Review: Hellboy (2019)

From its very first opening moments, the 2019 reboot “Hellboy” shows us exactly the kind of movie that it is – with a bird eating the liquefied eyeball of a rotten corpse, and Ian McShane throwing a gratuitous F-bomb.

Specifically, it’s the kind of movie that a 13-year-old who thinks he’s edgy would make – lots of swearing, lots of characters being obnoxious, lots of extremely graphic violence shown in lovingly-framed detail, and so on. “Hellboy” seems to aspire to be kind of like “Deadpool” in its mixture of comedy and bloody violence, but the meandering, overstuffed storyline and unlikable lead characters make it a chore to sit through.

After killing a B.P.R.D. agent who had been vampirized, Hellboy (David Harbour) angsts about his status as a monster, and what that means to an organization dedicated to stamping them out. He’s then sent to help the Osiris Club in England with exterminating a trio of giants… only for the Club to try to kill him because he’s destined to bring about the apocalypse. If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the main plot, the answer is: very little.

The actual villain of the piece is Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the legendary sorceress, who was chopped into six pieces by King Arthur and sent to six different parts of England. Not the world. Not Europe. Just England. Now the pig-fae Gruagach (Stephen Graham) is reuniting her various body parts – and if she is fully restored, she will bring down an apocalyptic plague across the entire world, wiping out humanity.

Hellboy is soon called on to stop Nimue, along with ghost-punching medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and surly B.P.R.D. agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim). But Nimue quickly decides that she wants Hellboy as her king, since she knows of his apocalyptic destiny and wants him her to rule over a new world at her side. Unfortunately for the current world, Hellboy seems quite tempted by the offer.

“Hellboy” was already facing an uphill battle, given that the character’s previous appearances were directed by the beloved Guillermo del Toro. But even if one appreciates it entirely on its own merits, the movie is still pretty terrible – and only part of that is due to the relentless swearing and hyper-graphic gore, which feel like a teen boy’s idea of what an R-rated movie should be like.

One of the big problems is that the story is an overstuffed mess, with subplots unrelated to the main plot. Whole chunks of the narrative could have been easily streamlined out, such as Hellboy’s fight with the giants, which feels like a side-quest in a video game. The cinematography is pretty ugly and grimy, the special effects range from acceptable to “how did this get released in theaters?”, and the dialogue is bad more often than not (“But it’s not going to work, you know, cause I’m a Capricorn and you’re f***ing nuts!”).

It also has a wealth of characters who exist entirely to vomit exposition. Baba Yaga, for instance, is a character who exists entirely to tell people to go places, rather than having any real impact on the plot. Or consider the blind woman with precognitive powers, who is just there to recount baby’s Hellboy’s entry into our world, a bizarre scene that is somehow sidetracked by the appearance of Lobster Johnson. “Who?” you may be asking. The answer: nobody who matters to the plot, so it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the main characters aren’t much better. It’s worth noting that no criticism should fall upon David Harbour, who gives as good a performance as anyone could possibly give. The movie fails him, not the other way around.

Specifically, it fails him by making Hellboy a whiny, passive-aggressive brat who is easily swayed by Nimue and gripes about his father constantly. His angst over monsters not getting to live in the open seems rather hollow as well, considering that we see virtually no monsters who aren’t actively harmful to humans… and since Hellboy himself is hardly a secret, since he goes on a days-long bender in a Mexican bar.

The other characters aren’t particularly likable either – Alice tends towards being smugly annoying, and Daimio seems to be stuck in a combatively bad mood with no particular reason or resolution. No, being revealed as a werejaguar does not count as an arc. The closest to a character who actually feels three-dimensional is Ian McShane’s Professor Broom, although even he isn’t a terribly likable person.

The 2019 reboot of “Hellboy” stumbles badly in its attempt to give us a darker, grittier portrait of our demonic hero – mainly because of the sloppy plot and painfully clumsy script. Stick with the comics or the earlier films.

