"I have certain proclivities. I have fetishes for certain objects and certain things, and I like to explore them again and again."
This quote from new Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro came during an interview with Hollywood Shootout just after he completed his second Hellboy film in 2008, and is chronicled in his book Cabinet of Curiosities. Anyone who is a fan of del Toro's work will surely see what he is getting at — all of his films involve the fantastical, monsters (both metaphorical and literal), and, usually, shots of mechanical gears. He is an artist who never hides what he loves, and that love comes bursting through every one of his films. One of the most joyous instances of that love is 2008's Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
It was a big summer for genre when The Golden Army premiered — not only did Iron Man unexpectedly launch the MCU (taking everyone by surprise), but The Dark Knight laid waste to any and all comers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stole a fair amount of the box office spotlight, as well. The sequel to del Toro's original Hellboy (2004) came out in the middle of all this madness and, as a result, was somewhat overlooked. Even today, when del Toro's work is being discussed, The Golden Army is mostly regarded as an afterthought.
The first Hellboy movie is great (especially the director's cut), and gave cinematic life to Hellboy, aka Anung Un Rama. The sequel, however, is on another level. Coming after del Toro's gargantuan fantasy classic Pan's Labyrinth, the sequel feels like that movie got together with the first Hellboy film, got really high, and birthed a new movie. The Golden Army is everything great about the first movie, except it sends Myers (the "grounded" human character) away and explains it with one line. With him gone, the fantastical elements truly reign, and Hellboy finds himself in an absolutely glorious world of fantasy and mythology.
Now that del Toro is getting so much praise (rightly so) for the excellent The Shape of Water, it's the perfect time to explore 8 reasons why Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a highly underrated film.
THE PUPPET PROLOGUE
Hellboy II begins with a flashback, and we get to see Hellboy when he was much smaller. We also get to see John Hurt's Professor Broom again, who died in the first film. The bonds between father and son are already strong, and soon enough the Professor is insisting that Hellboy turn off his beloved episode of Howdy Doody and go to sleep.
Though the professor calls Howdy Doody an "infernal puppet," Hellboy isn't buying it. He thinks he's real, but that's an argument for another time... what he does demand, however (in the manner of many children), is a bedtime story. Professor Broom obliges him.
The chosen story involves the creation of the Golden Army from the film's title, and it forms the film's prologue under Hurt's narration. Since Hellboy had just been reveling in a world of puppetry, del Toro illustrates this long-forgotten tale of men, elves and goblins in puppet-like form. The figures appear to be almost wood-carved characters, and the result is an opening that imparts all of the necessary knowledge in a wonderfully artistic manner. It's a beautiful way to start the film, and by the end of the story little Hellboy is pulling up his covers, holding a toy cowboy gun in his hand. The sequence gets further payoff later as another character mentions the Golden Army and Hellboy gives a momentary, far-away look before saying to himself, "Howdy Doody..."
EVERYBODY HATES HELLBOY
Ron Perlman's portrayal of Hellboy is brilliant, and this film lets him truly shine. Hellboy has never liked the secrecy that he's been burdened with his entire life, and in an early scene he figures out a way to expose himself (and his "top-secret" bureau) to the world. He's certain that he's gonna be loved, and right before he gets blasted out of a window, he says, "world, here I come..."
Once discovered, the world doesn't exactly love him.
Hellboy, for all of his human qualities, is a demon. Humanity doesn't accept demons or monsters, and they don't accept Hellboy. He has trash thrown at him, he's called ugly, and in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, a mother whose baby he just saved gets frightened by him. Not only did he just save this woman's baby, he did it while destroying a fantastical creature. Yes, it was put to destructive use by the film's antagonist, Prince Nuada, but was still a betrayal of Hellboy's own kind. He has made a huge sacrifice for humanity, and they just throw rocks at him in fear.
Selma Blair's Liz Sherman isn't having that. She fires up her pyromancy powers (showing everyone what she truly is), and the mob wisely backs off. Does Hellboy rage and scream at them after Liz's moving speech about how they all just want to help? He doesn't. He just wants to take her home.
Perlman nails the comedy of the role. He nails the wisecracks, the action, and he is able to project almost anything through the huge rack of prosthetics that he has to wear — but the true power of his performance comes in melancholic moments like this one. His sadness at not being accepted is crushing, and all we want to do it hug him and tell him that we love him. From this moment on, the film has us firmly on the side of the monsters, if we weren't already there.
