Film and TV

What the Devil?

The Golden Age of the Comic Book Movie has turned the color of tarnished copper. But there's no going back, not when comic shops have become movie studios' research-and-development labs. There's no moving forward, either; the comic-book movie has become a cinematic smudge once more, each blurring into the next until they're all the same unfocused glop on the big screen to anyone over the age of thirty who doesn't know Bruce Banner from Peter Parker. The geek will stand and applaud the faithfulness to the text; he (or she -- as if) will giggle at the in-jokes and appropriation of panels lifted straight from the page; his jaw will drop at the sight of a favorite hero blown up twenty feet tall. But, alas, what of the movie?

Hellboy -- based on Mike Mignola's beloved Dark Horse comic and adapted by Guillermo del Toro -- is fan-boy heroin. The cult hero with bright-red skin and sanded-down horns and a right hand that fits into the gateway to hell has been loyally rendered, a gift from one self-proclaimed geek to legions of worshipers. The story, about Nazis and black magic and doorways to hell (or an outer space populated by squid, or whatever), has been culled from several story arcs familiar to the series' readers, and there are coy nods to other Hellboy tales; there is even a Hellboy comic featured in the movie, rendered to look like a Jack Kirby Marvel story from the 1960s. "I hate those comics," grumbles Hellboy, played by Ron Perlman beneath the red foam and sawed-off antlers. "They never get the eyes right." Del Toro, working with frequent collaborator Guillermo Navarro behind the camera and Mignola next to it, has lifted panels directly from the comic books. What was once paper and ink is now an approximation of flesh and blood, which will make the fan-boy's Spidey sense tingle.

But when the filmmaker becomes caretaker beholden to the creator who lurks over his shoulder, the audience's non-believers are left out in the cold, because they will not be carried through excruciatingly dull moments by cute asides and coy nudges. They will not understand a word of the pseudoscientific gibberish or black-magic mumbo-jumbo; a colleague left the screening wondering, "What language was that in?" They will more likely simply marvel at Hellboy -- with its replicating giant squid demons, scenes shot in subways and sewers, and resurrected Rasputins -- wondering if one League of Extraordinary Gentlemen per decade isn't enough. Mark Steven Johnson, maker of last year's Daredevil, claimed to be that series' most devoted admirer, but he directed it like a blind man with a grudge. Beware the fetishist armed with a camera and a cult following.

To offer a plot synopsis of Hellboy is to realize that perhaps it's time to put down the superhero comics and start reading, I dunno, books without pictures. No grown man should have to tell you about Nazis with rocketeer helmets and sand for blood teaming up with Rasputin (Karel Roden) to open the gateway to hell, thereby turning Earth into the devil's playground, which looks, in one brief glimpse, like Detroit with octopi reaching down from the clouds. (Perhaps this is intended as a sequel to del Toro's 2001 The Devil's Backbone, which was as subtle and creepy as Hellboy is, well, the opposite.) And then there's Selma Blair as Liz Sherman, the fire-starter who doesn't seem to start them at the appropriate time; why, for instance, she doesn't deep-fry the squids till it's almost too late is something best left for the comics, because in the movies, it makes no logical sense. (Along those lines, try watching this without thinking, "Uh, wasn't this already called Beauty and the Beast?")

The best scenes in the film involve Hellboy's relationship with his adopted "father," Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), who discovered him when he was just a Hellbaby in Scotland in 1944. They bring a welcome warmth to the chill of computer-generated monsters being chased through streets and subway tunnels by a giant actor in a red bodysuit. Bruttenholm, dying of cancer, just wants his Hellboy to become a decent man, even if it means grounding him; Hellboy just wants to please his pop, to the point where he hides his lit cigars when the professor enters his room. But these scenes are scant, filler not to be lingered over too long, lest our attention span wander. As a result, the movie feels so very Alien without the terror, or Men in Black without its smirky charm, though Perlman does ham it up like a pound of bacon.

Del Toro was once a master of the moody and macabre; his movies -- the ones that worked (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone) and even the ones that didn't (Mimic) -- had the eerie touch of someone for whom horror was a mysterious, intangible chill down the spine, not a thudding crack over the skull. But with Blade II (another comic adaptation) and now Hellboy, the director has traded subtlety for special effects. Hellboy is as much a wreck as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or The Punisher (coming and going in two weeks) and as much a bore as The Hulk. Ah, but what the hell? They'll never notice down at the comics shop.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky