What Went Wrong: Revisiting Neil Marshall’s ‘Hellboy’

Seeing as the world has temporarily gone on pause for the most part as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been finding ways to keep busy at home. One way in which I’m occupying myself is watching movies – including the recent Hellboy reboot. Directed by Neil Marshall, Hellboy (2019) is about the titular character’s battle against an ancient sorceress named Nimue (Mila Jovovich), while also trying to find his place in the world. Caught between Nimue’s influence and his upbringing under occult researcher Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), the film is essentially Hellboy (David Harbour) going through a gory existential crisis.

I watched Hellboy (2019) in theaters, and I didn’t think it was very good – though I didn’t hate it. I haven’t watched Hellboy (2019) since it was released in theaters and seeing as the film is currently available on Amazon Prime, a second viewing to see if my opinions of the film have changed felt appropriate.

Hellboy (2019) HD Wallpaper | Background Image | 3000x2000 | ID ...
Hellboy (2019)

This article is going to list the reasons why Hellboy (2019) did not work well, though in the spirit of positivity I will say some nice things about the film up-front. I liked the cast a lot, even if their characters weren’t well written, but more on that later. David Harbour, Mila Jovovich, and Ian McShane were fantastic. The deep dive into Hellboy comics lore and the grittier tone were smart choices to help differentiate Marshall’s Hellboy (2019) from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films. The opening scene with Hellboy in Mexico, was a lot of fun and felt true to the character’s pulpy roots. However, those are the only bright spots in a film that is a mess from beginning till end.

Fan service:

Hellboy has a lot to offer for long-time fans of the comics, as the film brought numerous characters from the original Hellboy stories to the big screen. For newcomers however, it can be a little overwhelming and ultimately confusing. A friend of mine found himself perplexed at certain moments, one of which was the appearance of Lobster Johnson in a flashback scene explaining how Hellboy arrived on earth. Comic references are great, but they shouldn’t take centre stage unless they are integral and properly set up. While that scene was awesome for long-time fans of the Hellboy comics (me included), it can alienate audiences new to the world of Hellboy.

A messy narrative with poor pacing:

There is just too much happening in Hellboy (2019). The film is bloated because the screenwriters decided to include an unnecessary amount of characters and plot points. This approach to the script creates a disjointed narrative that is very difficult to follow, or have any viewer investment in. Hellboy (2019) moves at break-neck speed from the get-go, rarely giving any scene breathing room to truly impact the audience.

This problem stems from the film’s attempt to adapt a comic book story that is the culmination of fifteen years of storytelling by Mignola. When one reads the trilogy of stories that Hellboy (2019) pulls from, the narrative plays out organically and is satisfying. Hellboy (2019) tries to cram a several of short stories and two of the graphic novels in that trilogy into about two hours of screen time, with understandably poor results.

Hellboy (2019) | Official Movie Site | Lionsgate
Hellboy (2019)

Too much exposition:

To help audiences comprehend the numerous nods to the Hellboy comics and all sub stories, the dialogue in Hellboy (2019) is 60% exposition. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration — but a substantial portion of the dialogue is people explaining things. Many plot details and character backgrounds are explained in depth, but it’s not remotely entertaining for the audience to be told rather than shown something. In all honesty half of Hellboy (2019) could be re-purposed into a lecture on the supernatural.  

Thinly written characters:

I don’t care about any of the characters in this movie. The fast-paced nature of the film and heavy use of exposition leaves little room to develop Hellboy’s supporting cast beyond the caricature. I’ll use Ben Daimio as an example. Daimio’s character can be summed up succinctly: he’s an asshole. There’s no real arc for his character, and he exists to just be the angry character with a chip on his shoulder. Nimue has an interesting background and motivation for her action in the film, but the film’s portrayal of her is just a generic supervillain.

Mike Mignola knows where he'd like the story for Hellboy 2 to go
Hellboy 2019

It retreads past ground for the worse:

One of the changes Guillermo del Toro made to the character of Hellboy in his 2004 adaptation was to add a certain level of immaturity. Hellboy may have been in his 60s, but he had the maturity of a sixteen-year-old in the first two Hellboy films. It was funny, and well-done in the original Hellboy films. Hellboy (2019) does the exact same thing, depicting Hellboy like a teenager. Not only has that idea been done before, but the poorly written teen angst baked into every line of Hellboy’s dialogue dilutes an interesting concept: Hellboy trying to view himself as an individual rather than someone else’s tool.

The relationship between Hellboy and his father, Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm, is a central component in Hellboy (2019). It was also a central component in del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). I recognize that it’s an interesting relationship to write about, but there are other Hellboy stories that can be told.

Closing thoughts:

I hold no ill will towards the Hellboy (2019). However, this film is a mess. I don’t know how much of it was intentional, and how much of it was studio interference (as suggested by Harbour), but either way it is a poor film outing for one of comic’s most beloved characters.

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