'Hellboy II' Just Missed the Superhero Boom

Hellboy Creatures

Guillermo del Toro’s 2008 masterpiece was ahead of its time.

No matter which way you shake it, 2008 was the beginning of our modern superhero era. In July, The Dark Knight tore its way to a billion dollars and created a new, self-serious blockbuster blueprint. Three months earlier, the original Iron Man made a more modest debut, setting the tone for a mega-franchise with its snappy, self-aware tone. And in between, Hellboy II: The Golden Army was all but forgotten, an unjust martyr of studio mismanagement and audience disinterest. Hellboy II all but flopped, and the fledgling franchise was dead. Guillermo del Toro had stealthily made the best superhero movie of the year, but no one knew until it was too late.

The first Hellboy dropped in mid-April of 2004. It didn’t tear up the box office by any means, but with competition like Home on the Range and Johnson Family Vacation, it was able to crawl its way to about $60 million domestic by the end of its theatrical run. International profits brought that number to just short of $100 million. On a budget of $66 million, that was a respectable but unimpressive sum. Revolution Studios quickly announced a sequel, but production stalled almost immediately, and Revolution went out of business in 2006.

At roughly the same time Revolution was on the verge of collapse, Guillermo del Toro was on top of the world. Fresh off of Hellboythe Mexican-born director was fielding blockbuster offers from multiple massive studios. From the outside, he looked like the perfect studio hand, capable of injecting just a bit of his distinct cinematic voice while still bringing projects in on schedule and under budget. The early years of del Toro’s career are striking for the stark contrast between his Mexican work and his Hollywood work. Where films like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone are achingly personal and deeply strange, Blade II and Mimic maintain only the bare minimum of a personality, hamstrung by studio notes. When Disney came knocking and offered him the first Chronicles of Narnia adaptation, del Toro declined, noting to Sight and Sound that he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting.”

Instead, del Toro made his own personal fairy tale, the murky and gorgeous Pan’s Labyrinth. There, del Toro had his way: The lion did not resurrect. More than just a simple tale of fairies and fauns, Pan was a swooning meditation on the fragmented boundary between the fantasies of childhood and the harsh, violent realities of the world we’ve chosen to designate as “adult.” It was his most mature and complete work yet, garnering the best reviews of del Toro’s young career and going on to win three Academy Awards. Three months after Pan’s Labyrinth‘s buzzy Cannes premiere, Universal acquired Hellboy II and set a 2008 release date, with del Toro returning to the director’s chair.

On Hellboy II, del Toro found himself working within the studio system with a whole new level of confidence. On the original film, he’d deferred to Hellboy creator Mike Mignola at every turn. The DVD commentary track for the first Hellboy is a fascinating 2004 artifact, with a young and uncertain del Toro essentially allowing Mignola to walk all over him. It was an understandable instinct, but one that led to a muddled and relatively generic final product. Coming off of Pan’s Labyrinth, history wouldn’t repeat itself. Hellboy II doesn’t entirely abandon its source material, but it’s a Guillermo del Toro film through and through.

Indeed, Hellboy II almost immediately tosses aside the things that didn’t work in the original, clearing house for a story that’s much more confident in its strangeness. Instead of wasting time with the original’s half-assed audience surrogate, del Toro banishes him to literal Antarctica and makes Ron Perlman’s Hellboy the center of his own story. He gets an obligatory title card describing Hellboy’s origins out of the way and immediately dives into a Ray Harryhausen-infused stop-motion exposition dump that’s as gorgeous as it is silly. And he surrounds it all with a flashback framing device that sees Oscar nominee John Hurt reading a bedtime story to a buck-toothed demon child with a squeaky voice.

All of Hellboy II is like this. It feels like a victory lap for a filmmaking career that hadn’t even quite hit its stride, and it’s utterly glorious. Del Toro pours four decades worth of dreams and half-finished sketchbook doodles into The Golden Army‘s 2-hour runtime. It’s overflowing with creature designs that by themselves could sustain an entire film. Instead of the gothic puttering of the first Hellboy, the sequel is a visual smorgasbord of sweet-natured freaks: A befuddled alien bookkeeper with a small castle growing out of the top of his head, a goblin that trundles around the Irish countryside with a rickety cart instead legs, a swarm of tiny “tooth fairies” with heads consumed by massive toothy maws. And at the center of it all is the most sweet-natured freak, Ron Perlman’s Hellboy. He’s a classic del Toro lead, a demon with a heart of gold, an outcast who just wants to be loved.

Hellboy II could just as well be the director’s mission statement, a movie about broken people learning to accept that they can’t force the whole world to love them. In a charming proto-Shape of Water subplot, Hellboy’s gilled companion Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, as elegant and composed as ever) falls in love with an elf princess and discovers a newfound kinship with his big red friend. They drink beers and harmonize tunelessly over Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You,” and del Toro lingers on the moment longer than he does on any of the film’s (quite good) action sequences. It’s absurd and arresting in a way that feels deeply, truly human. Del Toro’s preoccupation with monsters has long been mistaken as a way of manifesting his love for old Universal horror films. In fact, del Toro is one of the only people alive who understands what made those movies iconic: Not the horrific things about Frankenstein’s monster, but the elements that made him all too human.

Set opposite the glass canyons and tense operatics of The Dark Knight, which opened the weekend after, the Jim Henson pageantry of Hellboy‘s Troll Market probably looked a bit outdated. Hellboy II is a singularly untraditional 85-million-dollar blockbuster. When the villain summons an ancient monster to terrorize New York City, del Toro dwells not on the carnage but on the quiet moment that takes place when Hellboy hesitates to destroy it. This isn’t simply a vehicle for a CGI set piece; it’s a character with its own history, a living, breathing being. When it dies, the world will miss it. In the end, it’s little wonder Hellboy II bombed. That kind of heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity doesn’t always win over audiences, especially in an era defined by the snarky cynicism of Tony Stark and the anarchic chaos of the Joker.

In the ten years since Hellboy II failed to make a profit at the box office, its 2008 rivals have faltered slightly in cultural impact. Movies that ape The Dark Knight‘s style have had their hits and misses and attempts to emulate Marvel’s quippy action comedies often fall flat. Movies that have injected a bit of Hellboy II DNA into their systems, however, have an incredibly consistent record. There’s a lot of del Toro in the sharp-witted humanism and laconic spirit of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi shares his vibrant imagination and brilliant knack for worldbuilding. And the wide-eyed optimism of movies like Wonder Woman or Captain America: The First Avenger implies that audiences weren’t inherently opposed to the vibe that Hellboy was selling. It would be silly to say that Hellboy II has had a bigger cultural impact than Iron Man or The Dark Knight. It’s subtle, and it’s probably not always intentional. But it’s there.

Hellboy II‘s failure led to Mignola seizing back the franchise last year, electing to go for a clean reboot from Neil Marshall that looks once more akin to Mignola’s source material. But del Toro didn’t course correct; he doubled down. Each of his subsequent films has been stranger and more sincere than the last. His most recent, The Shape of Water, cleaned up at the 90th Academy Awards. We’ll never really know what kept Hellboy II from becoming a phenomenon. Maybe it was just a cultural mismatch, something impossible to measure or explain. But as it turns 10 years old this July, del Toro’s truest triumph of imagination deserves a second look.

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Writer and student based in New York. Ask me about my Blu-Ray copy of The Book of Henry.