‘Hellboy’ is a Worthless Slog that Completely Misses the Point
Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is an utterly joyless gorefest that misses the mark so badly that I’m honestly curious how it even got made. If Shazam! is an example of how to capture the feel of the source, Hellboy is the polar opposite. Loaded with fuckwords and laughably gratuitous violence, it’s almost as if Marshall and writer Andrew Cosby read a completely different comic.
Not to say that they didn’t read it at all. The movie pulls from the series very heavily. There’s Hellboy in Mexico, The Wild Hunt, Baba Yaga and her chicken house, Lobster Johnson, and even the beginning of The Corpse! However, Hellboy (the comic) is a long, long series—it just turned 25 years old, and boasts a number of side stories and spinoffs. The Wild Hunt comes very late in the game; almost at the end before Hellboy in Hell, which is the latest series. Then you have Baba Yaga, who is a longstanding antagonist that hounds Hellboy over a number of stories. Hellboy‘s got history, and that’s one of the movie’s biggest failures.
Marshall and Cosby shove in seemingly dozens of characters, each with some kind of history with Hellboy—histories that are dumped on the viewer in lurid detail. The movie ping-pongs between hyperviolence and lengthy exposition. Everything, no matter how minute, needs explaining, and you’re going to hear about it whether you like it or not (spoiler: you won’t). What were once pivotal moments are now treated as afterthoughts and gentle reminders of events that we’ve never seen. “Show, don’t tell” is the maxim of good storytelling, and Hellboy completely ignores it. It feels like the fifth movie in a series that doesn’t exist.
Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies hang over the film like a ghost—it’s so desperate to be as far removed from the first adaptation and its color and whimsy that you can’t help but remember what a good Hellboy movie felt like. It’s particularly noticeable when they share moments: the flashback to Hellboy’s arrival on Earth that features split second appearances of the first film’s Nazi super scientists, even keeping Kroenen’s blades, an invention from the first film. Del Toro took liberties from the comic to be sure, but it kept the spirit of the original. Series creator Mike Mignola’s stories have depth and heart, blending folklore seamlessly with tense thrills. Alan Moore called it “German expressionism meets Jack Kirby.”
Indeed, not since Watchmen has there been a movie that reveres the source material, but totally misunderstands it. Marshall’s Hellboy eschews the comic’s thoughtful ruminations on myth in favor of bad jokes and bloody battles. Hellboy is a horror comic to be sure, but even despite its action, it still puts story over violence. Marshall’s version vomits infodump after infodump just so you can understand the significance of who’s about to get their head smashed in or explode into a pile of gore. The characters and settings are there to simply justify gratuitous bloodbaths, which are so frequent they eventually get boring. A twenty-feet tall demon dragging a man in half across a rusted blade should be a terrifying image, but by the time it shows up, it’s eyeroll-inducing.
In the end, I’m not entirely sure who this movie is even for. If you’re a fourteen-year-old boy doodling demons and pentagrams on your math homework, maybe it’s you. But if you’ve got half a brain and any semblance of taste, just watch the first one again.