He’s big. His skin’s the color of a Santa suit. He has horns (which he files down to nubs) and a tail (which he doesn’t). He’s formally known as Hellboy, but his friends just call him Red.
Oh, and as promotional materials are quick to point out, he’s the good guy.
A brief recap: Hellboy is a reformed demon—a bipedal tank of a creature armed with Catholic relics, bullets filled with holy water and his massive stone right hand. He was zapped into our own material plane when he was just a devilish lad and raised by a kindly scholar. Now he’s a covert government agent who, along with his friend Abe Sapien (an aquatic telepath with a yen for classical music and rotten eggs) and main squeeze Liz (who, other than bursting into flame now and then, seems pretty normal), battle nasty paranormal threats to the good ol’ U.S. of A.
The X-Files folks don’t have anything on this crew.
The latest threat comes from the long forgotten realm of Bethmoora—populated by elves, goblins and other assorted beasties. Seems these creatures and humanity warred with one another in days gone by, and Bethmoora’s king unleashed the age’s ultimate doomsday device—a rampaging mechanical army of gold. But this glittering gaggle of guerillas did its job too well, and the king felt sorry for us and signed a truce: Stick to the cities, he told his humans foes, and he’ll promise to stay put in the woods.
Millennia of urban sprawl later, some segments of the royal family are none-too-pleased with how things have turned out. And crown prince Nuada aims to again rev up the Golden Army. He barges into an auction house and steals an important ancient artifact (one, Nuada would argue, rightfully belongs to him) and lets loose on the attendees a tempest of fabled carnage in the form of nasty carnivorous “tooth fairies.”
“Let this remind you why you once feared the dark,” he says.
Odd that the guy standing in the breach is a wayward prince of darkness himself.
[Note: To explore this film’s spiritual themes, the following sections contain plot spoilers.]
Hellboy, underneath his gruff exterior, is quite a guy. He’s not at all thrilled with his lineage and he really wants to be a force for good. He battles humanity’s stated enemies as only he can, and at one point fights a gigantic forest elemental while holding and protecting a helpless human baby. (Though he probably should have handed the child off to someone before the fight, and he certainly shouldn’t have thrown it high in the air while he was fumbling for his big gun!) Speaking of protecting things, he also plucks a cat from the maw of an ugly old troll.
Big Red and his teammates are a tight-knit band of misfits, willing to do anything for one another. (Unfortunately their loyalty sometimes manifests itself in questionable ways. More on that later.) These folks look odd, but they often seem more human than those they’re trying to protect.
Prince Nuada has a much nicer twin sister (confusingly named Princess Nuala), who’s willing to sacrifice quite a bit—even her very life—to preserve the age-old truce with humanity.
The film also offers a reasonably profound statement on the real day-to-day pitfalls of self-sacrifice—one that we could all stand to ponder: “I would give my life for her,” Hellboy says of Liz, “but she also wants me to do the dishes.”
Hellboy is nominally Catholic, and we see a cross-festooned rosary wrapped around his wrist. Liz also wears a necklace with a prominent cross, and the Christian symbol pops up as a bright, almost neon sign during the fight with the forest elemental.
That elemental, by the way, is referred to as a “god” at one juncture, and indeed the vibe of Nuada’s land seems at least partly based on European folklore—stories that straddled the rise of Christianity and persisted for hundreds of years. Though this world isn’t presented to us in the film as being inherently evil or even spiritual (though Nuada does bemoan how humans have “forgotten their gods”), medieval audiences would’ve thought differently. Forests were scary places back then, and the imagined critters that populated them were thought to be the antithesis of all that’s good and right with the world.
Hellboy would’ve been anathema as well, what with his infernal fathering, and we see glimpses of what hell has in mind for the boy. When looking through a set of goggles that allow users to see things as they “really are,” Abe sees Hellboy with fully formed horns and a floating crown above his flame-licked head. When Red and his pals encounter an insanely creepy Angel of Death—a dark, grinning entity with eyes embedded in its black wings—the angel tells Liz that Hellboy’s “destiny” is to jump-start the apocalypse.
Hellboy is dying at the time, punctured by a magical spear, the metal of which is working ever closer to his heart. The angel gives Liz a choice: “The world? Or him?” Liz chooses to save her crimson beau, even as the angel tells her, “You, my dear, will suffer more than anyone.”
Throughout the film, we see the forces of evil around Hellboy try to seduce him—a seduction that seems to take a bit of root. “You have more in common with us than with them,” Prince Nuada coos to Red.
Hellboy and Liz are an item, and they’re living together in Red’s steel-lined, cat-infested pad. We never see them do more than hold hands, but they’ve clearly gone further than that offscreen: Turns out, Liz is pregnant. Once their relationship becomes known to the wider world, we hear, in the background, a television commentator ponder the ethics of “interspecies marriage,” and he notes that some feel that such relationships are a threat to the traditional family.
