'Hellboy' and the Struggles of Superhero Horror

When there's no more room in hell, superheroes will walk the earth. Well, maybe.

This weekend Lionsgate releases Hellboy, a reboot of the property. Neil Marshall (The Descent) took the reins from Guillermo del Toro, and David Harbour stars as the titular heroic demon.

While del Toro's Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) found modest success with PG-13 ratings, the remake is going all-in, earning an R rating with red-band trailers trumpeting all the viscera you can handle. Hellboy is further tapping into the horror domain that characterized Mike Mignola's celebrated comic series, which excites fans of the property. But the film's modest box office projections raise larger questions about where horror-tinged superheroes fit in the modern superhero movie landscape.

Horror and superheroes have always gone together, like some kind of pulp pb&j sandwich. Comic books have always been a horror-friendly medium, from Creepy, Eerie and Tales from the Crypt to modern offerings like The Walking Dead, Locke & Key, Fatale and so many others. While we may not immediately consider the influence of those properties and the superhero comics' influence on those properties, they share just as much of the dark.

Early Batman issues were filled with grim and macabre mad scientists and Mad Monks, and few supervillains could induce quite a chill like the Red Skull. While the Comics Code Authority cut into a great deal of horror output in the '50s and '60s, the '70s and '80s offered a resurgence. Marvel surged forward on making horror a part of their universe with Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's Tomb of Dracula (1972) series that positioned the most famous vampire as a key part of a world that also offered Spider-Man and Iron Man, and it was in those pages where Blade first appeared. DC found even greater success in the horror market with Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing (1972), which eventually paved the way for Alan Moore's run on the character in The Saga of Swamp Thing (1984) and the birth of the imprint Vertigo in 1993. With Vertigo, DC was able to get into the hard R horror territory the mainstream DC Comics imprint couldn't allow, and there The Sandman, Hellblazer, and Preacher were able to thrive and chill readers to the bone. This ultimately had a major impact on Mignola's Hellboy for Dark Horse, and the variety of horror comics we have today from both major and indie publishers. And then there were the movies.

During the early 2000s, superheroes with one foot in the realm of horror seemed to be consistently discussed, and if not greenlit, then at least "in the works." This was undoubtedly the result of the success of Blade (1999), but even before Wesley Snipes was cutting down vampires, films like Swamp Thing (1982), The Toxic Avenger (1984), Darkman (1990), The Crow (1994) and Spawn (1997) were flexing their horror muscles within the nascent cinematic movement. Even Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), the biggest superhero movies to come out of that era, were horror-tinged.

While some of these films influenced what we saw in the early 2000s more than others, horror and superheroes became a unique opportunity for studios to tap into a certain level of darkness and leather desired with comic book films: Blade II (2002), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Blade: Trinity (2004), Constantine (2005), Ghost Rider (2007) and del Toro's Hellboy films. Oh, and there was Man-Thing (2005). Remember Man-Thing? Me neither. After several critical and box office disappointments, coupled with the emergence of Christopher Nolan's grounded Batman films and Marvel Studios' cinematic universe, these fringe characters mostly fell by the wayside in terms of their film offerings. Is it possible, in this age of cinematic universes and a critical emphasis on "fun," that the horror hero could make a return?

Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter's box office reporter Pamela McClintock wrote about the horror and superhero domination that we've seen in 2019 thus far, with Aquaman, Glass, Captain Marvel, Us, Shazam! and Pet Sematary leading the way and giving audiences a reason to leave their homes. Given the box office receipts, a blend of the two genres — a horror superhero movie — would seem like a sure-fire hit in today's market.

Yet Hellboy is struggling to make good on this hypothesis, in part because it's a reboot and because the first trailer didn't hit home.

But should Hellboy fall, there still seems to be a slight resurgence in the works for characters both supernatural and superheroic. Streaming service DC Universe will unearth Swamp Thing for a new series produced by James Wan in May. On the film side, this summer we'll see the Superman-inspired horror film Brightburn and hopefully The New Mutants. Beyond that, Todd McFarlane is currently in preproduction on Spawn, starring Jamie Foxx and Jeremy Renner for Blumhouse. And Sony, hot off the success of the horror-influenced Venom, is set to expand its own universe of Marvel characters with Morbius, a vampire film starring Jared Leto, due to hit theaters next summer. Aquaman spin-off The Trench is currently being developed at Warner Bros. As great as all that sounds, there are still plenty of big names missing out on the action and scares.

Marvel doesn't seem to have any plans for a Blade reboot, and although a version of Ghost Rider appeared (Robbie Reyes) in season 4 of Agents of SHIELD, the character doesn't seem set to make a big-screen appearance alongside the more famous Ghost Riders Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch.

On the DC side of things, projects based on Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Justice League Dark and Hellblazer have made slow traction, but never enough to get them on the big screen, yet.

Given this sluggish movement, studios are no doubt asking the question of how much horror audiences will want or be able to handle in their superhero movies. Can audiences appreciate Ghost Rider burning off criminals' faces? Can they stomach John Constantine walking into nightmares straight out of Clive Barker's paintings? And can these characters operate as they do in the comics — just a block away from Spider-Man slinging through Manhattan and Shazam harnessing a less destructive form of magic?

They might have to. Already, superhero films are looking toward their next big landscape, trading in cityscapes for the cosmos, and it seems inevitable that the horror side of things will become more prominent as these movies continue to venture into untapped territory. This horror exploration could become even more common if we see more superhero movie directors like Wan and David F. Sandberg, who come from horror backgrounds and eagerly showcased their affinity for monsters in Aquaman and Shazam!

Major studios have a habit of looking at the box office disappointment of one film and lumping all similar films in with that, something that has led to many canceled projects over the years. Perhaps Hellboy will rise above box office expectations, and if not, perhaps studios won't take the film's misfortune as a warning sign.

Along with those other projects mentioned above that are still caught in limbo, Etrigan, The Spectre, Vampirella, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Goon, Daimon Hellstrom and, yes, even Man-Thing deserve some feature love.

With luck, Hellboy will prove to be a dark blessing that signals it's time to finally release so many of our horror superheroes from the depths of development hell.