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Del Toro, now an Oscar-winner for his monster movie love story The Shape of Water, has made no secret of his own love affair with monsters, a relationship that spans his entire life and has been responsible for much of his professional success. Like fellow genre luminary Clive Barker, he's made a career not just out of creating monsters, but of embracing them, reminding us of their humanity and what they can teach us about ourselves. So when he was paired up with Mike Mignola's big, red, cigar-chomping superhero, the match felt like a no-brainer.
Hellboy, the first Del Toro and Mignola collaboration, is a pulpy, cosmic horror monster mash full of great design work and faithful nods to the very earliest Hellboy comic book adventures. For the sequel, Del Toro was not content to go back to that territory. Mignola's comics, which began with Nazi occultists and Elder Gods, had long since branched out into a wider sphere of world folklore, and in determining a narrative path for the second Hellboy film, the comic creator and the filmmaker eventually settled on a story that would take the same approach. If Hellboy is a pulp adventure about an unlikely hero, then Hellboy II: The Golden Army, now streaming on Peacock, is a dark fantasy about the forgotten places deep in the heart of the world, and what happens when we forget our universe's inherent magic.
Of course, Hellboy (played once again by Ron Perlman) fits right into both narratives, which is a testament to his versatility and enduring power. This time around, Big Red teams up with fellow BPRD agents Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) to take on a long-exiled elf prince (Luke Goss) who hopes to reclaim the Golden Army of the title, an ancient war machine that could wipe humanity off the planet. But this is not a problem that can be fully solved with a big red fist and a massive gun, as the prince's sister (Anna Walton) and new BPRD supervisor Johann Krauss (John Alexander and James Dodd puppeteering, Seth MacFarlane voicing) are all too ready to remind Hellboy. To solve this case, and save the world, he'll have to take a quieter approach, digging deep into the secret history of the Earth.
Hellboy II came at an interesting time in Del Toro's career. He'd proven he could do superhero action, blended with horror, through both Blade II and the first Hellboy film, and he'd reminded everyone of his dark fairy tale prowess with the celebrated Pan's Labyrinth, a film that felt more like a throwback to the days of The Devil's Backbone. In other words, he'd proven he was equally adept at action spectacle and thoughtful genre storytelling. With Hellboy II, he proved he could merge the two. The sumptuous creature designs and worldbuilding of Pan's Labyrinth are on display, but the fight sequences are even more kinetic and impressive than the first Hellboy film. The witty character interactions of the original film are also intact, but there's an added layer of bittersweet fantasy laced into the pulpy fun, particularly as the film makes the turn into its final act, and the eventual fates of the twin elf royals at the center of the story.
Del Toro's growth as a storyteller, and his ability to juggle action and theme in the same frame, is on full display throughout The Golden Army. The gold of the title is an important thematic touchstone, as Del Toro shows us a vibrant world of gold-hued, autumnally colored creatures as a way of depicting a magical society that's in decline and facing the extinction of winter. He then contrasts this with modern cityscapes and, through the death of a godlike forest being used as a weapon, deliberately depicts that passing of an age. Hellboy's own story, as a guy just trying to prove he's on the right side, mirrors Prince Nuada's quest for justice for his people, until they become each other's opposite, sparring over not just the fate of humanity, but its inherent goodness. By the end of the film, Hellboy is standing in a gateway between the world that was and the world that will be, unsure of his larger place in what's next, and The Golden Army becomes a meditation on what happens when the hidden places of the world are forgotten.
Looking back on the film now, The Golden Army feels perhaps slightly weakened by Del Toro's willingness to introduce so much thematic weight that would be explored in a third film we never got to see, but if you love what he's doing visually and narratively, in the end that only enhances the sense of ambition here. Del Toro understood from the beginning that Hellboy is a dextrous, versatile character, capable of navigating the grimiest of creature features and the loftiest of epic fantasies. With his two Hellboy films he brought us both, and while it may be best remembered as the last installment in an unfinished saga, Hellboy II: The Golden Army's true legacy is as Del Toro's most vibrant blockbuster filmmaking yet.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is now streaming on Peacock.