I’ve been a Hellboy fan for decades. From the beginning of his first miniseries, released in 1994, I knew I was reading something special. I had seen Mike Mignola’s art here and there in high profile comics projects from the Big Two—Some issues of X-Force, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Hellboy attracted me because it was nothing like a traditional superhero comic. Hellboy was a creature of darkness who rejected his destiny as a bringer of the apocalypse and fought on behalf of humanity throughout his long life. It pulled its influences from folklore, from the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, from old pulp comics, and executed it with inimitable flair. And it really has been inimitable. As other comics properties have eaten up the silver screen, Hellboy has seen only moderate success on film—and that success was a long time ago.
The first Hellboy film, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, debuted in 2004. I was front and center. The film was decent enough, but for me, it fell short of capturing what I loved most about the character, his supporting cast, and his mythology. Del Toro’s works always makes liberal use of sound stages—and that often helps sell the story. It made Hellboy seem like he had only made it half-way to live action. Still, Ron Perlman embodied the character perfectly. Even if the rest of the film didn’t quite hold together for me, he was Hellboy.
The second Hellboy film—also directed by Del Toro, and released in 2008—was of comparable quality. But this newest outing, directed by Neil Marshal (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and a few notable Game of Thrones episodes) was somehow less than the sum of its parts. When I first heard that David Harbour had been cast as the title character, I was excited. His characterization of Sheriff Hopper on Stranger Things made it seem like he’d have no trouble bringing Hellboy to life. I expected that, in the worst case scenario, I’d get to watch a solid version of Hellboy stomp his way through a bad film. Not so: David Harbour’s performance is one of the worst things about this movie. He comes across like a petulant teenager, unsure of his own convictions, and acting out against everyone around him. His quips aren’t cute or at all funny, and every last line rings hollow.
The most compelling performance comes from Milla Jovovich as the evil immortal sorceress, Vivienne Nimue, the Blood Queen. King Arthur dismembered her hundreds of years ago and hid her body at various locations around England, each part retrievable only by a “Man of God.” (Or, as it turns out, a demon fairy wearing the torn-out tongue of a monk. Go figure.) Nimue forces Hellboy to confront his own monstrous nature and status as an infernal race traitor.
The film is full of blood, guts, violence, and F bombs, and I’m sure I would have loved it when I was twelve. The problem with that is that the magic of Hellboy is that his comics combine those old-school four-color sensibilities with real horror and adult nuance. So far, every screen version of him has been dumbed-down and stripped of Hellboy’s best elements. Even the excitement of seeing the minor character Lobster Johnson finally on screen is dulled by the fact that this version of Johnson, played by, of all people, Thomas Hayden Church of HBO’s The Divorce, is dulled by the portrayal. Johnson is supposed to be a no-nonsense, swashbuckling pulp hero so dead set on battling the forces of darkness that he’s unable to rest in his grave. Hellboy and Church turn him into a potty-mouthed grump in a Halloween costume. The film was a flop, but I doubt this is the last time we’ll see Hellboy adapted. Maybe next time we’ll see his full potential realized.