Before the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there were a lot of bad superhero movies, but very few totally unimaginative ones. The first two Hellboy films, directed by Guillermo del Toro, were stylish, but they relied on Del Toro’s established visual panache, not any ability to approximate the experience of reading the comics.
Many directors, enamored of comics, have tried different approaches, usually without success: Zack Snyder and Rob Rodriguez restructured "Watchmen" and "Sin City" slightly, but they storyboarded nearly every shot from the comics themselves. Warren Beatty shot "Dick Tracy" like a film noir and loaded up a dozen career-peak dramatic actors with embarrassing prosthetics; Ang Lee split the screen into actual panels for "Hulk"; Tim Burton staged literal circus acts during both of his "Batman" films. Kinka Usher’s "Mystery Men" jettisoned almost everything about Bob Burden’s comics (with Burden’s blessing; he co-wrote the script) and just lets the cast of career comedians riff on the silly material.
Beginning in 2008, the MCU changed all that: The film series mimics the complicated, no-beginnings-and-no-endings interwoven structure of Marvel Comics so that all the movies (which come out three times a year) are sequels to each other. The thing that makes the Marvel franchise work so well is that each sub-series — the Captain America flicks, the Thor movies, and so on — has its own tone, and is also a gloss on a particular film genre. Some are punchier and more fun than others, but few are actually bad.
But they are also so incredibly lucrative that, like the Harry Potter films and the subsequent young adult fiction adaptation glut before them, every studio’s ambition now is to produce a film series, rather than a movie, and thus every studio produces franchise-start hopefuls trying to compete — mining comics, pulp novels or old sci-fi movies. "Wonder Woman," "Deadpool," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Disney’s own ever-growing Star Wars Universe and "The Lone Ranger" are all doing a kind of Marvelly thing, and even the bad ones are titanic moneymakers. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows," the second film in the most recent Ninja Turtles series (which is due to be rebooted a third time) made $245 million globally — slightly more than the GDP of the Marshall Islands last year.
Get the think newsletter.
"Hellboy," which was released on Friday, clearly wants some of that money. It has all the earmarks of a franchise kickoff, down to the multiple endings during the credits teasing future directions for the characters’ adventures. The problem is that "Hellboy" is not even really a movie; it’s a launchpad for five different movies that will never get made, because no one wants to watch a launchpad for five different movies when they've paid to watch this movie.
But before you can understand why this movie doesn't work, it's important to understand why Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics series is so damned good. It pays homage to trashy pulp heroes like Doc Savage and The Shadow, but it’s also beautifully drawn and studded with ironic, oblique intrusions by obscure saints and a panoply of multiethnic fairy stories, all of it tracing a tragic character arc that creeps up on the reader over hundreds of pages.
Mignola’s gorgeous art is justly praised so often by fans and critics that his prowess as a plotter gets ignored — but the narrative momentum of the Hellboy comic series is as purely satisfying as anything in serial fiction. It culminates in a fast-paced trilogy of stories that remain the least-widely read of Mignola’s Hellboy stories.
In the trilogy, which was adapted for the movie, Mignola (and fellow artist Duncan Fegredo) tugged on all the loose threads of all the prior comics at once, and a frantic, action-packed finale unexpectedly sent Hellboy to Hell. The trilogy is virtuosic and well worth reading, but it would be impossible to understand if it were to be, say, divorced from the larger narrative, robbed of its tragic ending, filled with Easter eggs for people who’d read the comics and adapted into an expensive film … which is what happens in the film that opens today.
The new, inexcusable Hellboy movie, was directed — if that’s the word I want — by Neil Marshall, whose terrific horror flick "The Descent" suggested that he might be up to the job of making a fun and scary Hellboy movie.
He has not.
The new film is paced like an episode of "Game of Thrones" (which Marshall also directs on occasion) set on fast-forward, with so many plots and subplots that the majority of the dialogue is just excruciatingly boring exposition to set up the action sequences, which are numerous but individually far too short, because the movie has to cram in more exposition to set up the next one.
Some of the action is okay: There’s a really gory fight with three disgusting giants that I loved, and a bit near the end where we get to see a few gorgeous building-sized monsters for what, annoyingly, can’t be more than a minute between them. The bit with evil Russian witch the Baba Yaga is revolting and great.
No individual part of the movie is objectionable (except the actors playing Hellboy’s two sidekicks, Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, both Americans doing eye-watering English accents); there’s just not enough of any of it to work. However, David Harbour is even better than Ron Perlman (who starred in the last two Hellboy movies) as the title character, and Milla Jovovich’s career-long streak of being the most watchable part of a genuinely terrible movie continues uninterrupted.
It may want to be a TV series — and perhaps it would be a pleasantly weird one one — but Marshall pulls off only one actually complete sequence in a movie with a dozen plots, and that's a flashback adapting part of Mignola’s funny short story "The Corpse."
What’s most irritating to someone who wants to see the movie because of the comics is that the filmmakers chose the most complicated and fast-paced Hellboy story to adapt; it exceeds 500 pages in print. It’s a story that can only exist at all because Mignola had spent 14 years carefully laying its groundwork with a graceful, subtle, literate storytelling that he had already spent half a career perfecting. The movie version looks graceless and kludgy because it hasn’t put in the hours, but it wants moviegoers to put in their money.
Sam Thielman is an editor at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.