Film, Go To

GO TO: Hellboy (2004) dir. Guillermo del Toro

2/18 @ Coolidge Corner


In a world defined by superhero sequels and prequels and whatnot, it’s a tragedy that Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy trilogy will be forever incomplete. Based on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, Del Toro’s take on the character falls just short of the canon of comic book adaptations, not quite leaving the cultural mark as Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and, to my own regret, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), but nonetheless helped pave the way for the genre’s dominance in the 21st century. And it just might be the best looking superhero movie ever made.

In Hellboy, as in many of Del Toro’s films, the world is composed of manichean choices: ones that can either make you a hero or a monster. The monsters are the sinners; the heroes, the saints. The name “Hellboy,” then, is an inaptronym that Ron Perlman, as the titular character, has the burden to prove ironic. When Hellboy makes the wrong moral decision, a sentimental cross necklace burns his already devilish red skin—a cross he was able to hold just fine moments before. His origin story (which is a blessedly short five minutes) even involves an incomplete Nazi experiment to bring about the end of apocalypse—any origin that connects one’s supposed teleology with the Nazis is automatically a morally suspect origin. How does one de-couple from such disreputable social stains? Can one be a hero without a wanting crowd to be heroic before? 

The plot, and I mean this as a complement, feels like a speedrun through a half season of Supernatural (2005-2020!?!).* Managing and mitigating one monster problem at a time, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD)—consisting of Perlman’s career defining Hellboy, the fish-man Abe Sapian (Doug Jones), fire bender Elizabeth Sherman (Selma Blair), and a few normies—eventually run into “the season’s” boss, Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden). Yes, he’s that Rasputin, who is somehow a Nazi now. 

“They’re back, in my lifetime, they’re back,” says Dr. Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), Hellboy’s adopted father, about the return of the self-proclaimed fascists. They don’t really have a guiding political philosophy or anything like that; they just want to destroy the world… so I’m not sure that’s technically fascism, but I guess “genocidal” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nevertheless, Del Toro didn’t know how right he would be: Nazis would return while the “Greatest Generation” was still walking, working, and even fucking. 

As the BRPD hunt the things that “go bump in the night,” they look damn good doing it. Hellboy’s red skin, more make-up and prosthetic dependent than CGI, looks profoundly better than just about any other recent cinematic humanoid alien with non-human tone skin colors. Nearly 20 years later, the industry still can’t hold a torch to the costume and make-up work of 2004’s Hellboy. I’m no filmmaking genius myself, but I imagine She-Hulk could have looked like this but green and for a lot cheaper than Disney ended up chucking out if they were willing to commit to the more playful coloring.

It’s not just the characters, either. The sets are special. Only the legendary Fritz Lang could have better rendered the stark, disparate visuals and contrasting iconography of the early Nazi scenes—and Del Toro seems to purposefully pull from the geometrical techniques of German Expressionism in several sets, including the Rasputin resurrection performed by the surviving Nazis. At the resurrection, the Nazis offer a human sacrifice on a grey occult pattern carved into the ground. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happens in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with Ronin the Accuser. And as much as I adore the Guardians, Gunn’s composition and less drastic color choices look uninspired compared to its genre predecessor. On my 4k TV, the original scene looks marvelous even though I don’t typically care for these tropey supervillain things. Projected in 35mm on the Coolidge’s huge screen, it should look downright spectacular. 

The color palette switches from one mono-color frame to another, washing the viewer with overwhelming emotion. Whether it’s the pale blue of the Nazi past, the yellow of a museum exterior, or the red-brown of a hospital, Del Toro and long-time collaborator cinematographer Guillermo Navarro let colors dominate the picture just like a comic book. Of course, the colors also play into the obnoxiously easy to observe themes and plot movements. Hellboy is red; his love interest, usually shot in red’s literal complementary blue. But hey! At least it doesn’t look like a parking lot.

*Holy shit. I was expecting to see 2013-14 ish—at the very least, I knew Obama was still the president when Supernatural ended…but we were a year into Covid!

dir. Guillermo del Toro
122 min.

Screens (on 35mm!) Saturday, 2/18, 11:59pm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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