Aquaman and the power of cliche

So I was watching the Cosmonaut Variety Hour, which is a great show by a very dryly clever man who reviews various geek media. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I do always enjoy watching him reach those conclusions, and it’s also fun when he joins forces with his friends to riff on things.

Go watch his show. It’s good. His reviews of the movies Ax ‘Em and Bright are especially good.

Anyway, a recent video he made was about the movie Aquaman, which I am rather fond of. It’s not high art, but it is a big shiny blockbuster with good direction, dazzling visuals, some silliness, some horror, fairly likable characters, and a plot that more or less makes sense. But Marcus (the guy who makes the show) has often held up Aquaman as a bad film, although in his latest video he kind of softens towards it and gives it a middling grade.

And one of Marcus’ main points is, quite simply, that Aquaman has a lot of cliches (although sometimes I think he means tropes, or derivative content). It has the whole King Arthur archetype of the true-king-with-the-magic-weapon-he-needs-to-ascend-the-throne, it has the relatives fighting for the throne thing, it has the Indiana Jones sequence in the Sahara and Italy where a strange mystical item paired up with a particular statue will show the exact spot… you get the idea.

And… strangely, I don’t really care.

And I think that is because it takes these tropes, cliches and archetypes, and does them pretty well… or at least, it does them better than other movies that try to do the same thing.

For instance, think back on movies that have ripped off the Indiana Jones films. Most of them… are very bad. Even the ones that are considered good are actually quite bad.

But I enjoyed the Indiana Jones portion of Aquaman, because it fit neatly into the movie as an organic part of the plot development, and it was the sort of wildly improbable thing you would find in those films.

Or take the King Arthur angle. Do you know how many good King Arthur movies, miniseries or TV shows there have been in the last twenty years? Not very many! We have stuff like Transformers: The Last Knight, Mists of Avalon, Cursed, Camelot, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword… poor King Arthur hasn’t had a good time lately. I haven’t seen Merlin, but I’ve heard mixed things.

And in YA fiction, they’re trying to either turn him into a teenage girl or make him irrelevant because of a teenage girl (Cursed), because YA fiction. No, I am not reading those books, and you can’t make me. I tried to read Cursed, and it was… unpleasant.

But the Arthurian overtones and the trajectory of Arthur Curry’s growth into a king is… both familiar and satisfyingly different. Yes, it’s the familiar arc of an unknown True King acquiring a legendary weapon in order to become a powerful king, which has been around in European-influenced media for many centuries. But it’s also unique enough with stuff like the Karathen and the actual combat with the tridents — which grows naturally from another fight earlier in the story — that it doesn’t just feel like someone copy-and-pasted DC comics names into a legend.

Complete originality is virtually impossible in storytelling. Even Shakespeare made a lot of adaptations and remakes. Seriously, look into the history of many of his stories, and you’ll find that most of them were derived from existing tales, including other plays. Bring that up when someone moans about rebooting some movie franchise from thirty years ago and how nothing is original like in the good old days.

But the lesson here seems to be that if you can’t be original, then at least handle your cliches and tropes with skill and talent, and make them more entertaining than other films/books/TV shows/etc. that handle the same content.

That’s part of the appeal of My Hero Academia. It tackles a lot of things in comic books that are taken for granted, and examines them while fleshing them out. All Might is obviously a Superman-like character (different backstory, but quite similar to early Superman, including jumping instead of flying), which makes him a superhero cliche. He looks like a cliche, he sounds like a cliche, he acts like a cliche. But it’s because he’s a walking cliche that the story can subvert the cliche with his successor (a scrawny crybaby), examine him in greater detail and reveal different sides of him that you wouldn’t expect.

So I guess the lesson is… avoid cliches if you can, but if you need to use cliches, tropes and archetypes in your work, just make sure that you make it really entertaining, and add enough spice and twists to your characters and world that the audience will feel rewarded for going down a familiar road.