4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Aw, crap!” — Hellboy

Mike Mignola first came to prominence as an inker with a very distinctive style, lending his unique brushwork to embellish the pencils of other artists in comics from Marvel and DC. In 1993, he created “Hellboy” for a sketch he did at a convention. The character appeared on a cover of Dime Press and then in a story Mignola did with John Byrne for San Diego Comic Con Comics. Eventually, Mignola decided to use that character as the focal point of stories he wanted to tell in his own comics, and a legend was born. Hellboy has appeared in various comics and comics series for the last 25 years.

He also was adapted into screen form, including two live-action movies and two direct-to-DVD animated films.

Hellboy wasn’t intended to be anything other than a cool comics sketch initially, but Mignola was getting the writer bug. He initially pitched Hellboy to DC, but they were wary of something with “hell” in the title. (Comics did actually get more conservative about such matters in the 1990s, which was a weird backlash to the collector boom of that era. To give a similar example, the character of Damian Hellstrom at Marvel was always referred to as the Son of Satan in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the following decade, he was only referred to as “Hellstrom.”)

The 1990s were a boom time for creator-owned comics. The most blatant example was the 1992 defection of several Marvel artists to form Image Comics, on the theory that they could make more money writing and drawing their own characters that they controlled ancillary rights to than they could writing and drawing characters owned by Marvel and DC.

So when DC passed on Hellboy, Mignola decided to do it for himself, eventually starting a relationship with Dark Horse Comics that continues to this day—and which also includes a relationship with Dark Horse Entertainment, which got Hellboy to the big screen in much the same way other DH properties like Barb Wire, Tank Girl, The Mask, Mystery Men, etc., had been.

Hellboy and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense for which he works has continued to be immensely popular in not only comic books and film, but also animation, games, and novels. There’ve also been spinoffs with the characters of Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien.

In 2004, Guillermo del Toro, fresh off Blade II, was given the opportunity to direct the live-action adaptation of Hellboy, which he took rather than do Blade Trinity, AvP: Alien vs. Predator, or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, all of which he was offered. Both del Toro and Mignola had thought that Ron Perlman would be perfect for the part, and he was cast soon thereafter.

He was surrounded by an impressive cast: Sir John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Jeffrey Tambor, and the great Doug Jones as Abe Sapien (who was voiced by David Hyde-Pierce, but Hyde-Pierce refused to take credit for the role, as he felt that it would take away from Jones’s superlative work).

The movie did well enough to spawn a sequel four years later (which we’ll cover next week). A third movie was got trapped in development hell, with both Perlman and del Toro expressing interest at various times, but it was eventually scrapped. A reboot movie starring David Harbour, Ian McShane, and Milla Jovovich is planned for 2019, and I’m sure we’ll cover that in this rewatch down the line as well…

 

“I hate those comic books—they never get the eyes right”

Hellboy
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Peter Briggs
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin and Mike Richardson
Original release date: April 2, 2004

In October of 1944, young Trevor Bruttenholm accompanies a cadre of American soldiers to a remote locale in Scotland where Grigori Rasputin—a Russian mystic believed dead—plans to call forth a demon on Hitler’s behalf. He’s aided by Ilsa, whom he’s made immortal through magickal means, and Kroenen, an assassin who has made himself immortal through surgeries and other tricks like bulletproof armor.

The American soldiers attack even as Rasputin opens the dimensional portal, and Rasputin is thrown in. Ilsa and Kroenen escape, however, and a small demon child has come through the portal to Earth. Nicknamed “Hellboy,” Bruttenholm adopts the red-skinned, horned child with the outsized right hand as his son.

Fast forward to the present day. Hellboy, who is also very strong, heals quickly, and is resistant to fire, works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a private enterprise supported by the FBI (which publicly denies its existence) to deal with paranormal threats. Besides various federal agents assigned to it, there are several unique individuals who work for the BPRD, including Hellboy—who removed his horns and keeps them sanded down to keep from growing back—and Abe Sapien, an amphibious humanoid creature who has low-level telepathy. We’re introduced to them through a new Quantico graduate, John Myers, who is newly assigned to Hellboy. Bruttenholm is mad at Hellboy because he escaped BPRD to visit Liz Sherman. Liz is a pyrokinetic who sometimes works with the BPRD, but is currently institutionalized by her own will.

Myers is taken aback by the BPRD, especially Hellboy, who is imprisoned in a vault, eats a ridiculous amount of food, and is surrounded by kittens and televisions. Myers’s first mission takes them to a museum, where a statue was shattered, six guards were killed, a lot of artifacts were damaged—and the creature likely responsible is still there. The statue was a mystical prison for a creature called Sammael, who can resurrect himself. Hellboy finds that last part out the hard way after he kills him. A chase through the subway later, and Hellboy finally electrocutes Sammael on the third rail. But when the creature dies, two green flames arise from its corpse.

The two flames return to the abandoned subway station that Ilsa and Kroenen are using, to which they have brought back Rasputin, having finally retrieved him after sixty years through a blood ritual performed in Moldavia. When Sammael dies, two more creatures take its place, which are formed out of the two flames. Not only that, but it laid several eggs, including three in Hellboy’s arm. Sapien is able to remove and destroy those three, but it could’ve laid eggs elsewhere in the subway.

Hellboy doesn’t report back to base right away, though, instead going to the asylum where Liz is. They talk, but she doesn’t want to come back. Myers tells Bruttenholm that he isn’t right for this job, and Bruttenholm reveals that he’s dying of cancer, and he needs someone who will take care of his son when he’s gone.

Rasputin casts a spell on Liz that gives her bad dreams, causing her pyrokineticism to activate and burn the asylum. She’s catatonic, but Myers is able to get her out of it and convince her to come back to BPRD.

