenholm tells to his son.
Once upon a time, the King of the Elves commissioned the goblin blacksmiths of Bethmoora to build him an indestructible army, the better to beat back the encroachments of a humankind that was already getting “civilized,” as we call it. The army worked too well for the King’s taste, so he called it off and negotiated a peace treaty: “man would keep to the cities, and the magical beings would own the forests.” Prince Nuada saw the obvious flaw in this and exiled himself rather than live with it. Now, thousands of years later, he’s back and he’s had enough of humanity’s bullshit. He will unleash the Golden Army once more…as soon as he gathers the pieces of the crown that controls them.
The first piece is up for auction in Manhattan, because it’s a literal golden oldie and nobody knows what it does anymore. Because our lives are so comparatively short, we humans have a contempt for history that is as massive as an Elvish prince’s superiority complex…and, arguably, even more dangerous. So Nuada unleashes a swarm of tooth fairies on the auction house, killing everyone inside and drawing the BPRD away from their day-to-day drama.
It’s business as usual down under New Jersey. Hellboy and Liz are officially together, but that just means the both of them can chafe at their between-mission confinement. Director Manning is still trying to keep Big Red under wraps, having resorted to bribery, for all the good it does. (And now that it’s 2007/8, he has to worry about YouTube. “God, I hate YouTube,” he mutters to himself, and I find myself having negative sympathy. Yeah, you think you hate YouTube, Manning? Try working with it.) And Abe is still Abe – the clam, cultured center of this universe…so he obviously needs to have his status quo fucked up. And nothing fucks up a dude’s status quo more than a manic pixie dream girl, amIright, fellas?
I probably shouldn’t use such an over-used and dismissive term. Even the critic who came up with it, Nathan Rabin, started decrying it in 2014, after seven years watching it decay into yet another interchangeable synonym for anything and everything people don’t like. (Like “in name only,” or “Mary Sue.”)
Princess Nuala isn’t really manic, anyway. She’s traumatized from having just watched her brother kill their father. But “pixie’s” still a synonym for both “elf,” just like “fairy.” “Fairy”’ being a combination of the Old French suffix for female-gendered nouns and the Old English word for “doomed.” Thus the Fairy Folk are also the Doomed Folk, and have been ever since the first human city decided its need for resources justified the destruction of everything outside its walls.
What I’m saying is, if a third of Twitter’s going to keep going “Killmonger Was Right,” another third’s going to keep going, “Thanos Did Nothing Wrong,” and another third’s going to keep going, “Adam Driver’s My Fascist Boyfriend,” then I’m pivoting to being a full-time Prince Nuada Stan. Watching this now, with the Amazon and the Arctic both on fire and nobody doing a damn thing about it, except making it worse, I think, “Hell, yes, my dude – someday a real Golden Army’s gonna come and wash the streets from this landscape.”
But anyway…back to Abe. He meets his Princess at the Troll Market under the Brooklyn Bridge – a sequence that deserves to be poured over frame-by-frame, the way people pour over street scenes in Star Wars movies. Here we seen an entire society pushed as far to the margins as you can get without being actually underground…like Prince Nuada…where the surviving magical beings of lower Manhattan eke out an unenviable existence in the literal shadow of one of the Gilded Age’s most famous monstrosities. And this is the status quo the BPRD exists to prop up. Oh sure, it’s nice to have someone around to keep the Lance of Longinus away from Nazis, or keep the resurrected Rasputin from raining squid gods down upon us…but absent those existential threats to all life on Earth, what does the BPRD do to keep itself busy? Because what they do in this film looks a lot like brutalizing the underclass.
All cops are bastards, and that’s as true for magic cops as it is for your standard-issue, neckless steroid-and-Oakley junkies. Oh, someone turned the rich-ass patrons of a Park Avenue auction house into hamburger? Cry me an East River, seize all their assets, and give them to that person with the talking tumor. When Prince Nuada unleashes a giant plant monster upon our “heroes,” the film could’ve treated it like a triumph over the forces of evil – like the last one treated Hellboy’s bouts with Samiel, the Desolate One. Instead, headshotting a forest god is treated like the blasphemous act it really is, complete with sad music and a sad Hellboy face. “You did a good job out there,” Liz says to him later, trying to reassure. “Then tell me, why don’t I feel so good?” Because you headshot a forest god, you dumb fuck. It reminds me of something Godzilla’s co-creator and original director, Ishiro Honda, once said: “Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.”
But anyway…Abe and Princess Nuala bond over their shared lives of quiet isolation, their shared love of poetry, and their shared psychometric powers. I usually hate star-crossed love affairs, since I grew up in an era when they were popular, but this one gets pass from me because everyone around our lovers, and even our lovers themselves, seem to realize they’re as doomed as Elves in general. I love Hellboy’s face when he realizes what Abe’s dick has led him into. And I love Hellboy’s reaction, because what can you do with a friend caught in star-crossed love story? Can’t talk ’em out of it – love’s not rational. It’s much better to split a six-pack and have a Barry Manilow karaoke duet. Somehow, I managed to forget about Hellboy and Abe’s duet, and my brain is now officially On Notice. As horrible things continue to pile up in our lives, we must strive to remember the Good.
