Sense of Wonder: Hellboy 2 – The Critical Divide

Ron Perlman in HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMYIn a summer that saw critics and audiences often in agreement, the much-praised sequel fizzled at the box office

This summer, the critical divide is not so wide.
There is a common perception that a sharp division in taste separates people who pay to see movies and people who get paid to review them. Perhaps there is some truth to this, manifesting itself at year’s end, when  critics use their Top Ten lists to champion deserving little films that failed to find big audiences, but so far this season viewers and reviewers seem to be sitting on the same side of the aisle. Blockbuster hits like IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT have won audience accolades and critical kudos in equal measure (even when, as in the case of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS, the film was a tired retread); meanwhile, bombs like MEET DAVE were loathed equally by press and public. 
There are, of course, exceptions. HANCOCK’s  dismal 36% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes did not prevent the film from flying past the $200-million mark, but that is a special case: Will Smith is in what Variety’s Anne Thompson calls “the Fluke Zone,” where audiences “love you no matter what you do.” A more interesting critical divide is the one separating HELLBOY 2’s write-ups from its ticket sales: writer-director Guillermo Del Tor’s sequel to his 2004 sleeper hit has dazzled critics while barely catching fire at the box office.

MTV’s Kurt Loder called HELLBOY 2 “the work of a master filmmaker operating with unbridled invention.” Joe Morgentstern of Wall street Journal opined that the film is “hugely inventive – and smashingly beautiful.” Carla Meyer of Sacramento Bee approvingly suggested that  Del Toro “gives us a taste of the magic [he] is sure to bring t J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT.” (Full Disclosure: HELLBOY 2 did not go unpraised at Cinefantastique Online; Vincent J. Bossone’s review extolled Del Tor’s “bravura visual palate” and “masterful” execution.)
Despite these and other favorable reviews, which yielded a 93% approval rating at the Online Film Critics Society, 88% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and 78 out of 100 rating at Metacritic,  HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY has, as of this time, earned only $68.1-million in North American theatres – chump change by summer superhero standards, falling well behind the rest of this year’s pack. (The next lowest-earning film of this type is THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which smashed its way to $132.7-million in U.S. coin so far – or nearly twice HELLBOY’s earnings.)
To be fair, HELLBOY 2 has earned more than the first HELLBOY, and once foreign sales and home video are added in, the balance sheet is unlikely to show a financial loss. Nevertheless, the box office does indicate an apathetic audience reaction. Boosted by strong advance notices, the sequel opened at #1 with over $34-million; however, unlike IRON MAN and DARK KNIGHT, which continued to earn big bucks even after viewers had seen them, HELLBOY 2 dropped to #5 in second weekend. Based on the strong opening numbers, the U.S. box office total should have reached the $100-million blockbuster mark, but that number now resembles an impossible dream.
What went wrong? The opening of DARK KNIGHT no doubt stole some of HELLBOY 2’s fire, but not quite in the way one would expect, at least in my view. My theory is not that HELLBOY 2 was muscled out by a bigger franchise with a monster marketing campaign; I simply think that HELLBOY 2 is not a very good movie. It is not bad, but in a summer that has seen some of the best audience crowd pleasers in years – films that entertain without insulting your brain – HELLBOY 2 simply fizzles like a weak ember, obscured by the brilliance of far better films in the market place.
To put it bluntly, this is a case where the audiences got it right and the critics got it wrong. But why?
The answer might be best explained by quoting the line chanted by the sideshow attractions in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic FREAKS: Guillermo Del Toro is “one of us.”
He is a man who loves movies and tries to make good ones without pandering to the mainstream machine. He has charted a dual career path alternating between small-scale, Spanish-language films (CRONOS, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, and PAN’S LABYRINTH) and bigger Hollywood projects (MIMIC, BLADE II, the HELLBOY films, and the upcoming HOBBIT prequels). Although his first studio films were less personal, perhaps even less satisfying, his style and craftsmanship survived the system, yielding entertaining results. With HELLBOY, Del Toro stated that he had achieved a synthesis, a film that was as personal and important to him as his independent films, while achieved on the level of a major Hollywood production.
In short, he was a maverick, an outsider who managed to play the Hollywood game without selling out in exchange for bigger budgets. Not only was he a fan who got inside the sacred palace; he was a talented, thoughtful filmmaker, who avoided compromise. Sure, he enjoyed using special effects and staging big action set-pieces, but he was no mindless Michael Bay clone – all flash and no substance.
