Life’s all about checks and balances. Just last week I was excited that we’d finally gotten a superhero film, Shazam!, that was interested in being something different and had real thematic weight. And then the clunky, absolutely unnecessary reboot of Dark Comics’ Hellboy came along this weekend and reminded me that happiness is sometimes so fleeting. To put it mildly, director Neil Marshall’s adaptation of the great comic series by Mike Mignola is one of the worst films I’ve seen in a really long time – and it doesn’t even have the decency to be bad in a way that’s at least sorta entertaining.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room. Nobody really asked for a reboot of this material when a perfectly fine set of films based on the property already exist. Helmed by Guillermo del Toro and led by Ron Perlman’s ace performance as the titular character, those two comic book films are amongst the best the genre has to offer. They both came around the time in the 2000s when blockbusters were still being made with some semblance of skill, vision, and authorial stamp. Even to this day, both films, particularly 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, are wonderful works of dark fantasy that benefit immensely from del Toro’s careful directorial touch and a particular sense of poetry that comes with his perspective on Mignola’s material. But for whatever reason, instead of allowing del Toro and Perlman a chance to close out their trilogy, Lionsgate decided to reboot the property as “bigger, badder, and more boring.” Sure, this version of the story is considerably more vulgar and gory (it does earn that R-rating, after all), and perhaps it follows the comics storyline a bit more aggressively than del Toro’s loosey-goosey approach, but it’s not as though either of those things made for a better film. In fact, rather the opposite.
This is usually the part where I’d give a slight summary of the plot, but Hellboy would need to actually have one in order for me to do that. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. The problem is that there’s too much plot. None of it is strung together in a dramatically satisfying or particularly coherent way. Something about Hellboy (David Harbour) having to stop a newly resurrected witch named Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who’s from the Arthurian age, and if they come together it’ll mean the end of the world. And then of course there’s a giant beam of light going up into the sky and half of London gets the plague (again). It almost feels like the filmmakers were forced to add an abundance of overly explained stretches of world building in order to try and justify a new franchise. That means the film plays out like a video game, wherein Hellboy never makes any decisions of his own, but is told where to go or taken to his next destination so the “plot” can lurch towards an anti-climatic conclusion that utterly rips off Tobe Hooper’s underrated Hammer horror tribute Lifeforce from 1985. The filmmakers were clearly worried that people might get bored, so they decided to continuously cram in more plot in the hopes of distracting them from checking their watches. To be honest, it never stopped me.
Actually, that’s kind of Hellboy‘s approach to everything: just add more. There’s an abundance of plot, a smorgasbord of cheap vulgarity, and even more grotesque gore. Look, I’m no stranger to some movie violence, being particularly taken by the horror genre as I am. But at some point when there are rivers of gore unnecessarily running through the frame, you just get bored by it all. At one point, a bunch of giant demons run amok in London, randomly tearing apart poor civilians in some less-than-creative but still very gruesome ways. To quote the lady sitting next to me during this part, after enduring an entire film of unnecessarily mean-spirited nastiness: “I’m tired.” The film is about as scary as a boy wiggling a dead worm in his sister’s face. Never mind that all the bloody bits are horribly rendered with CGI, which makes none of it look believable even for a second. The entire film suffers from that problem. The smaller budget absolutely cannot support two hours of heavy-emphasis on special effects, but that’s exactly what they tried to do – because how dare anybody be practical with money.
The bad CGI is symptomatic of a greater issue: Hellboy is just pretty badly made all around. This has some of the worst editing I’ve seen in a major motion picture in quite some time. It’s just about impossible to tell what’s going on half the time, and the sheer amount of cutting during some sequences is actually headache-inducing. All the editing choices smack of studio interference, probably frightened by early remarks from test screening audiences. Maybe that would also explain the sheer amount of bad ADR, with a handful of “jokes” being delivered off-screen, through lines of dialogue clearly recorded after the fact and messily crammed into the film. Sound design as a whole is pretty shoddy, too. Where del Toro’s films most succeeded was in their sumptuous, immaculate production design, and this film just can’t compare, probably partially because of a lower budget. But at the same time, this is the one area the film doesn’t completely botch, containing a few genuinely great creature designs (Baba Yaga jumps to mind).
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag, but that’s partially because the script is a disaster. The casting director smartly plucked actors who are known for their aptitude with B-movie material, but there’s only so much some of the performers can do to elevate their paper-thin characters. Speaking of which, there’s also just too many of them running around, which only adds to the overstuffed quality. Anyway, David Harbour is probably hurt the most by the writing. He’s a quality actor, and could’ve made for a genuinely good Hellboy if he were allowed to do anything interesting with the role. The problem is that the character has no agency in his own story, as mentioned before, and the emotional core comes from a poorly developed father-son relationship he has with actor Ian McShane that acts as the story’s big payoff and just doesn’t work. Then there’s Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, who are given absolutely nothing to do as Hellboy’s sidekicks and flounder appropriately. Only Milla Jovovich comes out unscathed. In all of her performances, she’s kind of really good at finding the right tone of camp and marrying it with some nuance. In other words, she’s smart and knows exactly what kind of film she’s in.
The biggest shame is that Hellboy‘s source material is just so rich. Mike Mignola’s pages are defined not only by striking artwork, but by some pretty subtle, surprising storytelling centered around a genuinely compelling protagonist. This film tries to get at some of Hellboy’s issues with identity, particularly his role in a world where his monstrous appearance automatically characterizes him as evil. But whereas Ron Perlman’s take on the character’s desire to fit in was the emotional and thematic crux of Guillermo del Toro’s first installment, this film just doesn’t do the necessary legwork to make that angle work at all. Hellboy questions if Nimue bringing about the end of humanity is a bad thing because humanity has only ever judged that which is different than them – but also, Hellboy is never really shown being rebuked by society. So that argument is moot the minute it’s brought up. Never mind that the film never quite fulfills the baseline requirements of being a junky B-movie, since neither the action nor the scares are any good or pulpy enough to stand out. Without that, what’s left? Other than the inevitable fatigue the film will give you (speaking from experience).
Hellboy is a reminder of what happens when a levee eventually breaks. In a marketplace oversaturated by superhero films, there’s no way of guaranteeing that they’ll all attain a certain level of quality. A few of them are bound to slip through the cracks, and Hellboy is a shining example that for all the cavorting about how the superhero genre has “come a long way” since the Marvel Cinematic Universe bust onto the scene back in 2008, the truth is that the genre still has quite a ways to go. And after this film… it’s got quite a bit of distance to try and make up for.