Hellboy, Sapien, and three agents investigate the subway tunnels, and encounter more Sammaels, as well as Kroenen. Two agents are killed, one is badly wounded, Sapien is also hurt, and Kroenen seems to be killed as well.

They return to BPRD with Kroenen’s body, which Bruttenholm examines. Hellboy is thrilled to see Liz, but less thrilled to see her go out on a coffee date with Myers. Jealous, Hellboy breaks out of BPRD to follow them. (Of course, Liz has no idea how he really feels because he’s never actually told her. He’s started several notes that he crumples up and leaves unfinished.)

While Hellboy is away being stalkery, Rasputin appears in BPRD HQ and Kroenen turns out to be only mostly dead, not all dead. Kroenen kills Bruttenholm after Rasputin taunts him a bit. However, before Bruttenholm died, he found a clue: an address in Moscow.

Sapien is still too weak to travel, but Hellboy, Myers, Liz, and several other agents (including the deputy director in charge of BPRD, Tom Manning, who really detests Hellboy) fly to Moscow to stop Rasputin’s evil plan. Armed with a bandolier of grenades, they arrive at the address, which turns out to be a cemetery. There’s an entire evil lair of evil under Rasputin’s mausoleum, and in our heroes go. Hellboy says they’ll be fine as long as they’re not separated, at which point they’re separated. Manning, Hellboy, and one agent go one way, while Liz, Myers, and the other agent go the other way. Why those additional agents aren’t wearing red shirts is left as an exercise for the viewer, as they’re both killed, one by a flying hammer that Hellboy and Manning barely survive as it destroys the footbridge they’re on, the other by a gaggle of Sammaels.

Liz manages to wipe out all the Sammaels and the Sammael eggs with fire, but the effort exhausts her, and Ilsa and Rasputin capture her and place her on an altar to be sacrificed. Hellboy and Manning are able to kill Kroenen, and they bond over cigars. Hellboy goes after the bad guys and is captured. Rasputin plans to sacrifice Liz unless Hellboy agrees to reopen the portal that will allow some evil squid god or other to come through.

Unwilling to watch Liz die, he speaks his real name, and is freed, the runes etched into his skin glowing, his horns regrowing. He opens the portal, but Myers convinces him—in part using Bruttenholm’s rosary—to make a choice not give in to his demonic nature the way Rasputin wants. He agrees, rips the horns off, and stabs Rasputin with them. He, Myers, and Liz get away, but Rasputin’s death still allows the elder god to come through, bursting out through Rasputin’s chest, and he’s huge.

The god kills both Ilsa and Rasputin, who seem happy to be going to hell. Hellboy manages to stop the god by letting it swallow him—and the grenades, which blow it up real good. He finally admits to Liz how he feels and they kiss while on fire thanks to Liz. Good thing Hellboy’s immune to fire….

 

“I’ll always look this good”

I have a confession to make: I never got into the Hellboy comics. It just never quite got on my radar. I mean, I knew they existed, and I knew they were popular, and lots of people whom I know and respect have said good things about them. Heck, the author of many of the Hellboy novels, Christopher Golden, is a good friend of mine and someone whose work I respect a great deal.

Yet somehow, I just never got into Hellboy.

I never saw the movies, either, so this is less a rewatch than a watch, as I’m coming to this movie and The Golden Army next week completely fresh.

And so far, I’m enjoying the crap out of it. Watching this movie makes me want to (finally!) catch up on the comics.

First of all, Hellboy is just tremendous fun as a character. Ron Perlman is rarely anything but fantastic, and he’s particularly brilliant here. His completely lack of any fucks to give, his snotty commentary, his impatience, his emotional immaturity (probably borne of living away from people most of his life), and his weakness for kittens all combine to make him a very compelling character. It’s always fun to see Sir John Hurt, though I’m amused that in the end it was someone else who had a yucky creature burst from his chest.

Sapien is a magnificent melding of David Hyde-Pierce’s voice and Doug Jones’s body language, and it’s to Hyde-Pierce’s credit that he refused, um, credit. The voice work, while excellent as Hyde-Pierce almost always is, is only a small portion. Jones—who was also in del Toro’s Academy Award-winning The Shape of Water and is the breakout star of Star Trek Discovery as Saru—is simply amazing here, beautifully conveying Sapien’s unique nature with body language and gestures. (Jones will do Sapien’s voice himself in the sequel.) Nobody ever went wrong casting Jeffrey Tambor in anything, and as Manning he elevates the rather clichéd role of Bureaucrat Who Doesn’t Like Our Hero into an actual character. (And he does come around in the end.)

The story is a pretty good adaptation of the first big Hellboy story, Seed of Destruction. The BPRD is introduced nicely, and the tempestuous relationships among the various characters helps keep it from just being a straightforward occult adventure. Ultimately, that’s all the plot is, and it’s a bit too Lovecrafty for my tastes—everything has tentacles! Elder gods summoned from beyond the veil!—and none of the three villains are all that compelling. Karel Roden is just kind of there as Rasputin—seriously, if you’re going to do the mad monk, do him justice—Biddy Hodson is spectacularly uninteresting as Ilsa, and Ladislav Beran does a good job of making Kroenen menacing and scary, but he’s not a character, he’s a plot device.

Still, this is a fun movie, with a truly great performance by Perlman, bringing life and verve and attitude to the title character.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the sequel that came out four years later, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is pleased to announce that eSpec Books has now re-released the first three of his “Precinct” series of high fantasy police procedurals: Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, and Goblin Precinct, with re-releases of both Gryphon Precinct and Tales from Dragon Precinct due over the course of the next month or two. And coming this fall is Mermaid Precinct, which will be followed over the next year or two by Phoenix Precinct, Manticore Precinct, and More Tales from Dragon Precinct.

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