There’s a scene about midway through Hellboy in which a giant sword goes through a monster’s head, virtually splitting it in half, unleashing a reservoir of blood, and showing some of the soft tissue underneath the skull. While taking in that moment, I thought to myself, “I think that’s what watching this movie feels like.”
I was rooting for the 2019 reboot of Hellboy. It was going to be too easy to dismiss this movie and say Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman did it better — twice — without even seeing this new version. But the wave of early reviews seemed to confirm what so many feared when this project was announced. Was there really any point to reviving Hellboy if there wasn’t anything new to offer?
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t have a problem with remakes and reboots, even if they’re being made too often now. (Saying “Hollywood is out of ideas” is an opinion that’s run out of ideas.) Popular characters and franchises are always going to be mined for new movies and TV shows if a newer angle can be taken. And if new digital effects and moviemaking techniques can tell those stories better than their previous versions, it might just be worth doing.
Part of the sales pitch for this new Hellboy, directed by Neil Marshall and starring David Harbour, is that the movie would be based more closely on the source comic books by Mike Mignola (although Del Toro’s 2004 film had elements from the comics as well) and that will always make fans’ horns point a bit higher. Mignola himself seemed to endorse that narrative, which implied that Del Toro took his movies in a slightly different direction from the comic books.
I can’t speak to that myself. My Hellboy comics reading experience mostly consists of the first “Seed of Destruction” from 1994 and a few single comic books here and there. As much as I love Mignola’s art and the vast imagination he showed in creating Hellboy’s mythology, those stories came at a time when I wasn’t as devoted to comic books and interested in trying new things that weren’t superhero-related.
But I do view Del Toro’s two Hellboy movies affectionately. The director’s deep imagination with the supernatural and creature design appeared to be an ideal match with Mignola’s vision. Del Toro may have brought more of a fantasy aspect to Hellboy, and created a lighter tone than the comic books’ ink-dark sensibility. Yet the humor and humanity in the storytelling made the characters and stories more accessible.
Marshall’s Hellboy apparently doesn’t care about being accessible. The story jumps right into the action from the start, which isn’t a bad way to begin a movie like this. Rather than living incognito as a secret operative and maybe an urban legend, Hellboy is known to the culture at large as a world-famous paranormal investigator and supernatural ass-kicker. That kind of celebrity, especially in the age of internet fame and social media, could have been an intriguing angle to explore, but the movie (written by Andrew Cosby, Eureka) never goes anywhere with that.
Maybe Hellboy deserves credit for not trying to explain too much and keeping the train moving. Between that and a hard-driving soundtrack, the intention is obviously to create a fast pace and high energy. But since there’s not much interest in telling a story or exploring character elements, the plot just goes from action scene to action scene with not much reason given for what’s happening.
Watch Hellboy fight giants! This time, he’s taking on a black ops military squad! Hey, it looks like he’s met his match in a band of medieval hunters. Oh, wait — he should probably face that big villain the movie has been trying to build up. Isn’t that supposed to be the point of this story? You know what, guys? I think we lost the point of the story somewhere…
That villain, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), will presumably bring about the end of the world — or at least an onset of Hell on Earth — if she’s allowed to reassemble. She was originally cut into pieces by King Arthur (yes, that King Arthur) and the Knights of the Round Table scattered her limbs throughout Europe. The quest to unearth those body parts and put the Blood Queen back together is what moves the story along.
Unfortunately, the minion tasked with fetching the head, shoulders, knees and toes — a humanoid boar named Gruagach — is a mess on screen. I don’t know how “realistic” a half-man/half-hog creature is supposed to look, but it doesn’t look good here. And that’s another huge problem with Hellboy: Most of the digital effects look terrible. It’s apparent when Harbour is running in front of a green screen. Many of the creatures don’t look like they’re sharing the same space with the other people in the frame. I hate to keep comparing this to the earlier Hellboy films, but the use of practical effects with make-up, prosthetics and costuming created a far more cohesive setting to follow.
The Blood Queen is also intended to represent the internal struggle of Hellboy, who isn’t meant to be a pizza-chomping, brawling secret agent. He’s supposed to be the lord of the underworld. If Hellboy gives into the demon side of his nature and joins the Blood Queen, there will be a whole bunch of real estate invested in molten lava. But this option is never presented as a preferable one for our hero. We’re just supposed to assume that’s what he’d do because, well, just look at him with that blood-red skin, tail and horns. He doesn’t fit in!
Yet society has apparently embraced him, he has a father (Ian McShane) who lovingly raised him — even if it was to train him into becoming a weapon against the occult — and he enjoys beating things up. What does the Blood Queen offer him that’s any better, other than looking like Milla Jovovich? Yet besides the script alluding to this inherent conflict for Hellboy with a few lines of dialogue, the story never compels us to believe that it’s going to end any other way than how it does. It would just rather be really loud and excessively gory instead.
I’ll acknowledge that I just might not be the audience for this movie. Devoted fans of Hellboy who have enjoyed the comic books might find much more to enjoy here, and there are a whole bunch of references packed in that went over my head but were apparently meaningful, based on some explainers I’ve read online. Some of those nods hint at more to come, but I doubt we’re getting a sequel here. And if that means yet another reboot, why bother?
The better decision would’ve been to follow up on Del Toro’s films, or at least not try to start this whole thing over. Harbour’s performance and the re-designed, rougher-looking Hellboy could’ve pulled it off. A snarkier view is that the better decision would’ve been to not make this movie at all. But I want Hellboy movies. I just want good ones. This ain’t it.