Speaking of melancholy, one of the most unexpected scenes comes when both Hellboy and his fish-man friend Abe Sapien sit back and discuss their respective problems with love over several beers. Though Abe protests that his body is a temple, Hellboy informs him that it is now "an amusement park."
Abe is given much more to do in this film, and Doug Jones not only continues to provide the incredible physical work, but he's allowed to use his own voice, as well. The result is a more fully formed character, and we really feel it when he falls in love with the elven Princess Nuala. He's just met her, but he loves her all the same. Hellboy is going through a rough patch with Liz, but he loves her just as much. What are these two to do, except put on their secret favorite song?
Before we know it, the two of them are singing along to "Can't Smile Without You" and chugging Tecate. A huge red man and his skinny blue friend sitting on the stairs singing Barry Manilow — it's a scene you don't realize your life needs until you see it here.
INTRODUCING JOHANN KRAUS
Because of Hellboy's behavior, Washington sends a new agent down to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to look after him. The agent they send is none other than Johann Kraus, a disembodied ectoplasmic spirit in a containment suit. My Left Foot certainly doesn't have a character like that.
Johann is perfectly voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and it's probably the best thing MacFarlane has ever done. His comedic timing is perfect, and del Toro is able to use all of the ghost effects (and Johann's use of "Teleplasty") to great effect. He is able to revive a miniature "tooth fairy" creature for interrogation, embodies a set of lockers to beat up Hellboy (seriously), and then uses these powers in a highly satisfying manner in the film's finale. Sure, he's a company man... but he's won over to the side of Team Hellboy by the end of the film.
THE TROLL MARKET
This is the scene in the film where the design truly goes berserk. Reminiscent of scenes like the Mos Eisley cantina visit in Star Wars: A New Hope, this is a scene that shows what del Toro and his team are truly capable of when it comes to creature creation.
Traveling to the Troll Market looking for information, Hellboy is astounded by the creatures he sees, even telling Liz that "nobody is looking at us!" That is with good reason. Every inch of the place is stuffed with some kind of fantastical creature, and it's impossible to catch everything on a first, second, or even third viewing. Done almost entirely with practical effects, the creatures are alive, beautiful, and inspiring. The fact that this scene also includes a wisecracking troll "tumor" (as well as Hellboy's fight with Mr. Wink) makes it unforgettable.
THE KING IN THE SEWERS AND THE LAST ELEMENTAL
Fantasy lore takes a front seat for this film, and it also provides most of the conflict. Elves, goblins, and all kinds of mythical creatures have been pushed aside and forced to live in secret places (like the Troll Market) if they are to survive. We know from the prologue that man gave the forests to the elves, but the forests have likely shrunk rapidly since then, haven't they?
Where does the king of the fairies keep his throne? In the sewer. His domain may have a golden autumn glow and a soft rain of leaves constantly falling, but there's also a huge sewage pipe right next to him. His own son, the mighty Prince Nuada, trains in a sewer as well — his training sequences only mildly disturbed when a subway car speeds along beside him.
Man has forgotten mythology, and to quote another famous fantasy film, "some things that should not have been forgotten were lost." Some of the mythical beings are content to be pushed to the sidelines and die out quietly, but not Prince Nuada. He will stop at nothing until his kind have taken back their rightful place — he'll unleash havoc to do so, but he'll do it. His argument isn't without merit, either. We can see his point, and that makes him an interesting foil for the film's heroes, especially Hellboy.
We've already touched on this moment, but in one of the film's most powerful scenes, Hellboy has to fight a giant, city-wrecking monster unleashed by Nuada. Right before Hellboy fires his outrageously oversized gun at the thing, killing it, Nuada appears. He informs Hellboy that this isn't just some random creature of destruction but a Forest Elemental, and the last of its kind. This creature of such epic beauty is one trigger pull away from going extinct — is Hellboy really going to kill it to save a bunch of humans who hate him? To destroy such a magical creature would be a tragic loss, but Hellboy does his duty anyway. He pulls the trigger, and the last elemental goes down.
It dies, but it does so in fantastic fashion. Every little bit of paved-over land that the elemental touched turns into lush, green forest, a steam-belching maintenance pipe included. For a brief moment there is a mythical forest in the middle of the city, and then the humans turn nasty again.
