A look back at Hellboy 2, the greatest superhero fantasy movie of the 21st century
The Guillermo Del Toro sequel, 10 years old today, is a genre-redefining classic
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The weird Hollywood satire of Hancock. Next week: One day in cinema history when Mamma Mia arrived with The Dark Knight. This week: Hellboy learns a valuable lesson about how life begins when life ends.
In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, everything is a ruin. The prologue sinks into lost eras, American nostalgia fading toward global myth. It’s Christmas, 1955, and young Hellboy (Montse Ribé) begs Father (John Hurt) for a bedtime story. Father tells him about the dawn of Man. Like all Creation sagas, it’s really an ending, innocence fading to blood and tears.
Anyone who saw the first Hellboy movie watched Hurt’s character die. So this flashback already has the whiff of dead-dad melancholy. And we see cultural artifacts from bygone days. Young Hellboy, watching Howdy Doody on an old black-and-white TV set. Young Hellboy, crawling into bed holding a toy six-shooter. A Portrait of the Superhero as a Prepubescent Cowboy Fan: The primary hero archetype of this Hollywood century, winking backward to the old studio system’s ideal bigscreen protagonist.
Father grabs a vaguely Necronomic book off his shelf, and tells his adopted son a story of The Beginning. “At the dawn of time,” he reads, “Man, beast, and all magical beings lived together under Aiglin, the Father Tree.” This happy era doesn’t last another sentence. In an animated sequence, a faceless human army starts destroying everything. “In his infinite greed, man dreamt of expanding his dominion over the entire earth,” the story spins on, the cartoon figures moving like puppets, Tolkien as performed by Howdy Doody. “The blood of many an elf, ogre, and goblin was spilled,” says Father. You know right away this is a Guillermo Del Toro movie. He weeps for the ogres.
After the title sequence, we move to the present. But “modernity” looks strange in Hellboy II, a clash of dead worlds. An immortal elven king, old as time itself, holds court within a decaying rail station. The mythic Children of a now-dead Forest, taking shelter in a left-behind monument to America’s Industrial Age — and even this sorry place is no refuge. “COMING NEXT SUMMER,” a sign outside promises, “THREE POINTS SHOPPING MALL.” Maybe that won’t hold either. Given how shopping malls have fared since 2008, you imagine that this lost Elf empire would look different-but-same today, a ruined mall, a castle of commercial brick-and-mortars left behind by Amazon Prime, a throne built out of all the DVDs the streaming era left unsold.
The Old King has taken up residence in “The East Side Railyards,” one of those fake New York locations you could swear you walked past once. It’s as grand as any of the various Elf coalitions from the Hobbit movies Del Toro almost directed. And it’s also a mockery of those scenes, the platinum-haired palefaces assembled in gritty wreckage, the Council of Elrond in a hobo village.
And yet, and yet, and yet: It’s also more grandiose than those stuffy assemblies, a modernization in the best sense. Behind the King lurks a stygian machine, pipes and a boiler, the kind of Iron Throne they would’ve built for Vanderbilt. And here in the trash of yesteryear, golden leaves still fall, sun-dappled glitter from high-above nowhere.
Scenes like this make other Hollywood fantasies look postcard-plastic. And past a certain point, Hellboy II only has scenes like this. Middle-Earth, Hogwarts: Fine, yes, but perhaps a fantasy made in modern times should look just a little bit like Modern Times.
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola co-wrote the sequel’s story with Del Toro, and is credited as a “visual designer.” The production designer was Stephen Scott, who art-directed a couple Pierce Brosnan Bond films (notably including the one with the ice castle). And Del Toro himself had already pursued a cinematic fascination of old worlds within worlds: wartime layering over fable in Pan’s Labyrinth, the network of immortal bloodsuckers circling Prague’s hottest club in Blade II. Their collaboration conjures an aesthetic vision across a grand sweep of time and space, encompassing Northern Ireland and New Jersey, deities from beyond beyond, a cameo by pre-diet Jimmy Kimmel.
As played by Ron Perlman, the title character has an endearing way of demanding your attention even as he shares the spotlight. Is Hellboy even the hero of this movie? Fishman sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) has the tragic romance, falling hard for renegade princess Nuala (Anna Walton). Hellboy’s firestarting girlfriend, Liz (played with ice-cool toughness by Selma Blair), makes a more profound protagonistic decision, sacrificing for the hell-man she loves.
And Nuala’s twin brother, Nuada (Luke Goss), is a remarkably noble villain, fighting for his race’s survival. In his first action scene, the “innocent bystanders” he kills are auctioneers peddling his father’s old crown. Killing is wrong, but you feel his enthusiastic mood: Take that, cultural appropriators!
