*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.
Writing a piece for the anniversary of a superhero film is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the rate at which we get new entries to the pantheon of the genre seems ever increasing to the point of complete satiation – this year alone, we have Captain America, Spider-man and X-Men films awaiting release. These films have become narrower in variety than films of any other genre, perhaps as a result of the culture and industry that cultivates them. Each film gets multiple sequels and reboots, with streamlined, thematically “universal” narratives that maximize profitability across the globe and minimize cinematic character. Hence, a mere ten-year distance from the release date doesn’t appear to warrant any sense of nostalgia.
On the other hand, the frequency of these superhero treats means that their place in the cultural landscape has dramatically changed since 2004. The range of filmmakers and actors who have tackled the superhero universe has expanded, so novelties like the involvement of a lesser known Del Toro and Ron Perlman, Hollywood’s unlikeliest superhero are rarities.
The rapid advance in visual effects technology also means that certain blockbusters from the aughts already have an outdated charm to them. Most importantly, Hollywood has undergone an unfortunate process that a friend succinctly called “epic-ification.” Superhero films – despite borrowing the basic elements of their plots from their original source – are among the biggest culprits. The bar has been significantly raised and shows no sign of becoming touchable any time soon. A superhero can’t save a person, or a group of people; the fate of the universe must rest in his hands. Notice how Christopher Nolan upped the ante from The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises, or what was at stake in The Avengers, or worse yet, the abhorrent Man of Steel.
From this perspective, Hellboy is almost antiquated in its simplicity. Certainly, on the surface, the plot revolves around Rasputin’s ambition for total control over the universe; however, if you reduce this plot to its most basic elements, instead of the usual “one man between humanity and doom,” you get a beauty and the beast story. Here, the beast doesn’t even harbor hopes of becoming the beauty’s prince charming. He will always be a demon with a rock hard arm and two horns cut off. He’s born that way; and it is no surprise that the actor chosen to portray him is also an odd fit among his ilk. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr. a list made up of movie stars among whom Ron Perlman sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet, his is the most heartfelt and soulful of all performances.
The oddity of Hellboy isn’t accidental. The comics also enjoy a cult-ish popularity that seems to exist in a parallel universe to the other superheroes we’ve seen on the screen in the past decade or so. Del Toro builds on these idiosyncrasies and concocts a film that is proud of its lunacy. It might suffer from the shortcomings most of us have come to accept of this genre – convoluted and confusing plotting, senseless politics, loose narrative threads, weakly written female characters – but Del Toro creates an atmosphere in which an oversized, crimson monster in a romantic embrace with Liz (Selma Blair) isn’t just plausible, it’s heartwarming.
Hellboy’s plot is hard to follow, but its progression isn’t crucial to our enjoyment of the film. In the opening scene, Del Toro conveys to the audience that his vision of Hellboy is a film that captures the mood and impression of its source material. The hard lighting, the dark colours and the atmospheric setting of Hellboy’s birth recreates the aesthetic of the comics. The entire mise-en-scene appears as though it is etched in harsh, sharp lines. This imagery carries itself throughout the film and strikes back prominently during the film’s final climax when Hellboy and his crew enter Russia.
What really sets Hellboy apart, however, is the emotional tenderness at its core. Amidst the carefully staged action sequences, the overtones of World War era politics and the healthy dose of American jingoism, there’s a hero with a sardonic sense of humor and an endearingly flawed character. It’s a one man show by a man whose stubbornness and physical strength doesn’t mask his awareness of his tragic otherworldliness. He isn’t a superhero; he’s an everyman who happens to possess supernatural powers and perform heroics. Del Toro and Perlman both know this and embrace it. Nowhere is this more evident than the final scene, where the fate of the earth momentarily becomes Hellboy and Rasputin’s raison d’être, only for the film to step back, almost apologetically, and concern itself with Hellboy’s unending love for Liz. He only saves the love of his life. The universe’s survival is accidental.