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What Worked in 2019's Hellboy Reboot, from Casting to Creatures

There's plenty to like in 2019's Hellboy revival.

By Matthew Jackson

Five years ago, we got what could have been a new comic book smash in the form of another Hellboy movie. But this wasn't the long-awaited conclusion to writer/director Guillermo del Toro's original story, with Ron Perlman back in the title role. Instead, The Descent director Neil Marshall helmed an R-rated reboot with another actor, David Harbour, as Big Red. 

It did not go well. 

Very often, when films are critical and commercial disappointments, they're made that much more disappointing by what might have been had all the ingredients worked together a bit better, and in the case of 2019's Hellboy, there were a lot of good ingredients. Marshall is a genre filmmaker with a track record; Harbour was one of the hottest actors in the world thanks to his involvement in Stranger Things; and they even got genre icon Milla Jovovich to play the film's villain, not to mention Ian McShane as Hellboy's adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm. The ingredients were definitely there for something special, and that just didn't happen. 

But instead of spending time ruminating on why it didn't work, let's take a little time to focus on what did work in the 2019 film. Because believe it or not, for all its bad reputation, there are plenty of good things in Hellboy, if you're willing to settle in and keep an eye out.

For More on Hellboy:
Mike Mignola Explains the "Bigger Hellboy World" of New Movie
David Harbour Called Ryan Reynolds for Help After Hellboy Flopped
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is Guillermo del Toro's Most Vibrant Blockbuster

There's A lot to Like in 2019's Hellboy Movie

David Harbour as Hellboy

There's a reason Harbour landed the role of Hellboy, and it's not just because Stranger Things was arguably the most popular pop culture thing in the world at the time. As written in the comics (and portrayed by Perlman in previous films), Big Red is a working class guy who just wants to get through his day, light up a cigar and have a beer. He's got a job to do, and he understands the importance of it, but to him it's also just a job, a thing that has its drawbacks and headaches and annoyances that he'd rather not deal with. 

Harbour can, and does, play that perfectly, but he also gets something else right: the heart of Hellboy. For all his gruffness, Hellboy's also a guy who cares deeply about certain people and things, and isn't afraid to let that show. Despite a script that's quite rough in some places, particularly when it comes to the dialogue that lets Hellboy tell us why he cares about something, Harbour manages to pull that off. He's quite fun in the role, so much so that you almost wish we got a sequel just so he could play around with the character a bit more.

Hellboy's Creature Designs

We can quibble quite a bit over the tone of the 2019 Hellboy film, particularly as it relates to its source material. There are a lot of choices that push the film to levels of gore and disgust that the comic just never reaches with its more elegant, creepy vibe, and that means the tone never quite worked for a lot of longtime Hellboy fans. That said, as you might expect from a Hellboy story, the film is packed with some very visually compelling creature designs.

Yes, they're a little hyperviolent, sometimes flat-out gross, and sometimes the CGI doesn't quite work as well as you'd hope, but whether we're talking about Baba Yaga making a dark bargain with Hellboy over her missing eye, or the horde of demons rampaging across the Earth during the finale, there are some very fun monsters to look at in this movie. Do they all fit into the Hellboy franchise? Maybe not, but at least they're interesting.

The Ambition of 2019's Hellboy

If you've seen 2019's Hellboy, there's a good chance you came away from it thinking that it felt a little like you'd watched three or four movies crammed together. Indeed, one of the film's biggest issues is its attempt to adapt not one, but several Hellboy comic book stories at the same time, some in little pieces and others as larger arcs in the entire film. If you're a Hellboy comics reader, you'll recognize bits and pieces from The Wild HuntHellboy in Mexico, and more, while the larger arc of the story takes a lot from The Storm and the Fury, with its use of Nimue the Blood Queen (Jovovich) as the villain. 

Hellboy comic book stories might be straightforward, but they also come from an extremely complex and ever-expanding world full of lore and interconnected mythologies, creatures, and allegiances. Dropping Hellboy into just one of those stories is tricky, but dropping him into several, including a detour to tell his origin story one more time for the big screen, is verging on foolhardy. The result is a tangle of stuff that never quite comes together into something cohesive.

That said, there's a lot of ambition here, from the way the story ties directly to Arthurian legend to the way it really does create apocalyptic stakes by the end. It's a story that reaches for a lot, and while it can't quite grasp everything it's after, there's something in that reaching that really works. Hellboy emerging from the depths after a meeting with Merlin, wielding Excalibur while his horns are aflame, is just plain cool, and this movie, at the very least, gave us that.

Revisit 2019's Hellboy, now streaming on Peacock.