Nuada dismisses the human race as a plague, building parking lots and shopping malls. The film doesn’t really dispute that assertion. Hellboy II’s visuals are frequently beautiful, but Del Toro situates major action beats around a profound feeling of loss, some immortal life-cycle ended.
A fight with a great green forest god undercuts any feeling of superhero triumphalism: There are no winners, a lot of losers. The elemental being is the last of its kind, pitiful and helpless against Hellboy’s giant-sized gun. Dying, the god bleeds Eden, terraforming a city block into a green wonder. This happens right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge — prime waterfront real estate, and you imagine that the elemental’s residue has become a pleasant park, ideal for baby-strolling. Murdering a god really drives up the housing costs.
Pay attention to the billboard behind Hellboy, pausing before he fires the killshot. “THE CITY OF THE FUTURE,” the advertising promises. Del Toro’s having fun, but he’s also twisting the sociopolitical knife: This urban renewal will build up from a giant’s corpse.
This is all backdrop, sure, but Del Toro doesn’t really do “backdrop,” is the kind of complete filmmaker who tells one story in the macro and the micro. Consider the final act, which takes the characters to a true lost civilization. It’s an underground kingdom called Bethmoora, that name taken from a Lord Dunsany short story. Dunsany influenced the influencers, predating J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft. His story is more like an essay, a portrait of London shading into a memory of a city that never was. He writes of a lost metropolis: “There are no lights in her houses, no footfall on her streets. She stands there dead and lonely beyond the Hills of Hap, and I would see Bethmoora once again, but dare not.”
What we see of Hellboy II‘s Bethmoora is the definition of dead and lonely, vague Gaudi outgrowths of spinal architecture, sunlit dust.
But Del Toro sharpens this vision, giving us a guide to Bethmoora who also seems to be Bethmoora. In this lost city, the heroes meet a nameless goblin (John Alexander), who personifies every idea about an ancient civilization, the grandeur and the rot. He could be emperor of the subway beggars, clawing himself forward on a wheelchair that’s also his entire mobile home.
For Del Toro, grotesquerie is humanity. And the more time you spend with this goblin, the more you notice his ingenuity, his whimsy, his rueful dark humor. It turns out he created the titular Golden Army, 4,900 unstoppable robots, their inner workings built like a self-fixing clock. “Sometimes I wish I’d never created them,” he admits. So he’s an Oppenheimer long since become Death, Destroyer of Worlds, moaning over his greatest work. (Though given Del Toro’s cinematic fascinations, you wonder if the better comparison is Max Von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard, a great creator self-reduced to servitude, preparing his creation for oblivion.)
All worth pondering, but the storytelling is never ponderous. The goblin guides the heroes to their final duel — but leaves them at the stairway. “I’m not very good with steps,” he admits. Leave it to Del Toro to craft a glorious subterranean civilization, and take care to notice how the fantastical infrastructure is unfriendly to the differently abled.
At the core of Hellboy II is a personal story. Liz is pregnant. She’s not sure if Hellboy’s ready to be a father. Has he grown up yet? Cusping on 60 when Hellboy was made, Perlman wonderfully plays Red as a kind of demigod twentysomething. He’s less an adult than a kid pretending to be an adult. He presents, like, every idea of badassery: Bogart trenchcoat, Churchill cigar, a gun as big as the cannonfire sound effects Sergio Leone used for revolver blasts in his Westerns.
But Hellboy’s also an overgrown dork with a man-cave, seeking attention from the world at large, terrible at the day-to-day requirements of domestic living. He’s a lover and a fighter, sure, but his room’s a mess. Here’s his perspective on the relationship with Liz: “I would give my life for her. But she also wants me to do the dishes.”
In the movies, superheroes don’t really ever get around to having kids. And the exceptions prove the rule. Ant-Man’s got a daughter, technically, the kind of distant sitcom kid raised by barely seen cameo parents, around just long enough to exhort Dad away from parental duties. Other children serve a symbolic purpose, which means they’re symbolically introduced far from the banal reality of childcare. Wolverine and Superman got surprise kids in Logan and Superman Returns, and their relationships with those children express a very bygone notion of distant parenting: The father as inspirational figure, who never changes any super-diapers.
The defining hero of the first half of this decade was Batman, played as a live-action lothario by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, Bat-bachelors in Bat-mancaves. The Caped Crusader’s modern movies run screaming from any notion of the Bat-family — except, weirdly, for Lego Batman, in which Lego Robin turns Will Arnett’s blocky crusader into an adoptive dad. Only Brad Bird’s Incredibles movies really take super-parenting seriously, and even those movies need to turn the kids into mini-heroes, protégés to be mentored. (See also: Hit-Girl from the Kickass movies, raised to be a murder goddess.)
