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Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is an utter dud, on par with Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. It’s a shame because if one person could have successfully followed in Guillermo Del Toro’s footsteps in adapting the Dark Horse Comic about a monster from hell trained by humans to fight other monsters, it’s Marshall.
His debut Dog Soldiers is arguably the best werewolf film ever. Meanwhile, his later films – the terrifying underground cave thriller The Descent, the deliriously fun Escape From New York/Mad Max knock-off Doomsday and the grimly slick swords and sandals picture Centurion – further cemented the Scottish director as a master at blending high-octane entertainment with gritty visceral action.
If Marshall’s filmography doesn’t impress, his TV work is nothing to be sniffed at either. He helmed Game of Thrones’ battle heavy episodes ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Watchers on the Wall’. He also kicked off the story of Francis Dolarhyde for NBC’s Hannibal with terrific entry ‘The Great Red Dragon’.
His pedigree leads one to wonder what went wrong with his first foray into Hollywood franchises. Early rumblings suggest Marshall butted heads with producers, leading to either a compromised vision or perhaps a film assembled without his oversight. The fact that the director has been silent during Hellboy’s press tour speaks volumes. As details surrounding behind-the-scenes struggles will no doubt be made in public in the coming months, all we can do is look at the final product to uncover why exactly the movie was so hellish.
In keeping with the idea the film was meddled with by producers, the new Hellboy feels machine tooled to ape several successful blockbusters of the 21st century. Its opening scene rendered in black and white while retaining colour for some objects aims for Sin City cool but feels more like The Spirit. Similarly, the soundtrack is all Guardians of the Galaxy style needle drops – Muse’s ‘Psycho’, Royal Blood’s ‘Figure It Out’, ‘Rock Me Like a Hurricane’ – but without any sense of being tied to the story or action, having more in common with the terribly mixed Suicide Squad.
The irreverent sardonic narration from the terribly miscast Ian McShane’s father figure: “517 AD. Known as the Dark Ages—and for fucking good reason” and the extreme violence is Deadpool but without the charm. Scenes involving British shady secret society The Osiris Club feel sub-Kingsman. But perhaps most horrendous is the film’s damp squib of a closing scene, an Avengers-esque stinger promising the reveal of a classic Hellboy character in the sequel that will never come. This is partly because in trying hard to appeal to fans of these other better movies, the reboot itself has very little personality of its own.
While some argue Del Toro’s romantic gothic take on the Mike Mignola comic was not faithful to its source, no one can deny the fact 2004’s Hellboy and its sequel 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army have a lot of heart. In the first, its main character is portrayed by Ron Perlman as a witty, lovelorn teen, pining over the fire-starting Liz (Selma Blair), someone he shares an immense connection with as they are both outsiders. The movie began Del Toro’s run of blending intense romance with horror movie tropes continuing with Crimson Peak (2015) and the Oscar winning The Shape of Water (2017).
Sequel The Golden Army took this one step further. Here, Liz learns she is unexpectedly pregnant, dealing with the situation by shutting down and not telling Hellboy the news. At the same time, their best friend Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), an aquatic sea creature, falls in love with the sister of the villain, a prince ruling over magical creatures who is angry humanity has driven them away from the cities to the forests. Here, everyone – even the baddies – are sympathetic and the movie’s central scene is not an action beat but a moment of Hellboy and Abe sharing a few beers and discussing their love lives to Barry Manilow’s ‘Can’t Smile Without You’. It’s weird, funny but goddamn charming. This is in the sense that anyone whose been in love can relate.
However, more directly involved in the 2019 reboot, Mignola wanted a darker, less superhero-like film faithful to his comic. The movie does have some potential emotional beats. David Harbour’s Hellboy is questioning his role in the genocide of monsters like him and villain Nimue (Milla Jovovich). In the film’s only really good scene, he suggests these creatures have been turned evil on account of unjust persecution by man – some of which the titular character has faced first-hand. However, amidst all Hellboy’s wise-cracking we never get a sense of him being truly conflicted. Meanwhile, the ultra-violent finale in which Nimue slaughters innocent bystanders Bone Tomahawk style undercuts any of this moral grey area. The end result is you just don’t care.
An endlessly fascinating part of the Mignola comic and Del Toro’s films is how they drew from history and well-established folklore to inspire their fantasy worlds. In the 2004 movie, the villain is real-life Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin. Except he is not a charlatan and actually unlocked immortality. Following this he teamed up with Nazis dabbling in the occult (also rooted in urban legend) to create a gateway to hell. This collaboration resulted in Hellboy’s arrival on Earth as a child. The 2008 sequel on the other hand draws more from fairy-tale lore. It depicts tooth fairies that literally eat teeth and a whole troll community living under bridges. It’s all very cool.
The 2019 reboot, meanwhile, begins with flashbacks to King Arthur and Merlin. However, with all the post-modernist gags – “King Arthur. Yes that one.” – and the fact that any legendary figures that do appear are reduced to basil exposition-like characters amidst poorly cut scenes between action beats, there’s no reverence for the history it draws from.
Too Much Hellboy Lore
At the same time, Mignola also tries to cram too much of his own lore into the reboot. The 2019 film draws inspiration from Hellboy comic issues Darkness Calls, Hellboy in Mexico, The Storm and the Fury and The Wild Hunt. In just two hours, it’s a lot of ground to cover. The result is a film that is pretty much all action and exposition but awkwardly stitched together. Every time you think you are about to catch a breath in between fight scenes to get to know the characters, one of them needlessly recounts their back-story, often never tying into the main narrative. At these moments, we are thrown into an action beat at the parts of the film where the audience needs a rest.
No better example is there of the strange pacing then the moment actress Sophie Okonedo recounts the story of the discovery of Hellboy. It’s the same set-up from the first film featuring Rasputin and the Nazis. Except this time, they are not the main villains of the movie and are never seen again. This is because they are killed by *checks notes* The Lobster, a vigilante who murders bad guys, burning a claw into their foreheads. Played by Thomas Haden Church, he’s never introduced. He just shows up for one scene and then disappears for the entire movie. It’s bonkers but not in a good way.
The Del Toro movies are filled to the brim with striking visuals. Take for instance the villainous henchman in the first film. In other hands he would be a throw away character. Here he is a Nazi who became so addicted to surgery, he gradually replaced all his bodily organs with mechanical parts. Now he’s a strange blend of human and robot, powering himself by a heart he winds like a clock.
He is just one of many amazing monsters designed for the two movies. In The Golden Army, as the characters wander into the troll market located under the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera pans away from them. It explores all the different creatures that occupy the stalls including bug headed warriors, lizard men and giant fluorescent fish. Set against a dark red backdrop, the sets are beautiful and tangible, as are the monsters – often just actors in sartorially elaborate costumes.
The reboot on the other hand goes in an entirely different direction. In order to be more ‘horrifying’, the creatures are straight up disgusting and unpleasant to look at. They include a giant hog-like fairy voiced by Stephen Graham and the Baba Yaga, a deformed slimy Momo looking female monster who wants to kiss Hellboy.
Not only are the designs uninteresting, the CGI feels gloopy – particularly the finale rendered against a dirt-hued backdrop. It just lacks that tactile magic of the Del Toro films. There, even when a villainous creature died, it felt like a tragedy because it was so beautiful. No matter how bad Neil Marshall’s reboot is, at least we have the originals to savour.