'Hellboy' in the Shadow of Guillermo del Toro
The gates of hell are open, and the prodigal son has returned. Summit Entertainment released the trailer for Hellboy, starring Stranger Things' David Harbour as the titular demonic superhero. Directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent), the reboot is said to stick closer to Mike Mignola's comic book series than the previous films, adapting the trilogy of arcs formed by Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. The film, which will be rated R, has been said by both Mignola and screenwriter Andrew Cosby to take a darker approach than the previous films, tapping more into the horror elements of the central series, which concluded in 2016. But this trailer suggests something else, and a tone that makes it very difficult to forget what Guillermo del Toro brought to the Hellboy mythos a decade ago.
It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since we last saw Hellboy onscreen. While other franchises have languished far longer without a follow-up, it feels like it's time for Big Red to return. The Dark Horse comic book character, Hellboy, found his cinematic mojo, alongside modest box office success, under the loving hands of del Toro and Ron Perlman in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While the first film received strong reviews, it made just under $100 million worldwide on a $66 million budget. In today's cinematic marketplace, those numbers would rarely call for a sequel but a sequel Hellboy received, one bigger and better than the first.
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In Hellboy II del Toro offered even more of himself, creating an original story that played more so on dark fairy tales than the Lovecraftian horror of the first. Despite being released, and one week ahead of the record-shattering The Dark Knight, Hellboy II made $160 million worldwide on an $85 million budget. For years, del Toro and Perlman discussed a sequel, one that Hellboy II had so promisingly set up, but money and timing never quite met in the end, and in 2017 del Toro announced on Twitter that 100 percent Hellboy III would not happen.
It's difficult not to be disappointed with the fact that del Toro, one of cinema's most creative minds, was unable to finish his trilogy. But that didn't mean that Hellboy had to die. The news of a Hellboy reboot in May 2017 proved to be divisive, with some fans clamoring for a film closer to the comics while others lamenting the waste of opportunity in not following through with del Toro's series.
But the promise of a film that adapted the comics was too great an opportunity to not have at least some interest in, and Neil Marshall, who had carved out territory making wonderfully imaginative midbudget genre films like Dogs Soldiers (2002), Doomsday (2008) and Centurion (2010), along with the best horror movie of the 2000s, The Descent (2005), seemed like the perfect filmmaker to be given the opportunity to play in this larger world. The narrative was set, and the first photo released of Harbour in costume quelled many fears. Hellboy was primed for his big comeback.
Perhaps it's the narrative that this Hellboy would be delivering something different, a narrative created by the filmmakers themselves, that makes the trailer such a strange animal. It's not a bad trailer by any means, and Hellboy certainly looks like a lot of monster-mashing fun, though we should question any marketing strategy that chooses Billy Idols' "Mony Mony" and expects dubious viewers not to think of money and thus cash-grab. That's not to say Hellboy is a cash-grab — there's certainly plenty of creative reasons why a reboot seems like a good idea. But the tone of the trailer suggests a film that's not so different from those of del Toro. We get hints of R-rated bloodshed, some glimpses of characters and concepts from the comics like Baba Yaga, the Osiris Club, and new members of the B.P.R.D. — Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lance) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) — but everything here seems very familiar and not at all carved out of the gothic horror and German Expressionism of Mignola's comics. This Hellboy looks like a film that will entertain us, while missing a key component of what the comics did so well and so surprisingly: scare us.
Hellboy's trailer feels apprehensive to sell audiences on new ideas, or a Hellboy different from the movies they've already seen. The film's plot, involving Arthurian legend and an evil Lady of the Lake portrayed by Milla Jovovich, seems grounded in familiar terms so as not to alienate audiences. But shouldn't the point of reboots be to drive off into different territory, to use audience familiarity and access to the originals as an excuse to let loose? Del Toro's Hellboy films were fresh and weird in a nascent superhero landscape, but this reboot looks like it's chasing del Toro's weirdness instead of laying the ground for its own — something desperately needed from comic book films, as so many stem from the worlds of Marvel and DC.
There's still plenty to like about the trailer, and a change in song choice probably would have done wonders for it. From the cast to the imagery and creatures, there's plenty to be excited about. At the same time, there's nothing that takes del Toro's film out of our minds. The purposeful evocation of del Toro is perhaps not the best move for a film that many were on the fence about in the first place.
Alas, it's only a trailer and, again, not a bad one but not what was expected based on what the filmmakers and Mignola have said about it. There are certainly a lot worse places for a film to exist than in the shadow of del Toro. But hopefully as the film gets closer to its release, we'll start to see that Hellboy is more than just a fun romp in this world, a necessary chapter that surprises and promises a long-running Hellboy film franchise that fans deserve.
Hellboy opens April 12, 2019.
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