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A Spirited Defence of the Much-Maligned Hellboy 2019

My first pro sale was a story about a group of Guitar Wizards using the power of metal to literally melt the faces of an oncoming demon horde. I got home from a party at 3am, barely-coherent from a bad reaction of alcohol and psychiatric medication, and in my inbox I saw an email from a writer I’d met at a party years ago asking if I could write something for Esquire Malaysia’s Rocktober issue. I don’t remember the exact wording, but I remember the vibe: it didn’t matter what I wrote, but it needed to rock. 

I barely remember writing it, and I do not remember sending it. I woke up in the morning with a second email in my inbox telling me it was great, and they’d buy it. It’s called And All Hell Rode With Them, it’s in the October 2015 issue of Esquire Malaysia, which I believe is now out of print. It is a powerfully stupid story, but I’m not gonna lie, it rules. It’s still one of my favourite stories I’ve ever written, and I barely remember writing it. It knows exactly what it is and it just goes for it. I spend so much time wrapped up in anxiety that it’s incredibly refreshing to see what happens when I just fucking turn off everything else and go.

So much modern media takes itself extremely seriously. The sillier its source material, the harder it needs to let you know that it’s dark and real and important. It’s relentlessly pompous, all Nietzschean supermen standing in the rain and gurning up at God. Nothing sums it up better to me than the absurd bathos of the infamous “SAVE … MARTHA” scene in Batman V Superman. It’s a movie about Batman fighting Superman, it’s the ultimate playground argument, and everything about it is so fucking grim. There is no joy, no energy. It demands to be taken seriously but it refuses to acknowledge how silly its premise is.

Whoa is that a Christ metaphor? With the JOKER? Wowee.

Which is when I finally get to the point: Hellboy (2019) is good, actually. I’d avoided it when I came out: the Del Toro films hold a very special place in my heart, and Del Toro’s great strength is his compassion – there was absolutely no way a Grim and Gritty remake could retain it and retain the soul of those films. 

It knows this, and doesn’t even try. Hellboy 2019 does not have compassion. Hellboy 2019 is a nasty, violent film. It is also, I must report, super fucking fun. 

Is it as good as the Del Toro films? No, but it’s not trying to be. Hellboy 2019 has a guitar pedal, a chainsaw, and a dream of punching a hole in the sky; Hellboy 2019 opens with the titular Hellboy fighting a vampire luchador and it sets the tone perfectly; Hellboy 2019 is, at all times, about 2 seconds away from snapping its fingers and summoning a flaming motorcycle made of bones. I am not going to tell you Hellboy 2019 is a smart film, but it knows it’s stupid and it just kinda rolls with it. I was told it was another Grim and Dark reboot, but it is in fact an antidote to them. It is pure id, silly and over the top but also blessedly free of self-importance or the desire to be anything other than a good time. 

There’s a certain irony that one of the heralds of this whole grim superhero deal tried to do a similar thing to Hellboy 2019 with 2011’s Sucker Punch and totally fell flat, because it had the same unrestrained rollercoaster 14 year-old boy id but it just wasn’t fun. Its palate is washed out, its fights are limp and weightless, there’s an extended sequence of a woman undergoing a lobotomy where she fantasises that the doctor performing it is seducing her and it’s trying to say something (oooee isn’t it dark? She likes it, or she seizes control by pretending to like it, or something, who the fuck knows, it’s cheap sexualized violence against women trying to put on a fancy hat and pretend it’s something else). So much of that particular modern oeuvre is obsessed with being adult in extremely facile ways and it creates bloated, hollow, ugly products. There’s no joy in them at all, they feel empty and synthetic.

Pictured: ?action?

Hellboy 2019 does need to prove how dark and adult it is by hanging sexual violence over the heads of its female characters, because it is too busy having Hellboy beat a fomorian to death with a tree while Matt Bellamy wails YOUR ASS BELONGS TO ME NOW over fuzz guitars. Hellboy 2019 is crunchy and muscular, the soundtrack blares Muse and Alice Cooper and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, at one point a witch vomits out her entire intestines and they form into the shape of a second witch, who delivers a prophecy and then schlurps back into the first witch. Perhaps mostly tellingly of its intentions, Ian McShane is in it. 

It is very different from the Del Toro films, and got absolutely destroyed in reviews because of it, and I think that’s a mistake. Del Toro’s remain excellent. They have tremendous heart, which Hellboy 2019 does not, not unless it’s punching one out of somebody else’s chest. It is a nasty film, but it has absolutely no intention of being anything else. As the Lady of the Lake (Milla Jovovich in her pulpy element) paralyzes Hellboy with her dark magic, she reaches out a hand towards his face.  

“This isn’t gonna work,” he says, “I’m a Capricorn and you’re fucking nuts.” 

Get it? Because he’s got horns? This is perhaps the most Hellboy 2019 asked me to think about anything. The closest referents I have are Deathgasm and Brütal Legend, with a bit of Netflix’s Witcher adaptation sprinkled in. It’s a Frank Frazetta album cover come to life. It is metal as fuck and it does not care. I am choosing my words carefully here: Hellboy 2019 rocks. The closest to grim self-importance it gets is in the finale, which takes obvious visual cues from the art of Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński for its particular vision of hell, but it’s a striking aesthetic and I’m here for it. Beksiński is popular in online alternative spaces for a reason. 

Is it perfect? God no. The editing is choppy, some of the VFX work a lot better than others (hello CGI Ian McShane, I can see why they’re pointedly avoiding shot-reverse-shot while you’re talking), Daniel Dae Kim cannot do a British accent to save himself, and much of the early film’s neon colour palette seems to drain away later in favour of the same boring blue/green colour grading of so many of its grim contemporaries (the neon comes back in a glorious final fight sequence scored by Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart, go watch it), but I’m willing to look past that and just get caught up in its raw energy. 

So yeah. Hellboy 2019 is stupid, but it knows exactly how stupid it is and just has fun with it. It’s not Hellboy 2004, but I feel like it should be reassessed on its own merits. Namely that is just rocks.

Published inNonfiction

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