Review: Hellboy (2019)

Hellboy starts with a sequence of Arthurian legend, read out by a man who seems in a rush to be anywhere else. We open on a gross-out shot of an eye being plucked out, and the narrator quickly descends into cursing as he speaks. None of this is funny, nor particularly horrific – this is exactly what a thirteen-year-old edgelord would craft if tasked with the lofty goal of trying to impress the goth kids two years his senior.

Can we start with the sound editing? Despite sitting through two hours of bloated narrative, that’s somehow the element that left the biggest impact. Sound editing is a key element that I rarely notice, as most films try to be as seamless as possible in that regard. When discussing my favorite bad movies, I usually lean toward Birdemic as the top of the bottom, usually with the explanation that I never fully understood the difference between sound editing and mixing until witnessing that monstrosity butcher both – so Hellboy is in fine company. Here, it’s so obvious that lines were simply dubbed in – there are these shots from a distance with the characters having their backs to the camera as they deal out pointless quips, as if the creators were terrified at the idea of a brief quiet. These added lines are not mixed in well, never accounting for the distance between the camera and the speaker – they always seem right on top of us, even if the camera is quickly zooming away from them.

Then there’s the choice of what scenes made it into the final cut – this is a movie loaded with violent imagery, yet it’s all so disconnected. We are buffeted with frankly disgusting shots of innocent people being massacred, and none of it has any reason to be in the film whatsoever. These moments all take place far from the central narrative, suggesting they are pure fodder added in so marketers could attempt to sell this as 2019’s Deadpool equivalent. Between the dubbing and these excess moments, it feels like much of this movie was generated in post-production.

When it’s not being sidetracked with attempts at recreating laughable 80s metal album covers, it’s instead sidetracked by flashbacks. I can understand setting up the film by giving Nimue’s origin, but Hellboy’s familiar backstory is unnecessary – dedicating a scene to Nimue’s lead henchman, even if it’s in the source, is an exercise in tedium. Even when we don’t cut to a separate scene, a lot of time is wasted on characters simply discussing their past.

One would hope that all this set-up would go somewhere, yet the central story is a mess – not that it’s hard to understand, but it simply seems to be dealing in several subplots that serve little purpose. The final production comes off as a series of set pieces, a cavalcade of fan service without proper context – Lobster Johnson is inserted into Hellboy’s origin story (which admittedly makes the scene a bit cooler), while the entire Baba Yaga sequence comes off as a non-sequitur. It’s as if someone challenged the team behind this film to fit in as many stray narrative elements as possible.

While Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 take on Hellboy might have been a fair bit lighter than its source material, this reboot completely misses the point. The comic is in no way an endless, juvenile gore fest. They are actually rather deliberately paced, taking the time to set the various mythical elements into motion. The 90s were a dark era for comics, with Hellboy as a bright spot that fit in with the brooding surface style while actually tackling darker themes. Just going back and flipping through a collection, I’m immediately struck by the use of shadows, which the film makes no attempt at capturing. Paging through The Wild Hunt, which serves as a backbone for this film’s narrative, there’s really not much violence at all – the gross-out battle with the giants in the film is quickly cut away from in the comics, then returned to as a gag and again as a horrified reflection.

In the comics, violence has an impact. Contrast this with the scenes of carnage in the film – it’s a celebration of gore. We’re not supposed to be taken aback by the horrors of the end of the world – no, Marshall appears to simply be wallowing in how ‘dark’ he’s being. We’re expected to enjoy the sight of random people being impaled – it was a selling point in the marketing. These sequences exist purely for our apparent pleasure, as it certainly isn’t there to remind Hellboy of the stakes. After all, he’s never there to directly witness it.

This is Hellboy as if it were a lesser creation of Rob Liefeld. Which, yes, Rob Liefeld’s most famous invention has been a repeated box office smash, but that seems largely despite his influence. Deadpool balances the violence with fourth-wall-breaking wit – Hellboy balances it with the title character breaking his phone multiple times. Get it? Because his hand is very large?

Hellboy is a failure on all fronts. It lacks the atmosphere that defined Mignola’s art, while similarly failing at the sense of fun del Toro managed in his take. If it’s trying to fill the niche created by Deadpool, it doesn’t actually understand that niche. It might not quite reach the disastrous level of The Last Airbender, but it certainly hurts just as much to see a good franchise so mishandled.

1 Star Out of 5

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