This also gets a pass from me because our lover’s psychometric powers allow them to skip over the usual getting-to-know-each-other bullshit. There’s a moment when Nuala clearly gets a vision of Abe’s back story, and a lesser film might’ve bogged this moment down with a flashback. This one just lets Abe go, “Yeah…sorry…”and Nuala go, “No, it’s cool…I mean, not cool-cool, but I understand.” And it is cool. And I do understand. Because – once again, thanks to psychometric powers – there’s only one way for all of this to go. They’re twin royal Elf siblings who always know where each other are, can feel each others pain, and even manifest each others wounds. You do the math. One of my IRL friends, who also has a twin sister, called this “twinsploitation” and I like that phrase too much.
The first Hellboy made the argument that free will and having an actual life can overcome the horrible circumstances of your birth, and/or all the traumatic events that followed, and that is true. Hellboy II says, “Great…but our world is one great big horrible circumstance, full of prejudicial assholes who will judge you soon as look at you, and self-righteous royalists who’ll kill their own dads for the chance to do a genocide.” And that is also true.
So after a whole movie chafing at his underground confinement, Helboy takes the first opportunity this one presents to reveal himself to the public. He’s proud of it, too, and good on him…but he’s also kind of a dumbass who doesn’t think things through. So now, whenever he gets into fights in public, instead of watching Director Manning spin-doctor it on TV, he gets to watch every talking head blather on about “…the BPRD and it’s promotion of interspecies of marriage, seen by many as a threat to traditional families, fueled by federal funds…” I can just see John Boehner, or some other soul-less Republican psycho, droning on about that on Fox News…oh, gods, I just got a vision of the Sequel That Never Was: Hellboy vs. the House Intelligence Committee. Or worse – the House Paranormal Activities Committee.
“I wish father were here,” Hellboy tells Abe, “he’d know what to tell you. Us.” He’d probably tell you to think before you act, especially now that you’ve got more than yourself to think about. But like his big stone hand, Hellboy’s a blunt instrument. That’s why he works so well with Abe, who’s more of a Swiss Army Knife. Dr. Krause is a precision engineering tool and that’s why we cut to a shot of him working on miniature chairs during Red and Blue’s Mannilow singalong. And Liz is, of course, a welding torch. Or an atom bomb, depending on circumstance.
Her’s is probably the weakest arc out of all our mains because it barely comes up until the very end, only aligning with the rest of the film on a thematic, as opposed to a dramatic, level. She and HB haven’t been using protection, and now she doesn’t want to tell him she’s pregnant because…well, shit, he’s basically a sixty-year-old boy who already almost destroyed the world once. Their children will have to live in the world created as a consequence of their actions. And if the pundits are already carping about “interspecies marriage” what literal hell on Earth will their children have to endure? Never mind if the kids get Liz’s pyrokinesis.
As if that weren’t enough ambient doom, near the end of this film the Angel of motherfucking Death prophesies that Hellboy will actually bring about the End. That business with Rasputin may be over, but the Right Hand of Doom only exists to do one job…and even if we haven’t read enough comics to know for sure, it’s easy to surmise that there are forces out in the darkness who would love to see it do that job…regardless of how Hellboy feels. So Liz has a choice to short-circuit that Apocalypse by letting her boy die…and that’s really no choice at all.
Besides, the Angel of Death was right, though only metatextually. This film really is the end of an Era. After this, there would be no turning back and any movie making less than a billion dollars would be automatically labeled a failure (unless it’s a Disney movie – Disney doesn’t have to care). Trilogies, as a format, were already dying, and the power Cinematic Universes was on the rise. Its victory was at hand and we were all so naive we actually thought good things would come of that. Even del Toro had a bit of a personal Apocalypse after this, as every project he signed on to for the next five years seemed cursed to fall through. At the Mountains of Madness, the Hobbit Trilogy, the various drafts of what would eventually become Shape of Water.
Hellboy II came out in the wrong year and, while it found a receptive audience, it didn’t find enough of us. It’s not perfect, but it’s good, and that was rare enough in 2008. It’s even rarer now…but we’ll get there. I started this trilogy of reviews with the intent to get to Neil Marshall’s reboot, but now that I’ve got two good Hellboy movies under my belt, I’d prefer to leave it on a high note.
Evil Me: Your preferences are insignificant next to the power of the Force.
So you’re saying it’s either this, or…?
Evil Me: Star Wars. Yes. Or the Avengers. Either way, we win, you lose.
And, as always, capitalism prevails. Happy Halloween, everybody!