Do you remember that bit from “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray’s character has this amazing date with Andie MacDowall’s character and then we see him trying and failing to recreate that magic over and over again? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Reboot Throwdown is like as we take a look at an early entry into the Era of Comic Book Cinema and its reboot 15 years later. It’s “Hellboy” (2004) vs. “Hellboy” (2019) in a lesson that you can’t go home again because home wasn’t really that great in the first place.
Adapted from the comics created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a demon who works for a secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense that fights other supernatural entities that threaten the world. Hellboy was brought into our world as a baby by a Nazi experiment in the 1940s that was foiled by Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt), who then raised the infant monster as his son. Jumping forward to the then-present in 2004, we find Hellboy mooning over the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) while dealing with his brand new FBI handler, John Myers (Rupert Evans), and a possible romantic triangle involving the three of them. Oh, and there’s also a mer-man named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) on the team.
When they’re called in to fight a monster at a museum, they learn that the man who brought Hellboy to Earth is back. Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden)…yes, THAT Rasputin…along with his immortal Nazi lover Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and his not-immortal-but-really-gross Nazi henchman Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) have returned to force Hellboy to live up to his true destiny of bringing about the end of the world.
Watching “Hellboy” (2004) on the big screen in the days before Marvel Studios began routinely making comic book flicks that were legitimately good films, I recall liking it and thinking it was pretty decent. Re-watching it, I realize how much lower my standards were because it has not aged well. I don’t think the millions who flock to theatres now to see the latest silver screen super-hero truly appreciate that between “Superman: The Movie” (1978) and “Iron Man/The Dark Knight” (2008), we went 30 years with maybe only three mainstream super-hero flicks of genuine quality: “Superman II” (1980), “Spider-Man II” (2004), and “Batman Begins” (2005) Seriously. Go back and look at those Tim Burton Batman movies and tell me that were actually good in any objective sense.
Having now gotten used to seeing comic book films for which I don’t have to make excuses, the flaws in “Hellboy” (2004) are readily apparent. It’s not a terrible motion picture. Ron Perlman is flat out great, which shouldn’t be surprising considering he started playing this kind of character on TV back in the late 1980s. And the film does a great job juxtaposing world-ending paranormal threats with the all-too-human relationship problems of its demonic hero. This is also a gorgeous-looking motion picture, thanks to director Guillermo del Toro and screenwriters del Toro and Peter Briggs do a marvelous job of bringing the depth and breadth of Mignola’s comic book world to the big screen without beating the audience over the head with exposition. If you are already a Hellboy fan, you will love this movie.
So...who wants to step right up and punch THIS guy?
If you don’t know the difference between Hellboy and Klarion the Witch Boy, however, you can’t help but notice that “Hellboy” (2004) has very little plot and what it does have is kind of bad. The film tries to cover up its scant storyline by bombarding you with concepts. “Look! It’s a demon who files his horns down to look more human!” “Look! It’s a mer-man who is also an empath.” “Look! It’s a Nazi assassin with dust for blood!” Underneath all that is a VERY simplistic tale that awkwardly moves its characters from Point A to Point B with not a lot going on in between. To be fair, some of that is a product of the movie’s limited budget. They couldn’t even afford to have Abe Sapien and Liz on screen at the same time so they swapped them halfway through. That doesn’t change the fact the middle of this film is a bit of a Highlander-esque chore to re-watch, which is sort of the gold standard for high concept/low story content cinema.
The special effects are also a mixed bag. 2004’s Hellboy still looks amazing and ranks as one of the best big screen versions of any comic book character. Some of the CGI and practical effects also hold up but some truly pale in comparison to what we see in these sorts of movies today.
"What if I told you there was a green pill instead?"
“Hellboy” (2004) was successful enough to spawn a sequel. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008) was a visual feast that was written like a not-terribly-good bedtime story for a not-terribly-bright child and just about ended the general public’s interest in seeing any more of this franchise. But since Hollywood is as much necromancy as filmmaking, now we’ve got “Hellboy” (2019).