No, Del Toro was our hero. And heroes, we know, can do no wrong. Except, in this case, he did. The fans were just to polite to notice.
In his Video Watchdog review of HELLBOY 2, Tim Lucas  refers to “classic simplicity of the story,” ignoring that the screenplay is actually muddled with subplots that go nowhere. More on the mark, Bill Warren’s review notes some of the plot weaknesses but nevertheless concludes that the film is “great summer movie fun.”
Unfortunately, HELLBOY 2 is fully satisfying neither as simple summer fun nor as a more thoughtful alternative; if anything, the two elements clash, cancelling each other out.
The first problem is that the villain, Prince Nuada, actually has a legitimate grievance; his villainy consists in the extremes to which he will go to address this grievance. This element is never properly developed; it mutes our desire to root for Nuada’s demise but adds no interesting moral conflict. Hellboy and his secret government cohorts are not going to negotiate a peace settlement with this guy; they are going to put him down just like any other one-dimensional baddie.
They achieve this with standard-issue action scenes, requiring lots of muscle and little strategy. Typically, the fight scenes are over-edited as if to deliberately hide the choreography. Also, the computer-generated imagery remains  – as always – too cartoony to be believable. (Although interviews and behind-the-scenes promo videos indicate that much of the action was achieved on set, this is not particularly apparent in the final product. Presumably, the live-action effects were digitally airbrushed, resulting in the usual CGI look.)
Much of the plot is driven by devices far creakier and less well-oiled than the nifty-looking giant-sized clockwork mechanisms at the film’s climax.1 Prince Nuada has a twin sister, aligned with our heroes, whom he kidnaps in order to force their hand. Problem is, Nuada and Nuala share a sympathetic link: when one is wounded, the other bleeds, too. You do not need an advanced degree in logic to determine that Nuada cannot harm Nuala without harming himself, so the threat of her kidnapping is entirely an empty one, but neither Hellboy nor Abe Sapien (who is in love with Nuala) figures this one out.
Conveniently, this vulnerability also provides a rather obvious, last-ditch way for offing Nuada, which the film delays using as a last-minute coup-de-grace, leaving audiences to wonder, “Why not sooner?” In order to justify the ploy, Nuada obligingly slips into by-the-numbers evil behavior: after being vanquished in a fair fight, instead of accepting defeat, he tries to stab Hellboy in the back, which gives the good guys a dispensation to kill him without seeming to be murderously blood-thirsty.
As in MIMIC, Del Toro utilizes what I like to call the “Nipped in the Bud” plot structure, wherein the story consists of stopping events before they get out of hand. This approach almost never satisfies, because the narrative momentum drives toward a climax that is nipped in the bud before it arrives: instead of seeing a movie about a battle against an unstoppable Golden Army, you see a movie about the Golden Army being stopped before they start. Imagine GHOSBUSTERS if the containment unit had never been breached, so that New York City was never engulfed by ghosts; think of GREMLINS if Stripe had never jumped into the pool, unleashing an army of monsters on the unsuspecting small town; or imagine if GODZILLA had been successfully depth-charged in Tokyo Bay before ever making landfall. This is simply not the material of stuff of which crowd-pleasers are made.
In other places, HELLBOY 2 falls prey to Sequel-Remake Syndrome, in which a follow-up, instead of advancing the story, retreads much of the same ground, emerging as more of a remake. You may have thought that Hellboy had settled his relationship problems with Liz, but they get rehashed here. Hellboy’s destiny (to unlock the gateway, allowing evil forces to destroy the world) was resolved in the first film, but it rears its head here again. And of course, the whole story is, once again, about stopping someone from unleashing an overwhelming force capable of worldwide destruction, which involves a final battle in an obscure lair where an ancient artifact can act as the key to set things in motion.
The low point of the film’s deja vu is Hellboy’s battle against a plant-like monster called an Elemental – which takes place while Hellboy is “protectively” clutching a baby. The sequence is obviously a reprise of the subway battle in HELLBOY, wherein the character was handicapped by having to hold onto a box of helpless kittens. The crucial difference is that the earlier fight took place in close quarters where there was neither space nor opportunity to put the cats out of danger, creating a humorous scene of Hellboy figuratively fighting with one hand tied behind his back, while a pet-owner begged the unlikely hero to save her kittens. In the sequel, the fight takes place on a wide-open city street, and Hellboy marches into danger while carrying the baby, instead of handing him off to some spectator or tucking him safely away. We are supposed to be tickled by the sight of Hellboy tossing the kid up in the air (to free his hands momentarily during the fight), but it plays as reckless endangerment, killing the gusto that Del Toro is striving so hard to achieve.