You could read Hellboy II as the thematic prologue to the Incredibles’ family dynamics. These crazy kids got pregnant, so what happens next? It’s a question that haunts Liz the most. Hellboy himself only gets the news late in the film.
But Del Toro’s teasing visuals keep babies on the mind. In the majestic Troll Market sequence, Hellboy interviews a male-ish creature who appears to have a child-esque thing growing out of its chest.
“I’m not a baby,” says the cute little monster. “I’m a tumor!” Visually, it’s a bit of both: a little symbiote sucking the lifeskin off its host, a Baby Bjorn by way of Eraserhead.
Or consider the all-consuming Tooth Fairies in an early action sequence. “All these things do is eat and eat, then poop, then eat again,” says Abe, echoing the complaints of every new parent ever.
Should Hellboy and Liz be concerned? Is there another option? Under the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a curious billboard, only ever glimpsed briefly but hovering over much of the action under the Brooklyn bridge. Note how Del Toro frames it, twice, left of Liz’s head and then Red’s head, like a shared thought balloon. The message is intriguing:
“A BIG DECISION. LET’S MAKE IT TOGETHER,” next to a pregnant couple. If you look very closely, you realize the ad is peddling mortgages, investments, and loans — adult things, not to mention weird intimations of everything collapsing about capitalism in 2008.
But is there another big decision that Hellboy and Liz have to make? Like maybe, RE the baby: To be or not to be? Later, Liz and Hellboy have a fight. There’s a movie playing on the old black-and-white TV: Bride of Frankenstein, one of James Whale’s Mary Shelley adaptations. Modern scholarship tends to examine Shelley’s original novel as a freak show of scrambled fertility, life created out of death by a man without woman. “WE BELONG DEAD!” says Boris Karloff on television, a monstrous offspring self-aborting.
Once you look for the baby stuff, you find it everywhere. When the Tooth Fairies attack, Hellboy has to turn a gigantic statue into a weapon. He crushes these little baby-monsters… with a gigantic stone fertility goddess. Later, when the elemental god attacks the city block, Hellboy grabs his favorite gun. The comical shape of the rocket-sized bullets is a joke of phallic weaponry, so ludicrously oversized that you might miss the name Hellboy’s given this monster:
In the same scene, the hero’s great heroic act is a subtle move toward fatherhood: He rescues a baby from a car, and carries it throughout the scene that follows. The whole scene has a brazenly symbolic undertone, a portrait of generations passing: The old god, killed by an adult demon, so that the littlest child can live. What a miserable outcome! The old god’s sad, because it dies. The demon’s sad, because he does the killing. The baby has no clue what’s happening at all, blissfully ignorant of the giants left buried in the past.
Seriously, watch the signage. Before the elemental attacks, Hellboy pauses briefly. Your eye catches two forms of advertisement: a neon-lit cross, universal image of a sacrificed son, the advertised message “Sin Will Find You Out” expressing the gloomiest form of Christianity. And there, in the distance, a billboard declaring Hellboy’s paternity.
So there’s a rippling parental anxiety in Hellboy II, there even when the film is absurdly delightful. And how much more delightful can you get? Hellboy and Abe boozily sing Barry Manilow. There are characters whose mere presences exude enough fantastical imagination for 10 other movies, like Johann Kraus (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), a droll, faceless smoke-thing who walks around in a Victorian diving suit.
Del Toro is the rare filmmaker who sees no real difference between high camp and gritty action, no separation between romantic fantasy and chatty banter. Poetry and Howdy Doody, mythology and karaoke, predictions of eternal doom and sight gags about Tecate cans. He stages Nuada’s fights as martial arts swordplay, Errol Flynn by way of Yuen Woo-ping. And then he’ll throw in a High Gross scene worthy of Rob Bottin: a monster chomped to gore by a crushing machine, a government agent eaten down to the bone.
It’s stuffed with details to make repeat viewing a pleasure. When one of the Golden Army soldierbots reassembles itself for battle, I swear the sound effect is the horn of a choo-choo train. The visual flourishes can be sly and exuberant all at once. Hellboy climbs to the top of a HOTEL sign, and when he stands on the top letter, we could be looking at a Will Eisner splash page: Helicopters overhead, a future metropolis advertised while the current city crumbles, the hero standing on his own initial.
There was a hope for a third Hellboy movie with Perlman and Del Toro. One element of Hellboy II feels like a tease in a trilogy-concluding direction. With the her baby daddy dying, Liz makes a deal with a strange creature. The credits label this being the Angel of Death, though that sounds a bit too straightforwardly biblical for Del Toro and Mignola. As played by Doug Jones, this strange Angel is the absolute stuff of nightmares.
