It’s not uncommon for the second installment of a superhero movie series to be better than the first. X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, Batman: The Dark Knight. With the necessary world-building, character introductions, and superhero “origin” out of the way, the filmmakers can get down to the business of telling a good story. I found the first Hellboy to be a mediocre, overlong “establishing shot,” whose only redeeming quality was the way it nailed Mike Mignola’s visual aesthetic. For months afterwards, my friends and I used Hellboy as our low water mark for decently watchable action films. “Was Transformers any good?” “Not really, but it was better than Hellboy.” “Oh well, guess I’ll go see it, then.” That kind of thing.
He's got a pulse -- but barely.
I almost didn’t bother to watch Hellboy 2. I caught Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in the meantime, not realizing, until after the fact, that he was the same guy who had directed Hellboy. Pan’s Labyrinth is powerfully astounding, one of my favorite films of all time. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to. Anybody capable of doing that definitely gets the benefit of a doubt from me on any of his films in the past or the future. So I decided to give it another shot and check out the sequel.
I’m glad I did.
The first thing that Hellboy 2 has going for it is a villain who has a very good reason to be pissed off. Here’s the setup: in ages past, the elven kingdoms and humanity made a pact — elves would be allowed to live undisturbed in the forests, while humans would stick to their cities. Humans didn’t live up to their side of the bargain, obviously, and the elves, like woodland creatures of all kinds, are dying out, as their natural habitats become parking lots and shopping malls. Prince Nuala’s dad, the king of the elves, a tired old man with antlers for hair, thinks that that’s A-OK. Prince Nuala — as anybody would, really — decides to take matters into his own hands. Pitched only slightly differently, Nuala is the hero of this movie, who happens, in the end (spoiler alert!) to fail in his efforts to save his own people and destroy humanity.
Nuala's creepy not-quite-incestuous, not-quite-not-incestuous relationship with his sister is also awesome.
Speaking of the destruction of humanity: one of the long-running plot points in Mignola’s Hellboy comics is the main character’s inevitable future. He is meant to be the Beast of the Apocalypse, the son of Lucifer himself, who will rain cruel death and merciless destruction down on the planet when the time comes. That he accidentally got adopted by humans and raised with wholesome All-American values isn’t enough, according to every character in the series who can see into the future (and in the paranormal world of Hellboy, there are prophets aplenty): he will live up to his destiny; he will murder everything he seems to hold dear.
In Hellboy 2, this paradox at the heart of the franchise is brought into sharp focus. Hellboy’s girlfriend has to negotiate with a scary denizen of the underworld to save his life. The Angel of Death reminds her of her boyfriend’s eventual goals. “Which is it,” the Angel of Death demands, “do you want to save humanity, or save … him?” She chooses Hellboy, of course. “I’ll deal with that other stuff later.” It’s essentially a selfish, short-sighted, unheroic position to take, the opposite of Prince Nuala’s willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. It’s also a cynical choice. Even after Hellboy defeats Nuala, humanity is still doomed — thanks to Liz Sherman and her love for the Beast of the Apocalypse. That she knows this, and continues to help Hellboy ensure the elven Holocaust, is deliciously tormenting to me. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Probably.
"How awkward," thinks the Angel of Death.
We’ll never get to see Hellboy become the Beast of the Apocalypse, though — at least, we’ll never get to see it in movie form. Nobody involved seems to believe that a Hellboy 3 will happen. There are reasons and excuses. “I know the ending to the story and I don’t know if I want to see that ending,” Del Toro has said. Mignola, too, says he is reluctant to let the Hellboy movies come to their natural conclusion, for storytelling purposes — because he hasn’t finished telling the story in comics form yet. Guys? A little bit of advance planning in re: the timing of the ending, before launching your multi-million-dollar film franchise, would have been nice. Am I right? The more likely scenario is that these movies didn’t gross enough to justify a third outing, or else there would be one in the works, directed by Joel Schumacher if necessary. You know how Hollywood goes. So it’s probably for the best that we’ll have to find the ending of the story in the comic books.
As you might imagine from the title, this post is the fourth in a series of ten. You will find more posts in this series behind the “More” link, below.