The best thing about Hellboy is Hellboy. And he’s a demon.
Actually, I’m told that technically Hellboy is only half demon, though there’s no indication of that in Guillermo del Toro’s film, based on the Dark Horse comic book by Mike Mignola. In the film, Hellboy just appears on Earth as a baby imp with bright red skin, horns, tail, and no back story, drawn through an interdimensional rift opened by Nazi parapsychologists in an abortive effort to cause all hell to break loose on the Allies.
On hand after the smoke clears is American paranormal expert Prof. Bruttenholm (John Hurt), a Catholic ("among other things") whose arsenal against the forces of evil includes rosaries and other sacramentals. He adopts the baby demon and raises him to fight for good — or at least, to fight against other demons and monsters on behalf of the United States government, which does its best to keep its unusual operative out of the public view and off the supermarket tabloid covers.
All of this is in the first quarter hour of Hellboy. At this point, I am wondering: Isn’t this sort of premise meant to come with a level of soul-searching, angst, or debate about the very possibility of a demon (or, depending on the story, a vampire, a monster, a Borg, whatever) being on the side of good? (Especially when the adoptive father is some sort of Catholic?)
Shouldn’t there be someone on hand who insists that the demon child be destroyed immediately, or sent back where it came from, or turned over to the Vatican, or something? And then maybe someone else might argue that no one has ever captured a baby demon before, who knows what we might learn, etc? Later on, when Hellboy grows up, shouldn’t he get at least one good scene of introspective angst pondering whether he isn’t just fooling himself, whether he isn’t inherently evil, whether he has a soul, whether he could ever achieve salvation?
Del Toro, alas, isn’t interested in any of these questions.
Nor is he much interested in creating vivid and memorable
villains, crafting an intriguing and clever story, or developing
well-rounded supporting characters and meaningful relationships.
Watching Hellboy makes you appreciate all that the
What del Toro is interested in is atmosphere, art direction, and his charismatic star, Ron Perlman (Blade 2, Star Trek: Nemesis), who acts under Rick Baker’s makeup and prosthetic wizardry like he doesn’t know he’s wearing it. That, and an equally intriguing amphibious supporting character named Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde-Pierce but embodied by Doug Jones), are where most of the bang for your buck comes from in Hellboy.
Otherwise, it’s mostly Hellboy slugging it out with a burgeoning monster population of grotesque but unfrightening creatures, punctuated by a rising body count generated by a double-bladed assassin who combines the muteness and physical style of Darth Maul with the masked facelessness of Darth Vader, so that there is no chance of the actor ever conveying any sense of personality whatsoever.
There’s also a boring sidekick (Rupert Evans), an undeveloped love interest (Selma Blair), and a couple of other villains who actually have faces and voices, yet somehow manage to make even less of an impression than the masked assassin. I more or less follow the details of their plot, although I have no clue what their motive was supposed to be, nor do I care.
Back to the demon thing. In the real world, according to Christian theology, demons are of course irredeemably evil and can never fight for good — nor for that matter do they procreate or have offspring. Rather, they are fallen angels.
Of course, how things work in the real world is one thing, and what can be allowed in the world of a fictional story is something else. After all, in the real world human souls don’t morph into angels after earning their wings, either, but few would let that stop them from enjoying It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise, scripture and tradition teach that to be a witch is always evil, but in fiction good witches are still allowable, such as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.
At the same time, a good demon is more problematic than a good witch — and not just because demons are incalculably more wicked and powerful than witches. It’s also that the existence and evil of demons is more central to Christian belief, further up in the hierarchy of truths of the faith.
In fact, witchcraft is considered evil in large part because there’s always a potential link to the devil, the true enemy of mankind. When we imagine a good witch such as Glinda, by definition we assume that her power has nothing to do with demons. When the character in question actually is a demon, clearly that logic can’t be applied in exactly the same form.
And yet it can be argued that there’s some ambiguity as to exactly what Hellboy is. Despite resembling a stereotyped demon of Christian iconography, Hellboy in many ways seems more like a generic monster or interdimensional alien than a fallen angel — as do his conspicuously less anthropomorphic adversaries. All the creatures in Hellboy are quite corporeal, and the enemy "demons" display no interest or capacity for tempting or possessing humans — only eating them.
On the other hand, sacramentals such as relics, holy water, and crucifixes can ward them off and even burn them, which tends to locate them more in the realm of spiritual creatures in a quasi-Christian angelology.
There’s also something to be said for the cultural iconography of good and evil. Glinda may be a good witch, but compared to the Wicked Witch of the West she looks more like a fairy godmother ("Only bad witches are old and ugly").
The imagery of red skin, horns, and tail has a certain place in Christian culture and imagination. Hellboy files his horns, but still recognizably embodies the archetype. Moreover, he’s the only archetypal demon in the film, so the traditional imagery is for the most part only undermined, not reinforced.
All of this might be less nagging if Hellboy’s redemption were better developed or more morally resonant. But it isn’t. There’s a bit of rhetoric about how a man is defined not by his origins but by the choices he makes, but Hellboy’s climactic moment of truth is strangely uncompelling, in part because the relationships between the characters were never properly developed.
None of this is to say that you can’t have a hero with red skin and horns. But I’m less than comfortable with the way it all works out in Hellboy.
Oh, yeah, and by the way, where is God in all this? There are plenty of crucifixes, relics and other sacramentals, references to the Vatican, and so forth, but the only time God is even mentioned, it’s when a villain taunts one of the heroes that "Your God remains silent" while the villain’s "god" is active in the world. In a movie of this sort, especially with an apocalypse pending, I tend to want to see a line like that pay off with some sort of response from heaven. It’s the theological equivalent of showing a gun in the first act — by the end of the play, it had better go off.
Bigger effects and badder creatures make Del Toro’s second take on Hellboy more entertaining than the original, but something’s still missing in the story of the super hero from hell.
You won’t find the gospel in movies like Hellboy. What you may find is signs of a world that has been touched by the gospel — a world that retains some awareness of sinister forces to be avoided or resisted, of evil that cannot be overcome by therapy or education or communication, that calls for a response from another realm entirely.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.