-Review by Paul Ewbank-
Why have I not talked about Hellboy yet?
So Hellboy is a comic book character created by Mike Mignola for Dark Horse Comics, later made into a pair of Movies by my boy Guillermo del Toro. Hellboy holds the distinction of being the only non Marvel/DC superhero that most people have actually heard of. And yet even a quick look at either film or the various comic series will reveal that he ain’t your typical hero.
First off, the name. Hellloy. Boy from hell. That’s not hyperbole. He’s a frikkin demon. From hell. Sneaking through a portal to the otherside during some occult Nazi experiments in the Second World War, he was found and raised as a normal boy by professor John Hurt, er, I mean Trevor Bruttenholm, who later founded the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence to control and combat the supernatural forces at work in the world. 60 years later Hellboy is a cigar smokin’, wise crackin’ badass who shoots monsters and Nazis in the head with ridiculously oversized guns and punches things with his RIGHT HAND OF DOOM, all the while wrestling his human upbringing against his demonic birthright and struggling for acceptance in a hostile world. If that’s not an awesome setup I don’t know what is.
So the first film, released in 2004, tells the origin tale and then pits Hellboy and his BPRD comrades against the surviving, demon-possessed Nazis (one of whom is actually Grigori Rasputin for some reason) who plan to unleash demons from another dimension onto the earth. Cause they’re Nazis and that’s just how they roll. Aiding Hellboy are fellow misfits Abe Sapien, a scholarly kind of green frog/fish fellow with psychic powers, Liz Sherman, an otherwise normal (if a bit emo) girl who can control fire, and John Myers, a normal dude who recently joined the BPRD as Hellboy’s handler. It’s an enjoyable enough premise and a watchable film, but I’m not really a fan of this one for several reasons. The demonic stuff is all very theatrical and overblown and hard to take seriously*, and the whole thing is a little half baked- the characters aren’t fully fleshed out and whilst the action is good, for most of the film we watch Hellboy battle the same hellhound over and over and it really starts to drag. There’s a bit of humour, mostly from Ron Perlman saying “daym” or “oh crap” just before/after being hit by something, but the overall tone is rather too self serious. Guillermo himself has said he didn’t have the freedom he wanted when making this film, presumably since he was still relatively un-proven as a major action movie director and so had to stick to the formula book a bit to get the franchise off the ground. Nevertheless, Hellboy did pretty well at the box office and after Pan’s Labyrinth scooped a bunch of awards Guillermo was given free rein to make the sequel however he wanted. And boy, did he ever.
Where the first film fit fairly snugly into the ever increasing canon of comic book adaptations, Hellboy 2: the Golden Army barely qualifies as a superhero movie. I remember watching the trailer, with its cavalcade of Elves, mystical kingdoms and fairytale imagery and thinking ‘what the heck is this?’. Then Hellboy strides onto screen and the entire audience goes “…whu?” The full film follows through- this is a very different kind of sequel and it’s all the better for it. Gone are the demons, Nazis and occult, replaced by fairy tale staples like trolls and fairies, all given a suitably twisted del Toro makeover. The only thing that remains constant is Hellboy, who is his usual snarky, pissed-off self. The rest of the cast get a total re-write; Liz is much more of an action girl than a whiner, Abe is still the brains but he’s also awkward and childlike in a lot of respects, and Jeffrey Tambor as BPRD chief Tom Manning goes from being wasted as a boring bureaucrat to being hilariously hapless, bumbling and sleep-deprived. Joining the BPRD is comic-mainstay Johann Krauss, a German scientist turned into vapour in a suit who can control inanimate objects, played by Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, of all people. The whole cast are on top form and the various creatures and monsters are totally endearing. Hellboy 2 also benefits from the kind of moral ambiguity you just can’t get when your villains are representing either the Third Reich or the pit of hell. Fallen elf prince Nuada and his more than a little bit incestuous twin sister Nuala are really great characters whose pain you really feel, and even when Nuada unleashes hordes of monsters or mechanical soldiers onto unsuspecting innocents or stabs Hellboy through the heart (spoiler alert), you know his backstory and so it’s hard to blame him.
Any good del Toro movies has its share of cool monsters, and Hellboy 2 was arguably his finest work in that department, at least until Pacific Rim showed up. Featuring prosthetic trolls and ogres straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth (which I don’t get to talk about on an apocalypse blog but which is absolutely incredible and you gotta see it) alongside thoroughly creepy death angels and a rather nasty incarnation of tooth fairies, you’re never short of eye candy and each creature is designed with all the love and attention to detail you’d expect. Oh, and there’s the frikkin forest god, but I think I’ve made my thoughts on him clear already. The visual design is flawless throughout, and combined with hilarious characters and a heartfelt narrative makes Hellboy 2 about as good as fantasy films get. A lot of people were put off by the unashamed, totally sincere fairy tale aesthetic, but those of us who are lucky enough to be able to have our adult and 12-year-old mind operating simultaneously are in for a HELL of a ride. See what I did there?
I haven’t delved nearly as far into the back-catalogue of the Hellboy comics as I’d like. The only ones I’ve read don’t even feature Red himself, but BPRD: Hell on Earth has already established itself as one of my favourite series. Centring on the remaining BPRD agents in the wake of the world-ending events of previous titles (especially BPRD: Frogs), Hell on Earth is a far darker thing than its film cousins. Not so much post-apocalyptic as present-apocalyptic, this series follows Abe Sapien, Krauss and the full roster of human and non-human agents as they try hopelessly to cope with the world ending around them. Each issue has whole cities erupting in flame, monsters spewing out of alternate worlds and humanity struggling to come to terms with a new and far more deadly existence. Expect many a tentacle beast, lots of guns and a whole lot of angst. These are radically different versions of the characters than you get in the comparatively light-hearted films. Even Abe is a brooding, hardened baddass in this world and there’s nary a comic relief character to be found. All the doom can get a bit much but it’s brilliantly drawn and tempered with enough comicbooky human drama to make it palatable. Each 3 or 4 issue arc is more or less self-contained, making Hell on Earth a great way in to the Hellboy Universe, even if having read the previous runs might put all the carnage into a bit more context. As for me, I’m pretty hooked and I’ll be checking out some of the older stories as soon as I clear my backlog of books, games and films I need to ingest, and now that Guillermo has finished making monster movies into viable intellectual property again maybe he’ll get around to making another movie. The sooner the better, cos I got a fever. And the only prescription is MOAR HELLBOY.
* Although not as bad as the anime Blue Exorcist which I saw recently, the first episode of which ends with the line “Rin, you are… the son of satan!”, at which point me and Liz both burst out laughing.