Comic book movies have been around forever, but until Marvel’s Iron Man in 2008 reset the bar for superhero comic books movies across the board, they always felt like strange, one-off things. An effort to try to adapt the unadaptable to screen. Taking something geeks and fans treasured and rendering some less-than-perfect rendition that people went to see because it was better than nothing. Some of these efforts were better than others, of course, and one that really sticks out for me is Hellboy, a 2004 adaptation by Guillermo del Toro of the Mike Mignola comic book by the same name. Despite its great story, cracking visuals and high overall level of execution, the Hellboy movie still feels less like a comic book movie than it does a movie about a comic book. But then again, the Hellboy comic never cleanly fit into any one genre’s set of expectations, either. That’s what made it so great, and what helps this movie to be so great, too.
Hellboy is a demon summoned forth by the Nazis during WWII as part of an occult effort to win the war through supernatural means. But the Americans break up the summoning ceremony, and what is called forth is a great demon lord, alright, with red skin, curved horns and an oversized hand made of living stone. But he’s a baby. And in American hands, he is raised not as a monster, but as somebody who can fight monsters. And so he does, as the leading field agent for the BPRD—the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, kind of a CIA that hunts down things that go bump in the night. Hellboy is joined by the man-fish Abe Sapien, and a pyrokinetic young woman named Liz Sherman, who can’t quite control her destructive powers. As the story begins, the remnants of the Nazi spooksquad that summoned Hellboy way back when—led by a revived Rasputin the sorcerer and a steampunk Nazi assassin named Kroenen—are back to finish what they started. Hellboy is the key for an extradimensional cataclysm that will destroy the world, and as Rasputin and Kroenen create all kinds of mayhem for our heroes to contend with, we begin to wonder if Hellboy can ever really deny his true nature. Can the spawn of Hell really just be a simple guy who like simple things, like a good cigar, a cold beer, and punching monsters in the face?
That’s the magic of Hellboy; for a guy with such an epic background and even more epic role to play in the world he protects, he approaches his work the way a neighborhood plumber approaches a clogged drain. Rampaging hellhound? Okay, guess it’s time to break out the bullets with holy water in ‘em. Giant tentacle beast? Might as well get swallowed by it and blow it up from the inside. I mean, whaddya gonna do, right? Undying sorcerer? I dunno…what does the field manual say about this one? Nothing? Guess it’s time to improvise.
A big reason why this all works so well, especially as the stakes of the story themselves continue to raise to world-shaking levels, is Hellboy keeps everything grounded. Sure, the world’s in danger. It always is, you know? That doesn’t bother him. What does is trying to find the courage to tell Liz how he really feels about her. And that’s what brings us to this movie’s moment of truth. It isn’t when Hellboy slams Sammael the hellhound in a fantastic subway brawl, or confronts Kroenen or even deals with his own demonic heritage. It’s when, in the middle of all that action, he jealously spies on Liz from a nearby rooftop as she chats with another field agent from the BPRD. Hellboy’s monstrous appearance causes him major self-esteem issues, and he envies the simple normality of regular people, like this sap talking to Liz. During it all, a kid finds Hellboy up on the roof. Somehow, the kid is intrigued by the red demonic monster hunter hanging out above his apartment, and Hellboy levels with him and tells him he’s there because he’s hung up over a girl. The kid shares some milk and cookies with Hellboy, who spills his guts like any guy into his third beer might to his bartender.
It’s a funny and heartfelt scene because it shows that Hellboy might be the destroyer of worlds known in Hell as the Right Hand of Doom, but deep down, he’s one of us. He doesn’t want immortality or any of his nifty superpowers, or the weight of the world on his shoulders. He just wants somebody to love. And if that means he’s got to quit moping around on some rooftop and get back to work punching out undead Nazis, putting immortal sorcerers back into the ground and incinerating endless spawn of infernal creatures, fine. Nobody ever said this gig would be easy. But if it gives him the right to hold out hope that he might one day have a shot with Liz, then it’ll all be worth it. Better men have taken bigger lumps for less noble causes, he figures, never quite seeing the nobility in his insistence on crafting a destiny of his own.
We feel you, big guy. We feel you.