While Mitch Ringenberg’s stance on Hellboy remains the MFJ’s official assessment, we reserve the right — when revved up about something we want to say — to launch the Bonus Round, which includes supplemental thoughts from MFJ staffers or contributing guests.
It’s more common than not for films to show the signs of their troubled productions. Hasty scripts, choppy editing, unclear themes, lousy performances, lack of vision. Of the hundreds of movies released each year, only a few dozen feel complete in and of themselves, let alone meaningful. Most are broken entertainment in one way or another. It could be argued that the film critic’s role is to find the best films, champion them, make them known and more importantly elucidate why those films should be known and — this is the key — shared.
Yet the gaping, ravenous maw of film culture calls for constant conversation, and many of those films don’t really provide the immediate emotional, visceral reaction that something like Hellboy does: an artwork so poorly stitched that the seams become the pattern of the piece, a movie so revolting at times that most viewers will walk away wondering what it was they just experienced. And why.
I loved just about every second of it.
Given the pedigree of director Guillermo Del Toro, his first two films in the Hellboy cinematic experience — the original from 2004 and Hellboy II: The Golden Army from 2008 — are oft remembered as high water marks for the comic-book movie genre. I could take or leave them. The comics, which have run intermittently since 1993 and spawned numerous spinoff titles, are definitive works of American graphic horror (and just released in six very affordable volumes, which I recommend). The stories in those books blend gorgeous artwork with concepts borrowed from folklore around the world. They also were on the forefront of the past few decades of Lovecraftian pop culture.
Creator Mike Mignola is on record saying that this version of Hellboy is closer to his comics and, quite frankly, he’s correct — for better or worse. Del Toro very much made his own stories out of Mignola’s raw material whereas director Neil Marshall’s Hellboy adapts pieces from multiple pivotal comic stories, notably Hellboy in Mexico and The Wild Hunt. Let’s be honest: Despite their tremendous artistry, humor and horror, the Hellboy comics are also oddly paced, repetitive, posturing stories that mostly involve a villain telling Hellboy he’s destined to destroy Earth before Hellboy grunts and punches them. The comics are beautiful imperfections. The new Hellboy is by no means on the level of artistry present in those comics or even Del Toro’s movies, but it is a great experience that captures the omnipresent schlock elements of the comics.
David Harbour (best known as the chief of police on Stranger Things, and or you’ve seen him in multiple small roles in big movies) plays “Big Red” this time around, bringing to the role more angst, anger and acidity than Ron Perlman … when he can. There are entire sequences where his prosthetics look tremendous and allow him to express emotions … and other scenes where it’s clear they filmed a sequence with a skeleton crew and shortened schedule, resulting in a very poor appearance. Sometimes scenes will include cuts to either version of him, the worst post-production-plus-reshoots snafu this side of Ben Affleck gaining weight and Henry Cavill growing a mustache between Justice League shoots. With Hellboy, the look is everything. It’s a shame that the production didn’t live up to Harbour’s performance.
Makeup continuity isn’t the only problem here, though, as the film makes essentially no sense from sequence to sequence. I’ll avoid calling it “episodic,” as that would give too much credence to a story so disjointed that the villain seems to have multiple motivations. Characters walk into the story only to explain precisely what they’re doing and what their role is because there’s no such thing as “show” here, except of course when the otherwise incoherent mess of a story necessitates hyper-violence is. Hellboy’s compatriots here are Alice (Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae-Kim), a medium and surly operator, respectively. Both wander in at seemingly indiscriminate moments and have odd character revelations that feel gleefully random.
“Gleeful” is probably the best word to describe why, despite its clear problems, Hellboy is ultimately such a delight. Marshall is known for gritty, gore-fueled extravaganzas. His most underrated is Doomsday, a 2008 post-apocalypse movie that is completely insane. Hellboy feels like a Marshall film cut with a producer’s edit by a studio afraid to commit to the director’s vision, but when we see Marshall’s material it feels a whole lot like Doomsday. Your mileage may vary. Another comparison would be Resident Evil: Apocalypse. None of these films will take you to unexpected emotional depths or make you contemplate the nature of human life, but goddamn if these action movie messes aren’t absolutely, astoundingly fun to watch.
If the key to film criticism is cataloging and exploring the artwork that moves us and has potential to bring us together, it’s hard not to contemplate what future a movie like Hellboy will have. Surely it will fail at the box office and, critically, end up on a lot of “worst-of” lists. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it more than this year’s Shazam!, a movie that simply didn’t land for me. Maybe I resented Shazam! because it was so mediocre but desperately about something, whereas Hellboy is empty, cynical and strangely proud of it. Shazam! will disappear into the ether, but Hellboy will live on as a horse to beat in film critic circles until deader than it is on arrival. It will endure as a film that fans of schlock and over-the-top excess look back on fondly, programming in movie marathons for years to come. To sit together, and laugh together. That’s probably OK. Bullshit brings us together. There’s probably a lesson there.