Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. Green Lantern. Captain America. The Hulk. Hellboy.
An unlikely superhero to say the least, Hellboy was spawned a decade ago in the frenetically colorful pages of a Dark Horse Comic. In this movie version his adventure begins when the Nazis, led by the occult-obsessed Adolf Hitler, open a portal to the netherworld in 1944. Hellboy leaps through it.
Professor Broom, a paranormal scientist, fancies the red tyke with a tail, takes the creature under his wing and raises him as a human. Once grown, the domesticated—but far from demure—Hellboy dutifully serves his human friends as a (very special) FBI agent, taking down preternatural baddies for the top-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Hellboy was created for evil. He was supposed to initiate the destruction of the world. Instead, he chooses to rewrite his destiny, overcome his hardwired malevolence and save all of humanity. (Granted, he does so on his own; God rarely factors in except through iconic jewelry meant to represent Him.) Despite not being able to live a “normal” life among humans because of their fear of him, Hellboy devotes himself to fighting against the forces of darkness on their behalf. [Spoiler Warning] Even when he’s promised utopia if he’ll unlock the portal between this world and “that one,” he chooses what’s best for his comrades, not himself.
“There are things that go bump in the night,” Broom tells rookie FBI agent Clay. “We are the ones who bump back.” He also correctly asserts that “in the absence of light, darkness prevails.”
Spiritual imagery is woven into the story as Hellboy repeatedly chooses good over evil. A large stone crucifix is seen as the film opens. Prayer beads are used to point Hellboy down the right path. A small cross sears itself into his palm during a moment of crisis. It’s Hellboy’s horns, though, that carry the most “spiritual” weight, becoming symbols of his fight with destiny and struggle to overcome his “sin” nature. He’s in the habit of grinding them down to nubs, ostensibly to better blend in with his human companions, but late in the film, they take on greater significance as he is lured back to the sinister place of his birth. While the evil around him (and inside of him) intensifies, the horns grow at a furious pace, dwarfing his head as they spiral wickedly upwards. Then, desperately trying to short-circuit his evil impulses, he reaches up and forcibly breaks them off again.
Long dead, yet still living, Grigori Rasputin wears the face of supreme evil in Hellboy, practicing black magic and working tirelessly to bring total destruction to the human race. He’s seen “creating” monsters out of ancient dust. And he carries out a human sacrifice of sorts to awaken his “lord,” who arises in the form of a man as the blood of his victim drenches the center of a “sacred place.” Explaining why mankind deserves to be destroyed, and by what power he’ll wreak his havoc, he spits, “Your god chooses to remain silent, mine lives within me.” He also paraphrases from the book of Revelation saying, “And I awoke and I beheld an angel, and in his right hand he held the keys to the bottomless pit.”
Elsewhere, Hellboy ominously recites an incantation to raise a decayed corpse from the dead. When a soldier asks Broom if he was a Catholic, he responds, “Among other things.” Broom refers to hell as a “dark place, where an ancient evil slumbers and waits to return.” It’s said that Hitler got as far as he did with his totalitarian agenda because he wielded the power of the sword that pierced Christ’s side.
A nude carving and a couple of dry innuendos. After a monster lays eggs in his arm, Hellboy quips, “And it didn’t even buy me a drink.” When another creature shoots its tongue at him trying to strangle him with it, he jokes, “No, no. Second date. No tongue.” When Hellboy and his pyrotechnic girlfriend, Liz, kiss, fire engulfs them to signify their passion.
Visualize a combination of the monsters from Men in Black, The Matrix and Scooby-Doo, and you’ll get pretty close to imagining the kind of foes Hellboy confronts on an everyday basis. The battles rage endlessly throughout the movie as tentacles are severed, heads exploded, bodies impaled and corpses charred. One particularly foul beastie is dispatched when Hellboy hangs on to a grenade belt while he’s eaten whole. The ensuring explosion splatters everyone but the scriptwriter with foul goo.
Gunfire is frequent. (Hellboy shoots as many monsters as he can before going at it at closer range; humans battle it out back in 1944 and in the present.) Knives and swords make quite a few appearances as well. Kroenen, a particularly creepy undead soldier, uses them to spike, skewer, slice and dice. After fighting their way through a crowded subway train, Hellboy and a monster continue to grapple in the tunnel. To finally dispatch it, Hellboy grabs the track’s electrified “third rail,” frying the beast.
Supernatural means are also used to kill and maim. Bodies that get forced through the 1944 portal decompose in an instant. Rasputin sucks Liz’s soul from her body. Liz uses her firestarter abilities to wipe out hordes of monsters, and two scenes show her accidentally killing humans. Once, as a little girl, her powers get away from her when she becomes angry at her peers who have been throwing rocks at her. And later, while dreaming, she burns down the psychiatric hospital in which she’s receiving treatment.
Hellboy uses Hulk-like brute force to pound his way through walls and floors, and stops a speeding SUV with an outstretched arm (the vehicle flips over his head). Agent Clay is seen wrenching his blood-soaked hand from an iron shackle.
Despite the MPAA’s increasingly permissive attitude toward harsh profanity in PG-13 movies, Hellboy completely avoids f-words and s-words. Unfortunately, it abuses Jesus’ name a handful of times, and God’s name is combined with “d–n.” Milder profanities (“h—,” “d–n,” “a–“) are used more than 20 times.
Hellboy and a high-ranking FBI agent share a love for cigars. Hellboy swipes a six-pack of beer, but isn’t seen drinking it.
As with the X-Men movies, there’s more to Hellboy than the comic-book violence that meets the eye—though there’s a lot of that, too. There are emotional interludes, clever character development and plenty of subtext. “I always wanted to make a monster movie,” says director Guillermo del Toro, “and this one has outlandish characters and fantastic monsters and settings. But in order to have the audience connect with it, I had to find a couple of emotional through-lines. One is a father-son story between Professor Broom, who rescued Hellboy and raised him as a son. Broom loves Hellboy, but also fears his nature. The other is Hellboy’s crush on Liz Sherman, a variation on the beauty and the beast story—except in this case it’s more like beast and the beast.”
The clear message that it matters more how you end things than how you start them is a good one. (It parallels Jesus’ parable about the two sons found in Matthew 21.) As is the idea that none of us have to remain slaves to our evil inclinations. But non-stop violence and nods to necromancy should dissuade discerning families from bonding with this horned boy from (way) down under.