Hellboy was always bound to be bizarre, with director Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones) tapped to bring the most delightfully absurd elements of Mike Mignola's comics to blood-soaked. But while the film has plenty of fun with the spectacle, and the cast does its best to keep up with events unraveling around them, the script is virtually nonsensical. This Hellboy perhaps works best when viewed as a collection of gnarly music videos and grisly vignettes, rather than as a single, confusing narrative.
Set in a world in which Hellboy is known as the premier paranormal investigator, this film eschews many of the more personal dramatics that made up Guillermo del Toro's earlier takes on the character. The emotional through-line centers on Hellboy (David Harbour) and his adopted father Professor Broom (Ian McShane), of course, but now Hellboy behaves more like a moody teenager than a weathered warrior. It's an interesting approach that frames the film as an extended coming-of-age story. Harbour leans into that, and at times finds a compelling concept in this bitter, almost adolescent, version of the character. The problem is that the script glosses over his growth. There's no rise or fall to his arc, just whatever emotional plateaus are necessary for each scene, and whatever gets us to the next big fight sequence.
Those scenes are the film's highlights, orchestrated with gory glee by Marshall, who cut his teeth on the 2002 action-horror film Dog Soldiers. Hellboy frantically improvising weapons out of trees to defeat giants or being served kid soup by the ferocious folklore figure Baba Yaga feel less like traditional set-pieces and more like the most expensive and bloody Looney Tunes shorts ever produced. It's in those moments, when the film screams "screw it" to convention and throws a were-jaguar at you that it feels most alive. Some scenes lose a bit of that signature Marshall control in the mishmash of sometimes-shaky special effects, but others (particularly the final action beat of the film) showcase his clear action direction at some of its finest.
The biggest flaw of Hellboy is that, beyond the fantasy vignettes and music video action sequences, everything is haphazardly jumbled together. The film admittedly goes to unexpected places for viewers who haven't read the comic books, but the script isn't strong enough to make those concepts believable, even within a universe that includes baby-stealing fairies. The twists and turns just sort of happen, regardless of what the narrative would suggest. There's no gravitas or personal connection to the conflict or the resolution, and character beats are glossed over in favor of exposition. Hellboy even makes a joke about wanting a more personal and relatable apocalypse. If the film could have accomplished that, then the bonkers visuals could have been grounded in real stakes.
Characters travel around England at the speed of light, except when the script demands that they arrive late to try and stop Nimue (Milla Jovovich) from regaining her full power. Minor characters and villains appear and then disappear without warning. Motivations are baked into characters from the start, so we feel as if we jumped into the movie 15 minutes late, only to have everything explained through flashback and more exposition, 25 minutes after we stopped caring. Even the dialogue is lacking, rarely having the sense of off-the-cuff fun that the rest of the material cries out for.
Hellboy feels like Marshall making the movie the 14-year-old inside him would have loved. It's not difficult to imagine this film, even more so than Venom and Aquaman, quickly finding a cult following that can appreciate the madness and ignore the drab. And to its credit, Hellboy is never boring. It's a film with a vampire lucha dora, Merlin, Nazis with 3D glasses, a witch who can shoot plague out of her hands, and the tantalizing tease of a story where Hellboy had to prevent Baba Yaga from raising the spirit of Josef Stalin. It may be incredibly weird and poorly written, but it's never boring.
Hellboy expects the audience to be along for the ride just because it's Hellboy, without giving any reason for us to connect or care. Harbour imbuing the character with the moodiness of a sullen teen is intriguing, but the film is wholly uninterested in exploring the characters beyond a surface reading.
Opening Friday nationwide, director Neil Marshall’s Hellboy stars David Harbour as Hellboy, Ian McShane as Trevor Bruttenholm, Milla Jovovich as Nimue, Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, Penelope Mitchell as Ganeida and Daniel Dae Kim as Ben Daimio.