Hellboy, creation of comics artist Mike Mignola, is as much a part of the arc of modern cinema as his Marvel and DC Comics-owned counterparts. Hellboy hit in the same year as Spider-Man 2, while Hellboy 2: The Golden Army shared a summer with The Dark Knight. When future cinephiles study the creative evolution of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, his early take on inter-species fish-man romance, Abe Sapien, will not be forgotten.
It’s unfortunate, then, that 2019’s rebooted Hellboy — from director Neil Marshall (episodes of Lost in Space and Westworld) and writer Andrew Crosby (Eureka), starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour — does not live up to that legacy.
Hellboy is trying to do too much and say too much, but none of it is really what the movie needs. Crosby’s script attempts to cram half a dozen discrete Hellboy stories into a single film, with poor pacing and jagged structure. Marshall tries to make it a horror flick, a comedy, and an action blockbuster, turning out middling effort on all three counts. But the biggest problem with Hellboy is that it lacks any charm.
The plot of Hellboy is predominantly lifted from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt, in which the Arthurian-era witch Nimue rises to conquer humankind with an unstoppable fairy army. Emphasis on “predominantly,” because there’s barely a facet of Hellboy lore left uninvolved, as backstories are forklifted into the story through long exposition speeches and no less than five flashback sequences strung throughout.
Despite all this, it takes the two-and-a-half hour film roughly 45 minutes to introduce its secondary characters and put Hellboy’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense on the track of the villain. It’s more a Wikipedia list than a movie — an approach to the varied and disjointed nature of Hellboy continuity that would serve a TV series far better than a single feature film.
In and among Hellboy’s flashbacks, information dumps, and a multitude of introduced-and-then-unexplored characters, the movie even tries to weigh in on the idea that Maybe monsters are just misunderstood, and shouldn’t be indiscriminately murdered? But none of the monsters in Hellboy are sympathetic. They’re all unrepentant murderers, baby snatchers, and cannibals — not just “other” but fundamentally destructive. In the end, Hellboy seems to forget that it ever raised the question in the first place, so it can stage a montage of bad guys getting killed to an upbeat rock song.
And speaking of unsympathetic monsters, Hellboy’s lead is one too. It’s hard to say whether this is the fault of Harbour — who growls or yells or whines most of his lines — or Crosby’s take on Hellboy, who is neither endearing, competent, or consistent.
An early scene has our scarlet hero pining over his role in the necessary execution of a fallen BPRD agent; later it’ll only take one villain speech to have him roaring about how he hates humans. He’s a jerk to the people around him, whether human or paranormal, and he doesn’t even seem very good at his job. He doesn’t like paranormal research, and he also doesn’t seem to like hunting monsters much, either. The movie makes no effort to explain to us why he’s in his profession except that his father forced him to be.
A younger, more abrasive Hellboy does exist in the comics, but there’s a reason why adult Hellboy — insouciant but friendly, weary but never ready to give up, somehow unflappable and indignant simultaneously at all times — is the main character. He’s the Hellboy everybody likes.
Much of Hellboy seems just left of center, as if Marshall played a game of telephone with the source material. The humor in it mostly consists of Hellboy complaining, and fell completely flat in my theater. The director occasionally attempts to tap into horror visuals, but left me, one of most horror-movie sensitive viewers I know, shrugging at the old trope of a creature that walks on all fours but belly up.
The fight scenes are poorly shot, leaning heavily on CGI characters slugging it out in dark environments. And then there’s the gore; blood that sprays, living human heads peeled like grapes, demons grabbing a man by both legs and pulling until he erupts in a fountain of viscera.
That said, the design of the demons themselves is one of Hellboy’s bright bits. Likewise, the movie comes briefly alive when Marshall allows himself to go full camp for the appearance of pulp-hero-pastiche Lobster Johnson. Johnson, played by Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3) returns in one of the movie’s two end credits scenes.
Ian McShane (Deadwood, American Gods, John Wick) does his Ian McShane-est as Professor Bruttenholm, even managing to sell the line “I love you, Hellboy” from a cheap-looking CGI double. And not all the CGI is bad; I found the facial animation on Gruagach the boar-headed fairy to be brilliantly expressive.
If you like gore, and monsters, and tuning out for a few hours, Hellboy might even be the movie for you. But overall, its faults strongly outweigh its virtues.
It would be unfair to compare nearly any filmmaker to Guillermo del Toro — and even his Hellboy films were not exactly perfect. They also suffered from pacing problems and anti-climactic endings. But they nailed the characters and tone, and they picked and chose carefully from the array of Hellboy source material to build an engrossing world and fully-fleshed characters.
2019’s Hellboy does exactly the opposite, favoring references and set pieces over character and tone, and suffers for it.