Pairing the director who calls monsters “the patron saints of our blissful imperfection”, and a comic series about a cat-loving, cigar-smoking demon was a match made in heaven. Though Marvel and DC have both dipped toes into the fantasy genre, neither has done so with as much joyful, reckless abandon as the Hellboy movies. Based on Mike Mignola’s graphic novels, Guillermo del Toro’s films are an unapologetically fantastical world of clockwork Nazis, monstrous hellhounds, forgotten kingdoms, and vengeful princes. Fifteen years after his cinematic debut, the lovable demon is gearing up to return with a new iteration. With Stranger Things‘ David Harbour now wielding the Right Hand of Doom, it’s time to revisit the beautiful, weird world of Hellboy.
The first film introduced us to the top secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and our unlikely central trio: Ron Perlman’s Hellboy (a demon summoned by Nazi occultists but adopted by US troops), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, as an amphibious Niles Crane), and reclusive pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair), all through the eyes of requisite Boring Normie, Agent Meyers (Rupert Evans). Like its freaky protagonists, Hellboy wasn’t embraced very warmly by the general public. A lukewarm financial performance might have buried it, if not for the salvation of many box office misfits – DVD sales. Finding its audience on home media thankfully enabled del Toro to craft a sequel that can stand cloven hoof-to-toe with some of the best comic book movies around.
Based on an original script by del Toro, The Golden Army is a little more Tolkienesque than its occult-esque predecessor – Nazis and mad scientists are out, fairytales and folklore are in. Sick of humanity’s destructive nature, Elven prince Nuada of Bethmoora (Luke Goss) sets out to awaken the fabled Golden Army, a force of indestructible automatons capable of destroying all human life. Our introduction to Nuada sees him furiously sparring in a dank underground chamber. It’s a scene from pure fantasy, a warrior prince honing his skills in a subterranean dungeon – until a subway train blares past in the background, revealing that this is our world. Del Toro has great fun throughout playing with our perception, creating a sumptuous fairytale fantasy operating just on the periphery of the mundane. Sweet old ladies are really cat-eating trolls, sentient tumours masquerade as babies, and a secret door beneath the Brooklyn Bridge hides a bustling Troll Market.
Packed to the gills with bizarre creatures and fairytale kingdoms, The Golden Army is a visual feast for fans of practical effects – and film fans in general. The aforementioned Troll Market is a masterpiece of prosthetic and production design, the Mos Eisley cantina by way of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, with a bit of Diagon Alley thrown in for good measure. It’s the kind of scene made for pausing and poring over, as well as giving us a tantalising glimpse at what Guillermo del Toro’s Middle Earth might have looked like. Indeed, it feels like every scene is packed with cinematic homages. When we travel to Bethmoora for the final showdown, the desolate kingdom’s dusty corpses and crumbling columns evoke the Mines of Moria. Later as Hellboy and Nuada do battle atop giant moving cogs (and our hero gets dragged into the machine’s innards), we can’t help but be reminded of the Little Tramp getting caught in the factory machine in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. It’s the kind of film that demands multiple viewings in order to catch every nod and reference, to appreciate the care poured into every frame.
Undeniably beautiful production design aside, the film’s real strength is in its characters. Guillermo del Toro famously loves finding the beauty and humanity in monsters (and, of course, the monstrosity in humanity) and The Golden Army is no exception. Like Aquaman’s Orm or Black Panther’s Killmonger, villain Nuada’s anger stems from injustice. Can he really be blamed for pushing back at humanity’s devastating greed? When Hellboy is forced to kill a towering forest Elemental to prevent it from destroying the city, the humans he saves are still ungrateful, fearful, and mistrustful to the point of aggression. The behemoth’s death is sorrowful, and as beautiful greenery sprouts from the creature’s spilled blood, we’re forced to examine whether this monstrous entity – the very last of its kind – was really such a monster after all. “You have more in common with us than with them,” Nuada aptly observes, posing some tough questions about where Hellboy’s loyalties ought to lie.
But it needn’t all be so solemnly grandiose. The film’s sweeping fantasy is consistently balanced with wonderful little character moments, allowing a sense of goofy fun without undermining the earnestness or sincerity of the story. In the film’s best scene Abe realises he is in love – for the first time in his life – with Nuada’s gentle twin sister, Nuala. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Liz are on the rocks, having very much left the honeymoon period of their relationship behind as they struggle to cohabitate as a couple. Perlman and Jones give two beautifully pitched comedic performances as the boys knock back a few beers, blast some Barry Manilow, and chew over their respective romances. “I would give my life for her… ” a drunken Hellboy pledges sombrely as the pair contemplate a sleeping Liz. “ …but she also wants me to do the dishes.” Abe offers his own grandiose romantic gesture: “I would die and do the dishes.” It’s an irresistibly sweet scene, conveying more warmth and character in two minutes than some films manage in two hours.
With a projected budget of around $120 million, it’s not difficult to see why Hellboy 3 never came to be. The second installment, while successful, simply didn’t do well enough, and with the gap between entries growing larger it made financial sense to simply reboot the franchise and start from scratch. Of course, it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. The Golden Army ends boldly, with the entire gang quitting the BPRD, Liz pregnant with twins, and the apocalypse (and Hellboy’s potential role in it) just on the horizon. The third installment was gearing up to be a bit of a showstopper – not exactly the fairest arena for a reboot to enter into.
But we should remain hopeful. Harbour and co. may have to work hard to win over the original’s loyal devotees, but a talented bunch of creatives and an enormously fun source material should take them far. If they manage to evoke even half the charm, warmth and creativity of del Toro’s vision, we’re all in for a hell of a good time.