One Underrated Thriller Stood Out From The 2000s Superhero Boom

Hellboy was always a dark horse in the superhero genre — but 20 years later, it’s a bonafide classic.

Sony Pictures
Inverse Recommends

When we think of the superhero movie boom of the early 2000s, we tend to picture Sony’s cash cow Spider-Man trilogy and 20th Century Fox’s seemingly inexhaustible hunger for more X-Men films, and maybe some of the orbiting attempts at pre-MCU series (Hulk, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, etc). However, perhaps the most underrated of the crop of new comic book adaptations that emerged during this time didn’t come from the pages of Marvel or DC. Instead, it came from Dark Horse Comics. And while it wasn’t the gargantuan hit that its peers were, it did give us one of the most charming and atmospheric superhero films of all time.

Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy did not have an easy road to production. The source material, created by the prodigal Mike Mignola, isn’t exactly visually ripe for adaptation. Instead of delivering on the anatomically correct musculatures and All-American good looks of the Avengers or Justice League, Mignola’s Hellboy and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense crew are a gaggle of monsters and weirdos. On the page, Mignola’s art is stunning, but so much of its potency comes from his use of shadow and mood, a vibe-based approach to what can sometimes be a very perfunctory genre.

Of course when it comes to blending blockbuster spectacle with the kind of dark horror/fantasy that permeates Mignola’s work, there are few better than del Toro. He’d previously directed Blade II, where he’d used the more straightforward first film as a launching point to deliver an action-packed story that was also rife with body horror, ancient romantic angst, and techno-thrills. In fact, his whole filmography is a testament to an almost vampiric ability to deliver a film that can be a crowd-pleaser while also bearing sharp fangs underneath.

An adaptation of Hellboy would need that touch, and del Toro (basing his script off the first Hellboy volume Seed of Destruction) could definitely provide it. In the title role he cast Ron Perlman, who’d been associated with del Toro since his debut feature, Cronos. There, Perlman had played a henchman that was physically imposing, but defined by his quirks and insecurities; it wasn’t hard to see that translated further into Hellboy. Even under layers of red make-up and prosthetics, Perlman emoted with tired, funny pathos. He was both a child of hell and an everyman, an iron jaw that spilled out hilarious character work.

Along with firestarter Liz Sherman and the amphibious Abe Sapien (physically portrayed by Doug Jones but with a voice from Frasier star David Hyde Pierce,) a lot of the dynamics almost play like a proto Guardians of the Galaxy, where a collection of lovable geeks learn to get along. But del Toro doesn’t skimp on Mignola’s macabre tendencies, especially when it comes to the villains.

In the comics, Nazi scientist Kroenen is simply a gas mask-wearing lackey. Del Toro turns him into a blade-wielding assassin obsessed with brutal self-surgery. On the surface, he is a silent, deadly foe, but underneath, he is covered in scars and filled with steampunk-esque robotics, another extension of del Toro’s themes and genre cocktails. Though the antagonists are led by the infamous Rasputin (done with melodramatic flair by Karl Roden), it’s Kroenen’s curiosities that steal the show.

The colorful cast of Guillermo del Toro’s felt like a proto Guardians of the Galaxy.

Sony Pictures

Though some of the CGI has aged, del Toro doesn’t skimp on the lush practical set designs, particularly in the third act that sees Hellboy and co. traveling through the mazes and Lovecraftian ruins of the villains’ various lairs. The whole film is about preventing an apocalypse, one that Hellboy is “destined” to bring about, but there’s a poetry to its imagery. Whether it's the shrugged shoulders of Perlman and the heavy fist he wears, or the date-less, weathered stone that surrounds him, it’s far more intimate than most end-of-the-world superhero climaxes. It’s a world of many monsters but few action figures.

Both the film and del Toro’s next effort, Pan’s Labyrinth, were successful enough to deliver a sequel, The Golden Army, one that leaned even heavier into fantasy and into creating a new branch of lore for Hellboy’s universe. More visually grand than the first one, it nonetheless would be the last of del Toro’s series. He’d originally planned a trilogy, but by the time he made his unceremonious exit from working on The Hobbit and moved on to films like Pacific Rim, the chances for it slimmed. In those few years, the whole comic book film industry had changed — the Marvel Cinematic Universe devoured it and the other players became reboot obsessed in their attempts to chase it. Then the 2019 reboot of Hellboy was a box office bomb, forcing… yet another reboot.

Like the main character himself, Hellboy is an outlier among the more “normal” samplings of the genre. It doesn’t seek to join in on the arms race and outdo the films that Marvel and DC produced in terms of scale. Instead, it relishes being in the margins, and of finding community among the freaks. Even its devotion to constructing actual sets would seem like a lost art in a decade. In that sense, it’s pure del Toro, a man obsessed with a world beneath the world and the beautiful horrors that live in it.

Related Tags