This sequence provides a convenient segue into the other failure in the film: the alleged depth, heart, and soul. After Hellboy defeats the Elemental and hands the baby back to its mother, he is taken aback by her lack of gratitude and her accusatory air. We are supposed to read this as prejudice: Hellboy performed heroically, but Mom sees only the devilish exterior. The film overlooks that Mom has a legitimate gripe: yes, Hellboy initially saved the child, but he then needlessly carried her baby into a fight. Although it is conceivable that the lunk-headed Hellboy might not see the problem with this, either Abe and Liz should have been able to point it out to him.
However, that cannot happen because Del Toro wants Hellboy and company to be, like the X-Men, fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. The scenario plays like a teenage boy’s archetypal “Suffering Hero” daydream, in which no credit is earned for saving the day, fueling a raging sense of the injustice of it all. Acknowledging the characters’ blunders would undermine the self-righteous fantasy.
This becomes apparent in the much vaunted Troll Market sequence, where Hellboy is amazed to find himself out in public – without provoking stares of fear and disgust because those around him are equally inhuman. Within a few moments, and with little provocation, Hellboy knocks one creature clear into next week and slaps another around to get some information. If Del Toro is making any kind of ironic statement about Hellboy’s extra-legal tactics – ruthlessly beating up beings who do not see him as the frightening “Other” – he keeps it to himself. By the time Hellboy finishes an extended fight that leaves half the market in ruins, you start to wonder why the trolls do not loath him at least as much as the humans in New York City.
But to allow that to happen would show that Hellboy’s actions, rather than his appearance, were at fault. Whatever games Del Toro may be playing with moral ambiguity, his film invites us to endorse the actions of Hellboy and his friends, regardless of how wrong they are. We are supposed to do this because the characters have “heart.” The point is made non-too subtly when Hellboy’s new superior officer, Johann Kraus, an ecto-plasmic entity housed in a mechanical suit, transforms from a hard-ass strutting authoritarian to a sentimental old softy because Liz’s love for Hellboy reminds him of something in his own past (which he promises to reveal “one day”). It is cornball plot device disguised as an emotional turning point (Del Toro needs Krauss on Liz’s side so that she and Abe can sneak out on an unauthorized mission to save Hellboy).
What this really means is that Krause abandons his duty for the sake of his comrades, even though they are behaving in a selfish way that puts their mission – indeed the world – at risk. Liz saves Hellboy even though the Angel of Death tells her that Hellboy’s fate is to destroy the world. To save Nuala, Abe gives Nuada what he wants, allowing Nuada to activate the Golden Army. Hardly heroic – or even strategically sound – behavior.
What sets Hellboy apart from other superheroes is that underneath his horns and red skin he is, as Del Toro has pointed out, just a working-class Joe – a guy doing a dirty job, like a garbageman. The first HELLBOY works because it was easy to identify with the titular character who, despite his powers, was scaled down to human size on an emotional level. Sadly, HELLBOY 2 takes a big step toward endorsing the Superhero Fascism that underlies much of the genre. Hellboy’s crew quit the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense – not because the organization is corrupt, nor because they have had some crisis of conscience – but simply because the Bureau chief refused to risk everything just to save Hellboy. In other words, Hellboy is no longer just a guy doing a job; he is more important than his job; his life means more than anythone else’s, and everything must be done – at any cost – to save him. Loyalty to the hero is prized above all things else. Meanwhile, his human companions have been reduced to cannon fodder – as disposable as the red-shirts on the old STAR TREK series.
Yes, it is in the nature of drama that we relate to the protagonists and care for their safety more than for the supporting characters. And I have no doubt that Del Toro has some kind of long-range plan to undermine HELLBOY 2 in a sequel, showing unpleasant consequences of blind loyalty on display here. But that is not enough to justify this film on its own terms. Even as a summer fun-fest, it falls short; in a season that has seen films as complex and/or satisfying as THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN, it is a shame to see HELLBOY 2 fall from so far from grace.

  1. This resembles an enlarged counterpart of the Cronos device in Del Toro’s debut film.

NOTE: This article has been updated to correct spelling.

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