And it is not, by a long shot, the actual problem. The Great Villain is right there in this film’s title. “It is his destiny,” the Angel motions toward Hellboy, “to bring about the destruction of the Earth.” For Liz herself, the prediction is somehow even more dire: “You, my dear, will suffer more than anyone.”
That single scene holds more stunning promise — more cosmic fear, more tantalizing possibility — than any of the half-dozen cliffhangers that powered the first decade of our cinematic universes. The third Hellboy never came to pass. (A reboot arrives next year, directed by The Descent’s Neil Marshall.) So this hint toward the future lingers, in memory, like an open wound, cold water thrown onto the cheerful final scene.
I used to say that Hellboy II was my favorite superhero movie. Ten years on, that feels like an understatement. Its vision bridges the gap between the post-LOTR fantasy vogue of the 2000s and the urban-heroic comic book fantasies of this decade. The notion of a subsociety seeking human extinction would power every YA series of this youth era. (Certainly, the curious too-close sibling dynamic of Nuala and Nuada feels half-Cullen, half-Lannister.)
Hellboy’s public journey moves, quickly, from local hero to nuisance to public menace: The saga of every old Marvel Comics character, as a sub-sub-subplot. At one point, the TV news proclaims that, according to some polls, Americans are up in arms over Hellboy and Liz’s relationship, an “interspecies marriage…seen by many as a threat to traditional families.” We’re halfway to an X-Men movie, but Hellboy II cuts between topicality, cosmic freakiness, and comedy banter in a way that suggests a missing third path between DC grimdark and Marvel sitcommery. Hellboy’s a misfit, hated and feared for who he is — but he’s also a grandstanding man-child who needs to work on his anger issues. Many superheroes are bad boyfriends rewarded for their heroism. Hellboy’s a hero learning to be a better boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Del Toro’s love for practical effects gives scenes like the Troll Market a tangible authenticity that few blockbusters even try for anymore. Meanwhile, his simultaneous love for digital effects produces CGI that still impresses in 2018: The clockwork mechanisms within the Golden Army, the oddly poignant resuscitated Tooth Fairy that complains about that time Hellboy killed it. The luscious fantasy builds surreality from the refuse of our own familiar world, New York by way of Budapest by way of soundstages built for freeze-framing.
Del Toro flirted with a couple of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, dedicating time to The Hobbit, nearly directing Thor. He went his own peculiar ways, toward Oscars and big China box office.
Meanwhile, the genres of Hollywood fantasy have trended aristocratic, castles and forests, bright big-budget futurism. I wish Del Toro could’ve made his third Hellboy. We’re lousy with comic book sequel apocalypses where the bad guy is some digital dude who needs punching. It feels like an important corrective to have a superhero movie where the title hero is the destroyer of worlds.
But rewatching Hellboy II now, a third film feels inessential, like it could’ve only explored ground this sequel already covered. You’re left with a profound feeling of possibility. Here’s a film that begins with a dead father describing a dead civilization. It continues through patricide and deicide, an Old King murdered by his self-destructing son, an elder god brain-blown to green bits.
The Golden Army is brought back to life just long enough to die, like Frankenstein’s Monster in most versions of the story. The future promises more ruin: One hero is the messiah of the void. Another hero, his lover, will suffer — more than anyone. The children we see are flesh-eating intestinal tracts, life-devouring tumors — and then Hellboy himself, “born from a womb of shadows,” and just one more overgrown dude-child who can’t get over himself. Good Lord, at one point Nuala just casually reads some Tennyson, lines from “In Memoriam,” a poem about a dead friend.
This, in a movie with MacFarlane doing German-accent gags! But there’s a tough-hearted to hopefulness to Hellboy II. Old life and old civilizations giving way for a new generation. It helps to work together. Hellboy is saved by Liz. And then he destroys the Golden Army. A son, destroying a bedtime story on the road to fatherhood? Kinda, but not quite. Actually, it’s Liz who destroys the Golden Army, melting their command crown, turning off all the lights inside the world’s biggest man-cave.
And Liz ends Hellboy II on a cliffhanger of epic proportions. But it’s a cliffhanger in the cut-to-black Sopranos model, demanding you to ponder every possible future. Liz is pregnant… with twins! Cute, but consider the context. Hellboy didn’t win his final battle in this movie. Nuala did — by killing herself, a wound that also killed Nuada, because these magical twins feel everything together.
One pair of twins commit murder-suicide, taking with them the whole history of their race. And then another pair of twins is born. You worry it’s a cycle. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.
But maybe that’s one definition of optimism, too. That great green elemental, we’re told, is “a giver of life and a destroyer.” So when the forest god dies, it blooms a new forest. There is life in the ruins. The burial ground is the garden.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny
Hellboy II: The Golden Army