Better the Devil You Know: Hellboy (2019)
“I’d appreciate a prophecy with more relatable stakes.” – Hellboy (2019)
When I first made the acquaintance of author Jesse Bullington, we were both talking about Hellboy online. Back then, neither of us had any books out yet, but there was a Hellboy movie that had just been released, Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 original.
As Jesse and I discussed the various merits and drawbacks of that film, he mentioned something about just wanting a movie where Hellboy punches a werewolf while shouting, “Boom!” I have, obviously, never forgotten it, and it’s part of what I was thinking about when I sat down to watch Neil Marshall’s 2019 take on the character.
Before I get into that film, however, I need to clarify some things. Mike Mignola is my favorite creator. Not my favorite illustrator or my favorite writer, my favorite creator, full stop. My first book is dedicated to him. In interviews, he talks about how reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at a tender age made him realize that all he wanted to do was draw monsters. I had a similar awakening, but it was Mignola’s own work on his Hellboy titles that served as the catalyst.
I mention all this partly to underscore the fact that I have read all the comics many, many times, and my devotion to them is bound to color any interaction I have with the characters and story lines when they are adapted into any other medium. Especially this time.
In a recent interview, Mignola was asked about his impressions of this new movie, to which he replied, in part, “it’s so surreal to me to see so much of it that’s lifted directly from the comic.” Which is similar to the experience that I had.
Here’s the thing: Del Toro’s 2004 film was probably the best Hellboy movie we could possibly have gotten in 2004. (The 2008 sequel, on the other hand, not so much.) It played fast and loose with the character and the comics, but it managed to keep much of the poetry and power that they possess. Remember that, at that time, the first Iron Man was still four years away. Comic book movies were a very different beast, and studios had very different tolerances.
In fact, I would argue that GdT’s Hellboy is an important (and under sung, at least in this regard) stepping stone on the road from what comic book movies used to be to, well, Avengers: Endgame, which hits theaters later this month and has already sold all the tickets, forever.
For several years, the 2004 Hellboy was my favorite film. But I’ve changed in the last fifteen years, and so have movies. Today, we have a much better chance of getting a Hellboy film that isn’t required to make the same kinds of creative compromises that Del Toro had to make in 2004. Something that captures the spirit of the comics and manages to stay more faithful to them.
Is that what we got, in Neil Marshall’s Hellboy? The reviews (it’s currently sitting at a whopping 15% on Rotten Tomatoes) would suggest not. For me, the answer is, obviously, not, but at the same time, I can’t bring myself to evaluate the movie on any normal rubric, either.
Is it loud, profane, overstuffed? Absolutely. Does the CGI often fail to hold up to the enormous strain that the film’s frenetic world building and scads of monsters puts it under? Definitely. Do lines that thundered across the pages of the comic, that should have left me shaking in the theater, fall flat on screen? They do. But…
If you asked me, right now, whether or not I liked this new Hellboy, I would struggle to answer, a croaking “kinda” or “not really,” depending on the moment, being all that I could manage. Why this critical paralysis?
Because what was on the screen was, in so many ways, so close to what was on the page, and yet so very different. Story beats happen exactly as they did in the comics, even while they rub shoulders, awkwardly, with things that have been drastically changed.
The result feels at once so familiar and so wrong-shaped that it makes it almost impossible for me to parse the movie into anything I can understand. I am simply left with a kind of tingling déjà vu, not something that translates well to a review written for anyone but myself.
Perhaps the best example comes in the form of the scene where Hellboy fights the giants. In the movie, it is an action centerpiece, played for laughs even while it is filled with buckets of grue. I have seen other reviewers compare it to watching a videogame cutscene, and the simile is not inapt, even if you don’t use it as a pejorative.
The same battle happens in the comics, but how it is treated is as different as night and day. What is played as a humorous action set piece in the film is a red-litten nightmare in the comic, not told in a normal sequence of panels, but in staccato flashes shown in memory. It is something so traumatic that Hellboy can barely hold it in his mind all at once, let alone talk about it. It is as far from the film’s joke about bad breath as it is possible to imagine, yet when you simply describe what happens and leave out any discussion of tone, the two sequences play out in much the same way.
Is one version better than the other? I obviously think so, but more importantly, my brain cannot handle both competing versions jumbled so close together.
So far, whenever anyone asks me how the movie was, I tell them that it was “a mess.” This is a safe answer. Whatever else the movie may or may not be, it is definitely a mess. It is a mess of gore and viscera, a mess of monsters both gribbly and otherwise, a mess of needle drops and story beats that sometimes work and more often don’t.
Is this new Hellboy very good? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Which is a shame, because, for all its other failings, it is at least one step closer to a movie where Hellboy punches a werewolf while shouting “Boom,” even if we’re not quite there yet…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.