Paranormal detectives have a hard time of it in the United States. Their profession is much more respected – and respectable – in Europe, where history extends back a little further than five years. Growing up, the few active paranormal detectives in North America that I knew were the Scooby Gang, and a Brit, created by another Brit to explain stuff (or, more often, cryptically hint at stuff) to Swamp Thing. The ’90s brought us the other Scooby Gang, Detective Nick Knight, Toronto PD, and Other Scooby Gang almu Angel, of LA’s Angel Investigations – both vampires walking the Redemption Road. Those of us who read books hopefully met Harry D’Amore – a New Yorker created by another Brit who moved to LA to break into movies. And if we read comic books, we also hopefully met a demon (half-demon, now, but that reveal came later) whose true name can probably bring about the apocalypse. So his friends call him “Red,” his adopted father calls him “son,” and everyone else calls him “Hellboy.”
Sometime in the early 90s, artist Mike Mignola drew the original sketch of Hellboy and then set it aside. As a work-for-hire dude in the comic book industry, anything he might have done back then would’ve immediately become the property of either Marvel or DC. Creator’s ownership of their creations was the hot-button issue of that day, thanks in part to Jack “The King” Kirby’s drawn-out legal battles with Marvel over the rights to his work, Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson’s just-as-long battle to get Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their due, and everyone being able to see the dragon’s horde the Ninja Turtle’s creators had amassed for themselves in almost no time flat.
Hellboy didn’t see the light until 1994, after Mignola hooked up with a little West Coast company a store owner started up in 1986 – the fittingly-named Dark Horse Comics. At the time, artist-writers Frank Miller and John Byrne were setting up a new imprint, specifically for creator-owned titles: Dark Horse Legends. This is what gave us Concrete, the Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, Happy Birthday Martha Washington, and the Sin City story Big Fat Kill – the one with Dwight and Jackie Boy’s head and the heavily armed hookers of Old Town.
Hellboy’s outlived them all thanks, in part, to Mignola’s dedication, and the plasticity of his premise. With the exception of the first story, which was scripted by Byrne, Mignola wrote and drew the first ten years worth of Hellboy comics and, boss, that’s gotta be tough enough. When your protagonist is the point man…”point demon”…?…for an international agency of paranormal investigators who’s been around since the waning days of World War II, you can go literally anywhere and tell stories from anytime in the preceding sixty years, as well as marching forward, into the future.
By 2004, Hellboy had fought everything from Nazis to frog monsters to Edgar Alan Poe’s Conquering Worm and stood ready to face his greatest challenge: the American movie-going public. Hellboy kicked off the Big, Dumb Summer Season that year, premiering months before the twin juggernauts of Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter 3 (Prisoner of Azkaban) absorbed everyone’s attention. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, fresh of the success of Blade II, which showed us all what comic book movies would look like in ten years, whether we knew it or not. I was there, third-row-center at the Century Cedar Hills, helping Hellboy do what, at the time, was middling business. Today, it would be labeled a flop six months in advance, like it’s own remake…but there was no Twitter, back then. Even YouTube was almost a full year away and…Sweet Kansan Jesus, I’m actually getting nostalgic for the hellish wasteland of 2004. Save me, mediocre comic book movie!
That’s not fair. I can’t call it mediocre, because it’s still a del Toro film. Which means it’s full of beautifully composed shots, intricate sets, and arresting landscapes, stuffed with magic symbols, steampunk clockwork, and Catholic iconography. It’s also the second-most straightforward movie del Toro’s ever made – the first being Blade II…and even that took place in a world secretly ruled by the vampire illuminati. There are no cockroaches that walk like men, no fairy tale metaphors for life inside a fascist dictatorship, and no giant robots that require you to have a psychic relationship with your co-pilot. There’s also no monster sex, which is unfortunate. We’d have to wait another decade for that, too.
