In the summer of 2008, superhero movies experienced a revitalization with critical successes like DC's The Dark Knight and Marvel's Iron Man. Dark Horse's Hellboy II: The Golden Army, directed by Guillermo del Toro, was released on July 11, 2008 as the sequel to 2004's Hellboy. Del Toro's adaptation followed the titular character as he battled an embittered elf prince and magical army. Although overshadowed by the previous two films, Hellboy II not only has a solid following thanks to the comic book's dedicated fanbase but also because of del Toro's strong visual style and practical effects while capturing the characters' spirit.
Created by Mike Mignola in 1993, Hellboy is the premiere paranormal investigator who battles everything from cryptids and famous folklore monsters to Nazis. Aside from Mignola's Kirby-esque art style, the character's unique nature and the world-building helped establish him as an instant icon among the more well-known heroes. Following his comic book debut, he was introduced to the wider world in the 2004 film adaptation Hellboy written and directed by del Toro and released by Sony Pictures. Although not a massive financial success, positive critical reception and del Toro's 2007 Oscar win for Pan's Labyrinth helped spawn the sequel, released by Universal in 2008.
Del Toro does not adapt a specific story for the sequel and instead crafts an original. Hellboy largely followed the first arc of the titular comic. But this decision to craft a brand new narrative freed both del Toro and Mignola from sticking to every bit of canon and allowed them to translate the essential elements of the characters and world. The inclusion of Irish mythology and its creatures fit in neatly with Mignola's tendency to draw from similar tales for Hellboy stories. Since Hellboy fought Baba Yaga or found Excalibur in the comics, his taking on fairies, goblins, and similar creatures made sense. The weird horror element and fairytale-like threat suit the established world perfectly.
Guillermo del Toro's filmography embodies a beautiful visual style and production design. Like Mignola's unique pencils, del Toro and his production team craft an enchanting world and bring the comics to life. From the bureaucratic retro-future of the B.R.P.D. to the troll market, each location feels lived in and perfectly a part of the film's world. Like Pan's Labyrinth, it blends the fantastical and mundane in a way that correlates with its comic roots. While there are fantastical elements, del Toro manages to ground the characters, and his commitment to practical effects makes the film come alive and feel tangible.
This stands true with the creature design as well. Aside from Hellboy's comic-accurate appearance, the variety of creature designs demonstrate del Toro's passion and breadth as a creative. The insect-like tooth fairies that kill people by eating their calcium are a personal favorite of mine. Mr. Wink, a troll who can shoot a giant metal attached to his fist, was done practically, and Doug Jones' performance in the movie as Abe Sapien and the Angel of Death further blends fantasy and reality seamlessly.
Ron Perlman's performance as Hellboy also deserves recognition. Falling in the tradition of other blue-collar heroes like The Thing or Robotman, Perlman portrays the demon with a gruff sense of humor to deflect his inner soft heart. Despite being a demon, Hellboy prefers to eat candy bars, drink beer, and fight evil. Although it could be considered a typecast, Perlman is the only one who could have done the role justice in del Toro's adaptation. Whether swinging around the right hand of doom or the way his eyes brighten when he looks at Liz, Perlman delivers. Even when reading the comics, I still hear Perlman's voice for the Hellboy bubbles.
A notable departure lies in the focus of a romantic subplot. Although Hellboy did have some love interests in the source material, del Toro places Hellboy and Liz Sherman's (Selma Blair) arcs in reconciling their relationship as Liz attempts to tell him she's pregnant. Outside of giving the characters more profound relationships and inner lives, it reflects del Toro's interest in unconventional relationships between monsters and humans. Even Abe's love of Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) is a precursor to The Shape of Water. Unlike Mignola, del Toro's romanticism bridges the divide between the movies and the comics. In a notable scene, a drunk Abe and Hellboy drink beer and discuss their relationship problems. Hellboy laments, "I would give my life for her... but she also wants me to do the dishes," Abe responds, "I would die and do the dishes." To del Toro, those that appear as monsters are the most human.
Despite doing critically well and moderately ok at the box office, the rumors of a potential third film continued following the release of Hellboy II. Despite this, del Toro would release Pacific Rim in 2013 and the criminally underrated gothic romance Crimson Peak in 2015. Instead, the studio and higher-ups rebooted the franchise and released Hellboy in 2019, this time with Neil Marshall in the director's chair. Despite not being as critically and financially successful as the previous two films, it demonstrated how much of an impact del Toro had on the franchise. Even with the upcoming second reboot, some of the talents from the original movies want to finish the trilogy.
Adapting any form of media into a movie is a struggle when translating the elements to the screen. Although Hellboy II may not perfectly adapt the comics one to one, it, more importantly, captures the spirit of the material. When I think of Hellboy, I think of a fun, pulpy horror with the human element. Del Toro continues to probe. He's a modern monster master who understands what makes them tick.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is streaming on Peacock.