Why Hellboy is the hero of our time
With a third film on the way, what does the red monster-hunter have to say to us today?
The end of the world could come any day now.
Perhaps that’s an exaggerated reaction to the news these days; most likely, the world will stagger and limp along just like it always has. But with the United States and North Korea tossing the possibility of nuclear confrontation back and forth like a hot potato; with not one, not two, but three devastating storms ravaging America and the Caribbean in the past few weeks; and the general worldwide wobbling of cultural consensus and institutional legitimacy, the possibility of Armageddon feels more real now than it has any time since the 1960s, when Vietnam, civil rights, and the Cold War dominated the headlines.
It’s an interesting time, then, for a new Hellboy movie.
This week, in the wake of multiple hurricanes and the ongoing unpredictability that is the Trump presidency, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola tweeted out a first look of Stranger Things star David Harbour as the big red demon hunter. Harbour will take over the role from Ron Perlman, who played Hellboy in two films directed by Guillermo del Toro in 2004 and 2008. Plot details for the 2018 reboot are still scarce, but we know Milla Jovovich has been cast as the Blood Queen (in fact, one rumored subtitle for the film is Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen). This villain is different from the likes of Rasputin (Karel Roden), who first brought Hellboy into the world. In Mignola’s comics, the Blood Queen arrives to bring about the final war between monsters and mankind. That probably doesn’t sound like the most sustainable way to kick off the new iteration of a franchise, but it’s exactly what Hellboy should be doing right now: Providing us with a blueprint for surviving the apocalypse.
Hellboy is a hero for our time. The current era is of course swimming in superheroes; when EW ranked the 50 Most Powerful Superheroes last year, Hellboy only placed 32nd. But most of those heroes are almost a century old now, with the earliest dating back to the 1930s and most of the Marvel generation originating in the ’60s. All props to Batman, but seven decades of this rich guy dressing up to beat up poor criminals doesn’t seem to have accomplished much—in his world or ours. Daredevil was created in 1964 and brought to life on TV by Netflix in 2015, yet his version of New York City still feels rooted in ’30s, with all its shady waterfronts and rigged boxing matches.
Hellboy, by contrast, was first introduced in the Clinton Era. Perhaps that’s why his problems feel a lot more relevant to us today—even if his origin myth is set during World War II. As the story goes, the infamous Russian monk Rasputin summoned Hellboy into this world with the help of Nazi scientists back in 1944. Hellboy’s early adventures almost always pitted him against various Nazis, from the haughty and doomed Ilsa Haupstein (Biddy Hodson in Del Toro’s first film) to the head-in-a-jar Herman von Klempt. At the time Mignola wrote these comics, Nazis seemed a distant memory. Now, of course, things have changed. When self-proclaimed white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in August, they chanted old Nazi slogans like “Blood and soil.” Eventually, Hellboy’s Nazi foes gave way to an even more implacable enemy: A plague of frog monsters. In a downright strange parallel, many members of the modern “alt-right” movement have adopted the frog as their symbol (an appropriation of cartoonist Matt Furie’s character Pepe the Frog).
President Donald Trump holds the most powerful office in the world. But between his Twitter rants lashing out at perceived enemies, and his one-time opponent Hillary Clinton’s current book tour assigning blame for her election loss, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our leaders were motivated only by petty personal grievances. If so, they share a lot in common with Mignola’s monsters. Hellboy goes up against villains dating back to the dawn of time, but the unifying force of evil in his universe is little more than pettiness and vanity. The Russian witch Baba Yaga hounds Hellboy for decades out of pure rage that he dared to cut out one of her eyes in a fight. Similarly, the Blood Queen is released from her ancient prison by the fairy Gruagach, who is motivated only by a psychotic hatred for Hellboy because the hero once burned him with iron. Similarly, once Earth starts getting battered by the frog monsters, the wealthy corporate CEO Landis Pope decides he’ll be their master. With the help of a superpowered suit, he becomes the Black Flame — but soon realizes that the frogs are the ones using him in order to revive their monstrous forebear Katha-Hem. As Katha-Hem rampages across Nebraska, killing thousands, the Black Flame finally admits, “I think I made a mistake.” One could imagine Trump saying something similar as Putin’s Russian army attacks Ukraine and the NATO alliance.
Hellboy’s enemies feel creepily relevant. How, then, does he respond to them? Usually, by telling them to shut up already and then smashing them upside the head with his big stone fist. Hellboy’s persistence is typical of many superheroes, but what sets him apart is that he is also rejecting his own dark destiny. Hellboy is a hero, but he wasn’t born that way. His true name is Anung un Rama, the Beast of the Apocalypse. He was created not to save the world but to destroy it. His gigantic stone hand, The Right Hand of Doom, is the only thing capable of unlocking the gates of Hell and unleashing apocalypse. To make matters worse, Hellboy is constantly reminded of this by almost everyone he ever meets. Again and again he is told that he is “the sentence of ruin passed down from the beginning,” and again and again he rejects it, dedicating his life to protecting the world and preserving life. Towards the end of Mignola’s saga, Hellboy even finds himself in Hell, yet he still doesn’t give up trying to help souls in need.
Most superheroes save the world with few repercussions. Every few episodes, Galactus or Darkseid or whoever shows up to threaten the entire universe, then the heroes beat them back and everything goes back to normal, with few consequences other than the occasional dead lover or lost protégé. Hellboy’s victories are never so clean. After Katha-Hem destroys Nebraska, it stays destroyed. As the saga continues, more and more such disasters pile on top of each other, until the end finally approaches. Nevertheless, every enemy Hellboy beats means another life saved, and every punch buys more time for humanity.
For all the swashbuckling pulp and epic fantasy battles of Hellboy’s stories, there’s also a melancholy poetry running underneath. Hellboy often gets bloodied up by his enemies, and sometimes, after he’s long gone, flowers begin to grow from his blood. In one particularly memorable scene from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Hellboy kills a rampaging elemental to stop it from destroying New York — and as the creature dies, its blood and body generate a beautiful green forest. Hellboy and his comrades (the fish-man Abe Sapien, the firestarter Liz Sherman, Roger the Homunculus, ectoplasmic medium Johann Kraus, and the once-dead Cap. Ben Daimio) are all cursed in one way or another, and the echoes of their past mistakes are never far from their minds. But none of them ever give up on their humanity and learn to accept that change does not always mean death — life can endure if you’re willing to fight for it.
It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind these days, as disasters stack upon scandals and the whole world feels ready to break. The future will be different, but it doesn’t have to end in oblivion. As the African mystic Mohlomi once told Hellboy, “You are standing at the very crossroads of your life. And all your roads lead to strange places.”