Once upon a time, after Tim Burton let his freak bat-signal fly but before every cape came with a free cinematic universe, superhero movies were a grungy, pulpy business. Go back and watch the ’90s stuff, like Blade or Spawn or The Crow. There was something kind of grindhouse-ish about a lot of them, even as they aspired for A-list blockbuster status; producers had figured out that people would go see comic book characters onscreen who weren’t Batman or Spider-Man, but assumed no one would take them that seriously (yet). Especially if, like the three titles mentioned above, they had horror elements embedded in to the mix and lots of power chords on the soundtrack.
Coincidentally, this was roughly around the time that Mike Mignola’s stogie-chomping, revolver-toting, wisecracking demonspawn started showing up on shelves — a paranormal detective who was equal parts hardboiled and flame-broiled, Bogart by way of Beezlebub. Guillermo del Toro gave him the big-screen treatment back in 2004 (and a sequel in 2008), drenching the whole thing in his signature Lovecraftian surrealism and reminding us that Ron Perlman is a national treasure. As with any great conflicted superhero/slightly dormant intellectual property worth its salt, we have now been gifted with a Hellboy reboot. Whether we needed one or not is, as with most reboots, completely beside the point. It’s here. Take it. And while fans may debate how well the new redo captures the tone of the books — we’d say “close but no Joya de Nicaragua cigar” — this 2.0 version nails the sensation of watching those slightly off-brand pre-X-Men, pre-MCU comic book movies to a tee. It’s a dubious distinction. But a distinction nonetheless, and the one thing this questionable endeavor has going for it.
So yes, here’s a different Hellboy, which translates to: Your turn to strap on those facial prosthetics and slap on the red-skin paint, Stranger Things‘ David Harbour! And the same old story: He’s still the moody devil with the smart mouth, born of a Nazi experiment involving the occult and now part of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a.k.a. the B.P.R.D. His adopted dad, Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, is still equal parts paternal and chilly academic, albeit with much more of an Ian McShane bite this time around. Once again, Hellboy has partners, in the form of the spiritual medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Major Ben Daimio (Lost‘s Daniel Dae Kim), a military man with animal magnetism. And once again, he has to save the world from an oncoming apocalypse, involving an ancient sorceress named Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) who spends half of the movie in literal pieces and the other half making you wish she could be killing zombies instead of issuing boilerplate Armageddon threats.
Arthurian legend and Excalibur play a part here, as does an upper-crust hunting club, a blind soothsayer, a lucha libre vampire, fairy abductions, giants, crab-walking witches, a Cockney warthog variation on a Minotaur and a massive haunted house on legs, which is such a Del Toro touch that you’d almost think it was a shout-out. Die-hard Hellboy nerds will be stoked to see Lobster Johnson make a cameo; film nerds will guffaw over the in-joke of Leni Riefenstahl showing up in a flashback with cameras rolling. As for Harbour, he channels the same sort of appealing, perpetually hungover action-hero thing he does so beautifully on Stranger Things, though the character’s world-weariness has a tendency to be reduced to mere crankiness in his crimson-colored hands. Ditto the Oedipal hand-wringing and conflict over whether his destiny is to protect humanity or finish us non-demon creatures off. It’s the sort of casting notion that seems great on paper and comes close to feeling like merely the sum of its tics and screams on screen.
What’s more disappointing is that they even though they’ve enlisted director Neil Marshall to do what he does best, the movie somehow turns his talent for mayhem from feature into bug. A proud B-movie thrill-provider, the British pulpmeister given us one of the best horror films of the 21st century (The Descent), dystopic sci-fi (Doomsday), sword-and-sandal gorefests (Centurion) and some of the most epic TV battle sequences to date (Game of Thrones‘ “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” episodes). The man can stage a set piece, as proven by Hellboy tangling with some man-eating behemoths and a Baba Yaga, respectively. And when he’s finally able to unleash an army of Dali-esque grotesques on London, you can practically hear him squealing with delight as he makes these monstrosities rip, chew, skewer, stomp and slice horrified citizens. As with a lot of sound and fury simply being thrust in your face, it ends up signifying you-know-what — ultraviolence at the service of easy nihilism and then, ultimately, nil. Any sense of character gets steamrolled. Worse, there’s a rinse-repeat dullness that sets in. Given that “dull” is the last word that should come to mind when you have an action-horror auteur handling a Satanic antihero with a stone hand, endless one-liners and Dirty Harry-level firearms, there’s a problem here. (You had one job ….)
It’s all over but the shouting and the inevitable CGI slugfests, set to a high volume and pitched at a sub-Snyder coherence level. Everything feels so blandly frenetic in the third act that you might almost miss a line that a government official utters about a plague that Nemue has unleashed. Her supernatural reign of terror and pestilence started in England, they note, but has quickly spread to the rest of the E.U.; a map onscreen shows creeping death spreading outward and infecting all of Europe, then the world. There’s a political implication in that throwaway moment that feels too obvious to ignore, too half-formed to be trolling and too toxic to be coincidental. It’s almost enough to make you miss that misbegotten Spawn adaptation. Hellboy wants to remind you that this Dark Horse Comics brute with a soul still deserves a place in the superhero-movie ecosphere. It ends up simply being a franchise reboot damned to be restaged as its own bloody hell. Some things are better left dead.