Did Hellboy make the right choice? Was Nuada's use of the god-like being unfair in first place? We don't have any answers to these questions, but the movie always makes us ponder them. That has far more power than simple "right vs. wrong." It also contributes to Team Hellboy deciding to quit the B.P.R.D. altogether at the end of the film.
LIZ SHERMAN DOOMS THE WORLD
This movie is full of hard choices. We've already covered some of Hellboy's, but Abe Sapien and Princess Nuala have their share as well. None of them, though, are as monumental as the one faced by Liz Sherman, and none of them are dealt with as quickly.
While trying to save her beloved Hellboy from a vicious wound from Nuada's spear, Liz seeks the help of a being who turns out to be the Angel of Death. The creature itself is one of Doug Jones' three roles in the film (Abe Sapien and the King's Chamberlain being the other two), and the look is classic del Toro. It's an image right out of Pan's Labyrinth, and the film's tone takes a very serious turn to match the design.
The Angel will save Hellboy, but they warn Liz that if they do, Hellboy will go on to fulfill his ultimate destiny. Anung Un Rama is meant to destroy this world, and it might be better off for everyone if Liz lets him die. When faced with this choice — save the man she loves, or save the world — does she take a long time to think about it? Not even close.
With a simple utterance of "him," she chooses Hellboy, and she chooses immediately. It's a given for her, and she wastes no time in even pretending to weigh the circumstances. The fact that she's pregnant with Hellboy's children at this moment probably has a lot to do with the choice, but it's really just love, pure and simple. She can't smile without him, and she'll be damned if she's ever going to try.
Hellboy is saved, but the Angel warns Liz that the day may come when she regrets this decision. It's one of the many, many reasons that it's so unfortunate that del Toro never got to make a third Hellboy film — we will never see how this choice pans out. Still, with no Hellboy III, that means there are no consequences! Hellboy and Liz live happily ever after. Yay!
O not yay. We kind of wanted to see the consequences. This scene is so beautifully played out, and it set up so much. We wanted that third film. We still do.
THE BATTLE WITH THE GOLDEN ARMY, aka HOWDY DOODY TIME
The movie begins with Professor Broom telling his son that he may someday face the Golden Army and find out whether they truly are "indus-tra-bul." If you hang a Golden Army in the beginning of the film, well, you have to have them fight in the end, as the classic saying goes. Hellboy and the team face off in a battle royale with the army, and it's truly epic.
Hellboy and Johann do most of the fighting; Hellboy constantly shoots off his giant pistol, and Johann uses his teleplasty to control the body of one of the soldiers. Everything is going well, until we realize that these things are just as "indus-tra-bul" as the legends say. As soon as they are broken apart, their clockwork pieces begin to spin and take shape, and before you know it, they're back together again. They are, most certainly, indestructible.
The design of the soldiers is pure del Toro, as his love of gears and clockwork is on full display. The film's title sequence takes place over a series of twisting gears, so we should have expected this. It's one fetish that del Toro admits to often, and it's something that you can find in almost all of his movies, from Cronos to the first Hellboy to the elevator in Crimson Peak. In his way, he loves clockwork gears so much that he built an entire finale set-piece out of them for Hellboy II.
By the time our four heroes return to the surface, they are done taking magic away from a world that doesn't really deserve it. They tell Jeffrey Tambor's Manning that they're done, and even Johann tells him to suck a certain ectoplasmic something.
The final beat has Hellboy beaming about the baby he is going to have with Liz, right as she informs him that they're not having one baby but two. The little boy from the prologue is ready to be a father himself now (after he's processed the look he gives in the final freeze frame), and the movie takes us out with — what else? — Barry Manilow.
This film might not have the power of Pan's Labyrinth or the emotion of The Shape of Water, but it does represent a master filmmaker letting loose and having the time of his life. It's not an exact copy of what the Mike Mignola comic series depicts (the new reboot will be a lot more like that), but del Toro is being true to his own mad self, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army might be a comic book movie sequel, but it's also an incredible labor of love. When people discuss the canon of del Toro, this film more than deserves to be a part of the conversation. If you haven't checked this one out in a while, or if you never saw it in the first place, give it a watch. Go on one of the craziest rides that Guillermo del Toro has ever crafted, and just try not to have a blast. You'll be glad you did.