Hellboy: Guillermo Del Toro's Duology on Monsters and Identity
Yup. I'm going to need a beer.
Among the pantheon of modern directors, few present their visions with as much clarity as Guillermo Del Toro. The man works on countless projects and he doesn't show any signs of stopping or slowing down. As such, it is disappointing whenever one of his potential projects is shelved or unrealized. My heart has rarely known a heavier feeling than the official 100% declaration from Del Toro himself that Hellboy 3 will not happen. It’s not just a side project we’re losing, it’s the closing chapter of what had the potential to be one of the defining movie trilogies of the new millennium. The template for Del Toro's style of pulpy action and color palette is present in films like Blade II, but it's in the Hellboy series where things are kicked up a notch.
Hellboy brings a gothic, dieselpunk, Lovecraftian sensibility to the superhero game. Elder godlike monsters from darker realities pour through portals and dark books. Creepy constructs of slime and tentacles make their way through the murky labyrinths beneath New York. Nazis get eviscerated, blown up, dismembered, and in classic Indiana Jones fashion - destroyed by the otherworldly temperaments they seek to control.
The film's culmination is essential to any superhero story. It's the moment every hero must confront, "We are who we choose to be." a la The Iron Giant. Hellboy is fated to bring about the destruction of the world. To rebuke not just a prophecy, but armageddon itself, in the name of humanity... that's some heavy shit.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army presents us with a sprawling adventure fantasy narrative, like if the aforementioned sensibilities of the first were forced to confront a Tolkien-esque adventure tale. In the storybook style prologue, we are shown the elves and mythical creatures peacefully resigned to their forests after a battle that left their king filled with remorse.
From an environmental perspective, yes, we can all attest we’ve been too harsh on our environment and ecosystem. Our world is constantly growing and pushing nature further into its own corners of the planet and will probably not end well for many creatures. It's the rare sequel where the bigger scale presents the audience with the foundational themes and characters already fulfilled by a first outing, and expands upon them through a vastly different approach. Hellboy knows he is not meant to bring about the end of days; yet, he still is faced with ethical choices in a fantastical world being suffocated by or own.
While he has no love for humanity, Prince Nuada's goals are ultimately based on the survival of his own species...you know, by exterminating another species. Look, his heart was in the right place, it just became full of hatred. Can you blame him? Nuada’s people were unjustly pushed out of their lands and have nearly vanished into myth. Given the reaction Nuada has, it’s safe to say he’s more of a “burn out” than “fade away” type of guy. It’s a recurring thread between the two villains of Rasputin and Nuada.
Where Rasputin is merely a gatekeeper for true evil and receiving an extremely satisfying demise, gasping for a last breath of spite against a world that will forget his cult's monstrous nature, the death of Nuada is different. Nuada’s death is tragic and purposefully unsatisfying twice over. Not only is Nuada defeated because his sister, Nuala, sacrifices herself, he too is the last of his kind. Both are great villains for testing Hellboy to question his own morality and mortality, but it’s Nuada who truly sings the worthy adversary tune throughout The Golden Army.
Perhaps no part of the film better illustrates the conflict between Hellboy and Nuada than in the Forest God sequence. When confronted with protecting humanity or killing the last of an ancient race, Hellboy recognizes this and hesitates. But this monster was going to cause harm to innocent people. Whether or not they personally like him or not is irrelevant, it’s the right thing to do in the moment. As the nature behemoth is blown away by Hellboy, its innards splash against the modern architecture of New York, leaving behind plant life and a giant flower where its head once stood.
These beings may fade away but their mere existence, no matter how fleeting, will leave an ingrained mark on this world. It's this deep level of empathy that deservedly sets Guillermo Del Toro's artistry on a high pedestal. We are shown these obtuse, extravagant designs that don't fit in our perception of reality, nor should they, and pull us deeper into the mindset of the director’s fascination with the strange. Del Toro loves and understands our cinematic relationships to monsters. He just wants us to have that same admiration and respect. In the world of Del Toro’s Hellboy, how could there be any of that?
After a fight with Sammael (Desolate One, Lord of the Shadows, Harbinger of Pestilence, etc.,) in the first Hellboy, Big Red saves a litter of kittens and returns them to an owner in the subway. She’s thankful, the crowd looks pleased, and our hero looks satisfied while petting the purring kittens saying, “It’s my job.” We see humanity accept him for the first time outside of the BPRD. We see this again with a child on rooftop and momentarily after vanquishing a pair of tooth fairies. We are eventually exposed to the underworld of monsters and magical beings in The Golden Army, showing us not all these creatures wish to destroy humanity with every fiber of their being. There’s an unspoken mutual connection between the two cultures, almost tying them together through a mutual interest instead of mutual destruction.
Del Toro mentioned in an old Reddit interview that the antagonistic force would have positioned Hellboy to once again confront his apocalyptic origins for the defense of mankind, only to realize our hero is becoming what he most feared. While it will officially never happen (god, that still hurts to type out) I have to imagine it would have culminated in the one throughline the Hellboy films represent in the artist’s filmography: reconciliation.
The filmography of Del Toro is ripe with exploration of monsters, man, and the relationships between the two. The two worlds were unable to connect in the Hellboy duology, but with the introduction of twins in the cancelled third installment, I have to imagine this would have provided the proper tool for reconciling the two worlds. Also, we could of had a nice subversion of Hellboy’s apocalyptic prophecy. Instead of ending the world, he brings two lives into it with a loving partner. Maybe it wouldn’t immediately solved every problem in both worlds. Maybe it would. Nonetheless, it would present a powerful continuation of the overriding thesis. Even without the third to close off a trilogy, Del Toro’s Hellboy series serves as a meditation on all his fascinations put on bold display for the world at large. Monsters, pulp adventure, and some of the best damn production work of a career filled with nothing but the best.
All this grand, fantastical introspection leaves an indelible mark on the genre hopping superhero movie world. Hellboy and Abe Sapien also get drunk and sing Barry Manilow while talking about their love lives. If that doesn't solidify this duology as one of the great franchises, nothing could.
So long, Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy series. I just can't smile without you… but at least I know I can always revisit you on Blu-ray.