A common refrain in film criticism these days is that there are too many superhero franchises. Studios’ nonstop efforts to launch new cinematic comic-book brands have choked theaters to the point where you can barely enter a multiplex without knocking over a cardboard standee of a caped crusader or two. Now the glut has reached the level of more specific complaints: There aren’t just too many superhero franchises; there are also too many Hellboy franchises. For some ungodly reason, Mike Mignola’s cult series for the indie label Dark Horse Comics—which was already beautifully adapted for the big screen by Guillermo del Toro—is back in the hands of a new creative team, which does an awful job of justifying its return.
Hellboy—a 7-foot-tall red behemoth with filed-down horns and an oversize, rocky right hand—is undoubtedly an arresting figure to lead a movie with. As played by Ron Perlman in del Toro’s two films (released in 2004 and 2008), he was a solid match for the director’s love of monster movies and heroic outcasts. Hellboy was a wisecracking but gentle giant who wrestled with his own demonic impulses while trying to save the planet from whatever supernatural hordes were threatening it. But in the 2019 reboot, directed by the British horror specialist Neil Marshall (who made The Descent, Doomsday, and two of Game of Thrones’ most epic installments), all the gentleness has been shorn off. The end result is an R-rated slog that’s heavy on bad attitude and creative dismemberments, and completely missing the humane core of Mignola’s original story.
The new Hellboy, played by David Harbour, is now more of a beastly brawler: a tequila-slamming paranormal cop with a mean streak and a tendency to shoot first (with his gargantuan gun) and ask questions later. He works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an extra-secret American governmental agency hunting creepy-crawlies around the globe. His father, Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), who adopted him when he was summoned from hell as a baby, is on hand to distribute appropriate amounts of gravitas when needed. But most of the plot of Hellboy is a flimsy excuse to jump between a string of action set pieces, all of them crackling with juvenile energy, as our red-faced hero massacres a succession of personality-free beasties bent on ending the world.
The chief villain is a witch named Nimue (Milla Jovovich), dubbed “The Blood Queen,” who was cut into pieces by King Arthur in the sixth century and has returned to exact her revenge. Jovovich, of the Resident Evil series, is an ideal B-movie villainess, with a screen presence striking enough to help elevate the basest nonsense. Here, though, she’s got nothing to do but glower at the camera and boss her minions around, building up to a disappointing showdown with Hellboy. Her acolytes exist only for Hellboy to dispatch, while the entire screenplay has the depth and intelligence of a Pantera album cover.
Even the violence itself is painfully unsubtle, with every action sequence designed to be set to screeching guitar riffs. I’ve never seen so many variations on impaling in one comic-book movie, or so many jutting bones. In del Toro’s movies (particularly the glorious Hellboy II: The Golden Army), the death of a monster, even a villainous one, was treated with a kind of reverence and grace—the director had such obvious admiration for his otherworldly creatures, and felt such sorrow about killing them. In this new Hellboy, Marshall can’t wait to unleash the gore.
One can imagine a version of this film that’s a charming piece of basement horror, in which the approach is all-out R-rated mayhem. But Hellboy follows the plodding hero’s-journey beats of all its franchise brethren, and so its visceral flourishes read as nothing more than a desperate attempt to sell this particular reboot through the addition of blood and guts alone. A talented ensemble, including Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, and Sophie Okonedo, is entirely wasted as Hellboy’s supernatural allies. And the final battle, which wreaks havoc around London, feels entirely without stakes. A new take on Hellboy was never going to be necessary. But in trying to set itself apart, this film ends up perfectly laying out the case against its own existence.