I used to think it was impossible for anyone other than Ron Perlman to to play Hellboy. Watching a pre-Academy Award-winning Guillermo del Toro direct the actor in the original 2004 film made it clear he was born to play the brooding half-demon with shaved horns who desperately wants to fit in with the humans. Perlman, already famous for playing roles in elaborate costumes and makeup, even kind of looked like Hellboy without all the Hollywood magic.
That film, and its sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, were supposed to be part of a planned trilogy, one that was never completed. A combination of early scheduling conflicts following the second film – and lackluster box-office returns, practically ensured we’d never see Perlman don the makeup for a third and final time. Del Toro would famously go off to direct the Hellboy-inspired (and Best Picture winner) The Shape of Water, and fans were left waiting for a second-sequel that would probably never happen.
Years later, however, those hopes were renewed when a new Hellboy film was finally announced, just not the one they expected. del Toro wouldn’t be involved, and neither would Perlman. Director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) had been tasked to reboot Mike Mignola’s beloved creation in 2019’s all-new, rated-R Hellboy.
As unfair as it sounds, let’s address the elephant in the room: it’s nearly impossible to escape thoughts of what-ifs the entire time we spend watching this new Hellboy. Marshall’s Hellboy is a complete reboot of the franchise, entirely detached from del Toro’s series. So we expect a sort of origins story. Instead, it almost feels like Marshall is trying to complete del Toro’s vision. He’s not, but we can’t help feeling like he’s trying to. That said, even the most biased critics can be objective. Or try to, anyway.
We’re told the tale of an evil witch, the Blood Queen Vivian Nimue (Milla Jovovich), who is betrayed by her coven and gruesomely dismembered by King Arthur and the Excalibur sword. The King, along with Merlin, scatter her remains across Europe so that there’s no hope of her resurrection. Obviously, this plan goes terribly wrong and before long events are set into motion that threaten the future of humanity – and possibly a certain half-demon who walk among them.
Meet Hellboy, now portrayed by David Harbour (Stranger Things), who fits the role surprisingly well. Hellboy looks like a demon – because he’s actually a half-demon. He’s big and red, but his horns have been shaved all the way down in order to help him separate from his previous fate. “Big Red” is sarcastic and brash, but not evil, even though he was born in Hell. He lives in America with his adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), who heads the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.). Hellboy fights crime (as far as we know) as the world’s only superhero.
Of course, Hellboy is barely a superhero movie, at least not in the traditional sense. There’s hardly any real “superhero” hijinks, at least not the familiar Marvel/DC mold. Hardcore fans of the Mignola’s comic will appreciate these more psychological aspects of the story most, even if the film devolves into a CGI splatterfest more often than not.
During World War II an event opens the gates of Hell, and following this Trevor finds a young Hellboy, fresh from the underworld. Sensing an opportunity, Trevor raises the young half-demon to be good instead of evil. And if there’s anything Trevor knows, it’s evil, as his job with the B.P.R.D. is to hunt and kill monsters. Yet Hellboy is the only monster he didn’t want to kill – inexplicably. Now fully grown, Hellboy is convinced his adopted father may have saved him for selfish gain rather than out of love.
Back to the plot, the once-dismembered Nimue gets put back together again and is assembling (no pun intended) an army of pure evil so that she can destroy mankind and exact revenge on those who did her wrong. Her ideals regarding the perception of what defines a monster appeal to Hellboy. He sympathizes with her. Throughout the film he struggles with the fact that he’s literally from the underworld, yet he’s working to fight evil.
In many ways the themes in this new Hellboy recall del Toro’s, though with far less subtlety. Previously, we don’t have to be told why Hellboy denies his past – we just know. The aspects that make the original Hellboy so affable are its ability to bring out the fun traits of his persona, rather than stereotype them like this new version seems to do. There aren’t any cats or candy. Worse, Hellboy never shares with us his love for classic rock.
But it’s great to see Hellboy back on the big-screen because the character’s heart is more-or-less the same – which is the realing driving force of these stories, as well as the comics. Aesthetically, Marshall does a good job replicating much of the visual appearance of del Toro’s films, especially in Harbor’s look and feel. But these attempts could be this movie’s downfall. In del Toro’s series, everything seemed to naturally complement one another, from the director’ weird, auteurist style to Perlman’s spot-on performance.
Neither film was perfect, but you could sense the love and craft that went into their creation. Comparing this new installment to its predecessors isn’t fair, but it’s nearly impossible not to, almost by design.
We’re constantly reminded of those films so often that it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to seperate them, if only because this version can’t really compare. It feels like Marshall tries to compensate for his lack of del Toro’s trademarked stylization with gore and grotesque visuals. Del Toro’s Hellboy wasn’t so much dark as it was beautifully realized, working within the confines of its PG-13 rating. Marshall’s Hellboy is a hard R, and perhaps the goriest mainstream action film I’ve ever seen. Only he substitutes gothic grandeur with darkness, and Andrew Cosby’s screenplay isn’t nearly as natural as del Toro (who also co-wrote his films). Marshall fails to build up this grandiosity and importance gradually, though he tries.
However, Marshall’s Hellboy doesn’t lack for entertainment. It’s never boring, even if certain details are a bit confusing. We do get a better sense of Hellboy’s powers. Or even more importantly, his potential for evil. Harbor seems well-suited for the role, though it’s difficult not to imagine an older, more grizzled Perlman owning this role. There are plenty of Hellboy stories still untold, and the only reason to reboot the franchise (other than to capitalize on the superhero trend) is give fans a chance to see them unfold on the big-screen following del Toro’s unfinished trilogy. And if Marshall had attempted to complete that story arc, that would be one thing. But he doesn’t. Instead, we get a film stuck between an origins story and sequel – committing to neither.