Hellbody was even well-reviewed, which was still a novelty for comic book movies at the time. The worst pull-quote on Wikipedia (where everyone goes to get their pull-quotes) is from then-USA Today (now NPR-) critic Claudia Puig: “…its far-fetched plot leaves a bit to be desired, and there is plenty that flat-out doesn’t make sense.” And this is a flat-out lie. If anything, the plot’s too near-fetched, easily summarized in a sentence: Hellboy and his friends at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense have to stop the resurrected Rasputin, and his Nazi girlfriend Ilsa’s, attempts to bring about the apocalypse. There, done. The closest thing to a plot “twist” comes at the Second Act Low Point, when Rasputin reveals he’s been manipulating Hellboy (and those closest to him) into following his “breadcrumbs on the trail” All This Time. That’s because Hellboy’s Red Right Hand is actually a key, needed to unlock the doors of an inter-dimensional prison and rain giant squid-god-monsters down upon us all.
Puig goes on to say that, “Those unfamiliar with the comic book may leave the theater bedeviled and scratching their heads.” But honestly, those familiar with the comics were also “bedeviled” (har-har) and scratched their heads about some things. Like, why is the BPRD part of the FBI now, instead of the military? Why does Abraham Sapien have psychic powers? Way to downplay the whole “research” part of “Paranormal Research and Defense.” And did this film really need to create a whole new character just so dumbasses in the audience can watch a dumbass audience surrogate fumble his way around this universe? Especially since all they really wound up doing with him was scooting him right up to the edge of a love triangle, and then being too chickenshit to commit? Why does Liz have to be Hellboy’s love interest anyway? Especially since they’re more like siblings in the comics, giving this whole relationship airs most people would rather not contemplate…unless they’re flying Lannister banners outside their house.
Evil Me: It’s the old Carl Denham mantra. One goes out and sweats blood to make a swell picture, and then the critics and the exhibitors all say, “If this picture had Love Interest it would gross twice as much!”
Yeah, sure, blame critics. Notice nobody blames “exhibitors” anymore, because most “exhibitors” are faceless theater chains, as interchangeable as fast-food franchises. (And just as rapacious.) The real culprit here, as usual, is the junk science of focus group testing, and the false magic of audience demographic “research.” The false belief a movie named Hellboy can’t be a “date movie” unless said Hellboy is in unrequited love with his pyrokinetic best friend, Liz Sherman, and her truckload of Catholic Guilt, portrayed…well…for the story they’re telling…by Selma Blair. It’s just that the story they’re telling does Liz no favors until the end. Much like the comic it’s based on, let’s be honest.
In that spirit, this is, after all, a Columbia picture, put out three years after they made half a billion dollars with a Spider-Man movie that claimed to be “all about a girl,” but was really all about Peter Parker’s lust for said girl. Still, Peter and MJ spent their whole movie doing the will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth. Hellboy and Liz here get all of two scenes together, then it’s time for the climactic battle. The bulk of their relationship occurred before this movie began…or during the opening credit montage. So what’s supposed to be the emotional “heart” of the film feels empty and rote, like a corpse you reanimated just to ask for directions. Liz even gets kidnapped at the end, like every one of Batman’s girlfriends who don’t stab him in the ribs.
That’s sad, but sadly typical. As is the amount of screen time given over to dumbass audience surrogate John Myers, a recent Quantico grad, handpicked by Hellboy’s adopted father to be the next intermediary between between the BPRD’s “freaks” and the FBI brass (played wonderfully by Jeffery Tambor). Myers’ role, for the most part, is to gawk wide-eyed at the supernatural shit around him and occasionally articulate the film’s point. “My uncle,” he says to Liz at one point, “used to say, ‘We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.’” Nice sentiment. That’s John’s secondary role: dispenser of nice sentiments. “What makes a man? The choices he makes.” You might say, “duh,” but remember how stupid people are, and how they constantly need to have the most obvious aspects of their worldviews reinforced by the media they consume.
Evil Me: Are you being ironic…?
Man, I don’t even know anymore.
Let’s face it: John’s here to streamline the exposition. To have someone around who doesn’t know shit that everyone else can explain shit to. Which is funny, because any amount of exposition is going to be too much for the crowd that rolls their eyes at exposition in general, unless it’s about why the protagonist is cheating on their spouse. It’s also funny because, in the vast majority of Hellboy stories, the exposition is inseparable from the rest. That’s because Hellboy’s rarely the focal point of the stories that bear his name. The people he meets, the occult forces he’s investigating, or both, usually fill that role, with Hellboy being our point of view character (and audience surrogate) as often as he’s the protagonist.
