The original comic-book superheroes were mythic projectiles launched straight out of the id. Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man embodied such essential facts of adolescent life as the nerd’s desire to be strong, and the hidden dark side of courage. The new comic-book crime fighters still give vent to those feelings, but as characters they often appear to be based less on human drives than on… previous comic-book superheroes. Their powers may differ, but their ”identities” are a bit like Xerox copies; you could call just about any of them X-Men.
Take, for instance, the title character of Hellboy, a likably squirmy special-effects zapfest based on Mike Mignola’s popular series of Dark Horse graphic novels. Hellboy, as played by Ron Perlman, is a tall, indestructible battler of evil, a thickly muscled humongo freak with skin as red as tandoori chicken. Born — literally — as a devil (he emerged, as a cute baby demon, through an underworld portal at the end of World War II), Hellboy has spent the years in virtual lockdown at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where he’s a prisoner of his mutant physique and — on those occasions when he’s allowed out — his clandestine role as evil-basher. He still has his snapping tail, but he keeps his two thick horns shaved all the way down to his forehead; it’s his way of trying to look ordinary — and, more tellingly, of suppressing his demonic nature in order to do good.
Perlman, who starred on TV’s ”Beauty and the Beast,” has been given oversize teeth, muttonchop sideburns, and a samurai top-knot, and his jawline and brow have been built up to look even more thick-boned than they already are. Yet his performance is anything but heavy. Chomping on a stogie as he spits out epithets like ”Aw, crap,” he plays Hellboy with the airy, cynical shrug of a guy who will take down any menace, trash any monster, because somebody’s gotta do it. He battles leaping, snorting creatures that look like oversize digital warthogs with tentacles, but his charm is that he goes about it as casually as a repairman. (Those shaved horns look like work goggles.)
He has also been stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster, out of old familiar images and concepts. In essence, Hellboy is the Hulk with rosier skin tones and the ability to talk — at this point, a welcome quality in a magnum-lug superhero. Suited up for action in his leather trench coat, wielding a colossal, stonelike right hand that might have been transplanted from the Thing in Fantastic Four, Hellboy struts through danger zones like a Schwarzenegger commando. But he’s a rippling demon Arnold with a tender soul. Staring at his fellow misfit Liz (Selma Blair), a lonely girl with pyrokinetic powers who is also enlisted by the BPRD, he says, ”I wish I could do something about this,” waving a hand in front of his face. He’s in the sensitive-brute tradition of outcasts like the Beast and the Hunchback of Notre Dame: a monster who’s hurtin’ inside because he’s too ugly to be loved.
”Hellboy” has been directed, by Guillermo del Toro, with a colorfully kinetic visual imagination that seldom lets up. Del Toro, the former art-house creep-meister turned megaplex fantasist (his films include ”The Devil’s Backbone,” ”Mimic,” and ”Blade II”), knows just how long to hold a shot of blood oozing through an ornate stone maze or ghouls flying through a ghostly museum so that we feel as if the sets and effects are serving the story rather than the other way around. He shows far more narrative finesse than was evident in such recent comic-book duds as ”Daredevil” or ”The Hulk” or ”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Perlman, acting under all that makeup, gives a performance of gruff sympathy that, at moments, comes close to wit. I enjoyed myself for most of ”Hellboy,” yet the movie, a highly derivative compendium of geek dreams, is little more than a well-executed contraption.
The Hellboy mythology is sprinkled with references to the Nazis, Rasputin, and other sinister forces of old. The film’s most colorful bad guy is a former occult leader of the Third Reich who wears a metal plate on top of his disfigured face and whirls twin blades around with a zesty slash of finesse. He’s supposed to be a spirit of malevolence ricocheting through the ages, but I just looked at him and thought, It’s Darth Vader meets Wolverine (with less personality than either). Pop pretensions can’t undo a basic contradiction: that our hero is fighting ”metaphysical” evil with pure, meaty brawn. ”Hellboy” is engaging, but it’s got a lot more boy in it than hell.