This version starts out as a muddled mess and gets worse from there. Technically, “Hellboy” (2019) is a reboot. They’re pretending the first two films didn’t exist, so Liz is gone as a love interest and Professor Broom is still alive after getting killing in the first one. Yet there are some undeniably sequel-like elements to it. “Hellboy” (2019) projects an assumption of familiarity, as though the audience already knows everything about the character and is ready for more, and does a very poor job of establishing the rules and status quo of its fictional world. Does the general public know magic and monsters are real or not? Is Hellboy widely known or not? The film never makes up its mind about those sort of things or even appears to understand that it needs to.
"No, I'm not 'overcompensating' for anything!"
And while the original motion picture was plotted on a very rudimentary level, it still all made a kind of sense. “Hellboy” (2019) is a real comic book movie in the sense that grownups used to use “comic book” as a pejorative that meant “conceived and realized on a very shallow, childish level where characters don’t act like real people and things don’t follow any real logic or rationale.” Hellboy (David Harbour) is a great example of that. He’s a demon who has been fighting and killing other monsters for decades, yet is still surprised and shocked when he meets a ghost or runs into a vampire. It’s a cute gag because it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect but it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect because it’s actually quite silly. Ron Perlman gave Hellboy a been-there-done-that attitude which not only fit the story but made it more impactful when the character did show some fear or trepidation. Harbour’s version never feels as real, and he’s also hampered by the decision to play Hellboy as a frustrated adolescent. That characterization may fit with the comics but frustrated adolescents are not inherently likeable and “Hellboy” (2019) suffers a lot when you simply wish its main character would shut up and grow up.
It’s also fascinating to compare the relationship between Hellboy and Professor Broom in each film. 2004’s Broom is presented to the audience as a good man with a strong moral code who truly loves his adopted son and Hellboy is a bit of a rebel who worries about living up to his father’s expectations. It feels like a complicated but ultimately realistic representation of a father and son. The 2019 version feels like it was written by someone who was raised by single mother and not only never had a strong male role model but who has never met someone who WASN’T raised by a single mother and never had a strong male role model. This version of Professor Broom (Ian McShane) is a jackass who heaps verbal abuse on his son at every turn. The film also tells the audience that Broom is a killer by nature who has been lying to Hellboy for his entire life. There’s a point where Broom sends Hellboy into a trap where he’s almost killed and not only is Broom utterly unconcerned about it, he’s actually pissed off Hellboy tells him he should be concerned. Harbour’s moody, surly demon-teen is kind of hard to take but when Broom is also such an unrepentant ass it prevents you from feeling any emotional investment in either of them.
“Hellboy” (2019) is also a badly written film in a nakedly objective way. It recycles the same end of the world plot as the first, but substitutes an ancient witch and some Arthurian blather in place of Lovecraftian ripoffs. There’s at least four flashbacks, which is three more than any movie should really have. It essentially copies the climax of the 2004 movie but in the most anti-climactic way possible. Every character can be completely described in a single sentence and has all the depth of a sheet of aluminum foil. The audience is repeatedly battered with obtrusive backstory and a major plot point is both brought up and then abandoned in the span of about 15 minutes.
At least when they rebooted Spider-Man, they didn't immediately use the frickin' Green Goblin again.
What’s most astonishing is how poor the special effects are in “Hellboy” (2019). David Harbour looks like somebody cosplaying Hellboy at a comic convention. Most of the monsters look like they were lifted from “Lord of the Rings” footage that del Toro left in a drawer and forgot about. And however many fans there are of Mignola’s Lobster Johnson character, they can’t be pleased to see him look like a refugee from the 1960s Batman TV show.
Seriously? They couldn't even get the big stone hand the same color as the rest of him?
“Hellboy” (2004) is a creaky remnant from the time before comic book movies were actually good. It has a few worthwhile qualities, though, and that elevates it above its pointless and far too self-indulgent reboot. “Hellboy” (2019) loses this Throwdown because the people who made it never asked or answered the question “Why does anyone need another Hellboy movie, anyway?” We didn’t and I think it’s safe to say we won’t be getting another one any time soon.
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Peter Briggs.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Jeffry Tambor, Doug Jones, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran, Bridget Hodson, Cory Johnson, and Kevin Trainor.
Why couldn't THIS have been the R-rated version? You know, where clothes could burn off?
Written by Andrew Cosby.
Directed by Neil Marshall.
Starring David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Thomas Haden Church, Stephen Graham, and Daniel Dae Kim.
For those who complained "Hellboy" wasn't multicultural enought...congratulations! Hope you're happy now!