This is Serialized Storytelling 101, as codified by its patron god, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Take a gander at the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Yes, it dramatizes Holmes’ and Watson’s first meeting, and yes, the ending does set up the next forty years worth of stories (much to Doyle’s eventual chagrin), but the bulk of it is the antagonist’s backstory – a lurid tale of murder, forcibly arranged marriage, and more murder, set in Utah and written by someone who’d obviously never been there.
Compare this story, which is almost entirely about Hellboy – from his miraculous birth into our world to the then-present of 2004, when he learns the supposed reason for that birth from Rasputin. But thanks to the intervening sixty years, Rasptuin’s plan was doomed from the start. Hellboy’s already had more than enough time to find a reason for himself. He is the sword in the hand of the BPRD’s logo, and the shield it resembles – a mostly thankless job, dealing with things that could (and do) shred agents who aren’t neigh-invulnerable. But on the rare occasion he is thanked, he’s the guy who responds with a shrug and a taciturn, “It’s my job,” – a flat statement of fact that is clearly his greatest source of pride. He is the friend who’s half of a comedic double-act with Abe, the dutiful son who hides his smoking from a father he knows doesn’t approve, the disobedient son who chaffs at being confined underground between ops, and sneaks out to sneak beer into the psych hospital his would-be girlfriend checked herself into. Cheep, piss-water beer, but still – it’s the thought that counts. And the choice to act on your thought counts even more. “What makes a man?” I don’t know for sure, but this seems the happiest option.
On top of all that, he’s played beautifully by Ron Perlman, in a rare chance for Perlman to play a character fully aligned towards the forces of good. In fact, he’s so good, he eclipses nearly everyone around him, with the exception of John Hurt…and Doug Jones/David Hide Pierce, who together play Abe, though Pierce refused credit for portraying Abe’s voice out of respect for Jones’ portrayal of Abe’s body. The rest of them are universally “meh” – not bad, but watching this again for the first time in years, I was amazed at how much of their performances I forgot. Compared to the powerhouses in this cast, Rasputin is a near-nothing villain, Ilsa’s just here to be fascist eye candy, and the Nazi cyborg Kronen can’t speak, having sacrificed the fascist’s actually source of power (their voice box) for a clockwork parody of immortality, a slave to the Romanov’s old court magician.
Above them all is yet another apocalypse plot. And if there’s anything the Gospel of Buffy Summers teaches us, it’s that there’s always another apocalypse. But as long as people chose to fight it, our walking virus of a civilization might actually stand a chance. Problem is, in the real world, fighting takes time and money, the two things most people have the least, and you never get to stab anyone as obviously and unambiguously evil as Rasputin. So most people don’t even bother – they retreat from the fight, into the sheltering arms of artistic depictions.
So if you want a nice, straight-forward, self-contained, Gothic-horror comic book movie that will probably flee your brain the moment the credits role, you could do a lot worse than Hellboy (2004). And Hellboy could’ve done a lot worse than it did. Combined with home video, Hellboy probably even made money, and has since become what we used to call a “cult classic,” which is only appropriate. Some of the action scenes could’ve used a bit more work but del Toro’s never been known for his action – he’s known for telling weird stories at a pace that (if you’re into the Weird) is tight enough to keep you from noticing their flaws until its over. And there’s an outside chance that, even if you notice its flaws, this movie – and annoying people like me, relentlessly telling you how the books are better – will still push you to get into Hellboy comics.
I was going to disingenuously speculate about why it wasn’t a break-out hit, but we all know the answer. This was an era of comic book movies dominated by Spider-Man and the X-Men, and gods know people barely have room for one major franchise in their heads, let alone two. Spider-Man’s survived and thrived, given that he’s Marvel Comics’ entire Youth Outreach program. (Hence his constant entrapment in the purgatory of high school.) The X-Men, on the other hand…well, we’ll deal with their ongoing Apocalypse next.