For years, the term “comic book movie” has been used in a derogatory manner, as an excuse for flat characters, giant plot holes and overblown action sequences. However, over the last thirty years, comic books have “grown up”, as it were, with an increasing emphasis on characterization and themes more aimed at older readers than the strictly escapist fare of the field’s past. But it’s only been the past few years with the release of such films as Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films and Ang Lee’s The Hulk (2003) have attempted (with various degrees of success) to bring the comic book film adaptation more in step with its four-color progenitors. Hellboy is yet another step in that direction.
There’s a secret government agency that handles any threats that seem to lie outside the realm of conventional science- the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. “There are things that go bump in the night,” explains its founder Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) to newly arrived agent John Myers (Rupert Evans). “We’re what bumps back.” The BPRD’s main agent is Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), a demon raised from infancy by Professor B, after being rescued from a Nazi experiment in 1943. Unfortunately, it seems that the perpetrators of that experiment have returned, looking to complete the arcane ritual that would set loose Lovecraftian demons on the world. It’s up to Hellboy and a small group of misfit BPRD agents to try and stop them from completing their apocalyptic plans.
Skillfully combining strong characters, emotional moments and rollercoaster action sequences, Hellboy is a great warm up for the summer blockbuster season. Pearlman does a great job as Hellboy. To most, Hellboy seems to be always ready with a wry quip, a world-weary guy who just happens to be a demon who works for the government fighting monsters. But underneath is a lonely outsider unable to confess his love to fellow PBRD Agent Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). This is familiar territory to Pearlman, having starred in the Beauty and the Beast television series in the late 80s, and he makes the material work.
Director Guillermo del Toro respects the material he’s working with and it shows on the screen. The action sequences are as exciting as the ones he shot for another comic book property Blade II (2002). The film’s quieter, more character driven scenes are handled with equal delicacy. With just the right dash of comic relief, del Toro has blended all the elements for a satisfying film that doesn’t make the term “comic book movie” an insult. The set pieces may not be as grand as some more recent comic book inspired films (Hellboy had about half the budget of Spider-Man (2002) and The Hulk (2003)), it certainly holds its own and in some cases increases the progress this sub-genre has been making in gaining some over due respect.