Opening scenes feature a massive stone sculpture of a fertility goddess—a stylized nude woman so fat as to be almost round. One character makes a crude reference to what would seem to be his genitalia.
“I grew up with nannies, and they would put me to bed with stories about horror,” director Guillermo del Toro told premiere.com. “Stories about people being dismembered by devils. I was in the crib. I grew up f—ed up and a strange man.”
Want proof? The critters In Hellboy II are ample. The tooth fairies alone—which we see devour two government agents after slaughtering scores of other folks out of the frame—are enough to keep many a child awake into the wee hours of the morning.
Hellboy battles these ravenous, bug-like evildoers (he squashes one in a particularly messy fashion) and many, many others. He fights the huge, tentacled forest god (dispatching him with a bullet to his gigantic head). He fights a metal-handed monster known as “Mr. Wink” (whom he sends to his death through what appears to be a gigantic meat tenderizer). He slaps a goblin-esque critter silly and pops a defenseless troll in the face with his huge fist. He takes on the blade-wielding Prince Nuada twice. He fights (with a little help) the entire Golden Army. He rumbles with one of his own teammates—a gaseous entity that bashes Red with a multitude of locker doors. Most of these battles are fairly cartoonish, but they’re pretty graphic all the same.
If Hellboy is a sledgehammer, Prince Nuada is a sushi blade, slicing through his enemies—and his own father—with the grace and efficiency of a Hong Kong martial arts star. He’s cold and humorless, and as such (and perhaps because his victims are sometimes human) his battles seem more brutal.
Because Prince Nuada and Princess Nuala have a psychic link-thing going on, one sibling can’t get hurt without the other feeling it. We see the two share wounds ranging from bloody noses to cuts on their arms. And, in the end, the Princess fatally stabs herself in the gut to put a final end to her brother’s evil ways.
Though no f-words are directly spoken, a character with a German accent says a certain word that could be mistaken for the obscenity—something the film slyly points out. Jesus’ name is used improperly once or twice, and God’s name is lobbed another half-dozen times. There are also milder profanities (“h—,” “d–n”).
Red drinks beer. A lot. He even drinks in the shower, and he convinces Abe to drink with him as they talk about their respective women (and the accompanying problems). The two wind up inebriated messes. Hellboy’s boss tries to bribe Big Red to be discreet using a handful of Cuban cigars.
Hellboy and his partners steal a government plane. On the upside, they do it to save Hellboy’s life. On the downside, they nearly doom (or perhaps actually doom) the world to a miserable end. Abe hands over an important artifact to Prince Nuada. On the upside, he does this to save the Princess. On the downside, it’s the key to controlling the Golden Army—a bad power, one would think, to give to the bad guy.
“We live in a world right now [where] everything not provable, nonlogical, nonlinear, not supported by science or technology, is a childish concern,” del Toro told MTV recently. “And we are destroying things that we find tangible.”
In Hellboy II, del Toro brings to life a magical world, filled with childlike wonder … and horror. He proffers a powerful vision, resonant for people like me who believe in realms unseen. It honors art, imagination and the sanctity of our dreams—all good things, as far as they go.
But del Toro, for all his obvious imagination, can’t seem to swallow his own stories. He loves these worlds. But does he believe in things unseen? Seemingly, not so much. It’s perhaps telling, I think, that the film opens with Hellboy talking with his adoptive dad about Santa Claus.
“I believe in the spiritual,” del Toro told MTV, “but I am not a religious guy.” And so he takes with him a curious form of humanism into the supernatural worlds he creates—and, as such, his protagonists make questionable decisions.
The hallmark of superheroes is not the ability to fly or beat up villainous brutes: It’s the willingness to sacrifice themselves for a greater good. Spider-Man, Batman, the X-Men were all, at some point in their careers, despised by the very folks they protected—yet they protected them anyway. Not so Hellboy’s team. At the end of the film, they lay down their badges and quit the force—turning their backs on not just a flawed government, but apparently humanity itself.
But is Hellboy II the end of the story? If fans learned anything from the first Hellboy, it was that it doesn’t matter how you start; it matters how you finish. And we don’t yet know how del Toro will finish—though there are hints:
“The third movie would deal with facing essentially your destiny, if such a thing exists, and making the ultimate decision,” he says. “The saying goes, ‘as you turn 40, you turn into your father.’ That’s not good for Hellboy! That’s not a good sign for Hellboy!”
Obstinately, perhaps, and despite del Toro’s warnings, I have hope for this big muscle-bound firebrand—that he’ll shake off his “destiny” and turn once and for all away from the dark side.
None of that speculation, however, redeems this second chapter in his saga, loaded as it is with darkness and violence and murky morality. Here, Hellboy seems consumed by the worst qualities found in the humans he admires, with very little sense of the greater purpose all around him.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.