Some superheroes focus on settling a score. Some learn lessons about responsibility, talent, and weakness. But for some, like Hellboy, being a superhero is just a job.

For director Guillermo Del Toro, the job of bringing the comic book hero Hellboy to the screen was a labor of love—love for comics, and especially for the work of artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy's creator. Del Toro effectively recreates Mignola's flair for shadows and big, bulky imagery. This is a comic book world quite unlike any we've seen before.

We get to know Hellboy through the eyes of John Myers (Rupert Evans), an FBI agent who has been transferred to the mysterious Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He's welcomed there by a wizened geezer named Professor Bruttenholm (Alien's John Hurt in fine form). Bruttenholm shows him around this secret government freakshow, assuring him, "There are things that go bump in the night." Hellboy, the Bureau's most notorious weapon, is the biggest bumper of all.

Hellboy ready to raise some heck

Hellboy ready to raise some heck

This massive, red-skinned, horned devil from hell—the most disgruntled comic book hero to reach the big screen since Harvey Pekar—has abandoned the evil powers that spawned him. He's hard at work as a secret weapon for the Bureau. In his spare time, he consumes mass quantities of meat and carbs, plays with his collection of kittens, and lifts weights. When called upon, he pursues and destroys monsters and supernatural bad guys with an air of obligation, indifference, and sarcasm. Superman said, "Up, up and away!" Hellboy says, "Aw, crap." Saving the world is a chore, but he gets it done.

Speaking of chores, if Hollywood keeps turning out comic book movies at this rate, it is going to become tedious. The thrill of CGI special effects is wearing off. Filmmakers face the formidable task of delivering something original and compelling, something more than just violence, explosions and revenge stories. X-Men and its sequel passed the test with flying colors, offering style and substance. Spider-Man delivered the goods. Hulk was artful, but its finale was awful. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen flunked. Daredevil was a dud.

Here's the good news: Hellboy and his gilled, web-footed sidekick Abe Sapien are spectacular. They're two of the most remarkably realized comic characters ever to reach the screen.

There is no better actor under heavy prosthetics than Ron Perlman; he's made a career of it (TV's "Beauty and the Beast," Star Trek: Nemesis, The Island of Doctor Moreau). He's always deserved a movie of his own. Hellboy is his big chance, and he's brilliant. He is completely convincing as this not-so-jolly red giant, perfectly comfortable performing acrobatic stunts under tons of latex and paint. And he doesn't over-play the comedy—he under-plays it beautifully. He's a lonely, soft-hearted, alienated child who bashes his way through to the bad guys and hits them like a ton of bricks.

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Doug Jones as Abe Sapien

Doug Jones as Abe Sapien

His equally compelling sidekick, Abe Sapien, is a "mer-man." Doug Jones brings this amphibious psychic with graceful physicality, but the voice is perfectly pitched by David Hyde Pierce (Niles from TV's Frasier). You'll believe a man can gill-breathe.

But there's bad news. This dynamic duo is stuck in a dull, derivative, poorly plotted movie. They're forced to share screen time with cookie-cutter companions. Myers is as compelling as day-old bread. Jeffrey Tambor is a clichéd government jerk. The cops that follow Hellboy around are just idiots waiting to be picked off by the bad guys.

Hellboy's enemies are interesting at first, but they wear out their welcome quickly.

The boss, the famously indestructible Grigory Rasputin (Karel Roden), looks like he got lost on his way to a goth party. He's dull, overdressed, and wearyingly melodramatic. Whenever he opens his mouth, you just wish his annoying blonde girlfriend Ilsa (Biddy Hodson) would make herself useful and shut him up. What's his motivation? Anarchy? Power? Rebellion against God?

This bald brute is responsible for letting Hellboy loose into our world back during World War II, an episode that serves as the film's prologue. Working for Hitler, Rasputin opened a portal into some hellish dimension, trying to summon the Seven Gods of Chaos. Allied Forces arrived and spoiled his plan before the dangerous deities could RSVP. But one brave Brit, the young Bruttenholm, discovered the infantile imp before Rasputin did. He named him and adopted him.

Now, 30 years later, Rasputin's after Hellboy in order to "finish the job." How? It's complicated. Suffice to say that there's something special about Hellboy, something only he can do to give evil the upper hand. (Hint, hint.)

Rasputin has help, two secret weapons that are as hard to kill as their master. Monster #1 is Kronen, a zombie ninja with a clockwork heart. He's like a walking Ginsu-knife demonstration. It's likely he went to school with Darth Maul and X2's Lady Deathstryke. He's mysterious too, until we see him unmasked as a prime candidate for Extreme Makeover.

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Monster #2 is the Sammael, a demon built like a hairless lion with a head that's half-squid, half-beetle. But when he pounces into the open, he's not scary—he's just ugly. He's every exterminator's worst nightmare: Whenever he's killed, he replicates himself twice. He's a "resurrection demon," you see.

This all sounds cooler than it is. Rasputin and Ilsa are posers without personality. The Sammael are just dumb animals for Hellboy to squash. (Aren't demons supposed to be spiritually unsettling?) Only Kronen earns our serious concern with his lurking, slicing and dicing.

The explosive clashes of good and evil only serve to blow more holes in the plot. Abundant Catholic symbolism adds a sense of importance to these events, but that never amounts to much either. Abe wears a holy relic for protection. Hellboy carries a gun in one hand, rosary beads in the other, and he gets a cross tattoo. But these are treated merely as talismans—good help in a fight, like a bulletproof vest or garlic against vampires. There is no suggestion of what they mean. Hellboy regrets his hellish origins so much that he grinds down his horns to look more human. But he's far more interested in his girlfriend Liz than in showing gratitude to the source of the grace that redeemed him.

Selma Blair as Liz Sherman

Selma Blair as Liz Sherman

Disregarding the dumb plot and vague religiosity, it's Hellboy himself and his love story that keeps the film from falling apart. His true love, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), isn't much of a character. She's basically Stephen King's Firestarter, an alienated girl with an oh-so-combustible temper. Blair plays her so glamourlessly that she's almost boring. But we care about her because Hellboy does. His affection for her is what makes him sympathetic. Who hasn't fallen for someone and felt awkward and unqualified?

The best scene in the film comes during an interlude between Sammael smackdown matches, when Hellboy shadows Myers and Liz, determined to ensure that they do not fall in love. He finds himself on a rooftop with an unlikely new friend, and his distress is a wonderful thing.

In fact, all of the film's high points are incidental character moments: a conversation about cigars, the way Hellboy responds when kittens are in danger, witty repartee between "H-B" and a laryngitic half-resurrected corpse.

Hellboy tells Liz to keep her chin up

Hellboy tells Liz to keep her chin up

Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director of drama and mystery. 2001's The Devil's Backbone is a great ghost story and a sorely overlooked film. But Del Toro does not yet know how to give action scenes a sense of momentum. Through most of the film, Hellboy just trudges along like a dutiful Ghostbuster, chopping up slimy Sammael demons like sushi. The action is thunderous and chaotic, but it never develops the exhilarating thrill of the X-Men films. The big finale wraps up with an anticlimactic trick right out of Men in Black.

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As watchable and likeable as he is, Perlman's Hellboy eventually seems as tired of the action as we are. When the film wraps up with some painfully sentimental narration that tries to tell us what this story means, we just want to follow our hero home, watch him play with the kittens, and have some pizza.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What is the difference between the demons of Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories and the demons described in Scripture? Can demons be redeemed?

  2. How is Hellboy like any of us? Do you think his inner conflicts are similar to human conflict? How does he measure up to other superheroes at the movies? Is he more or less noble? Does he have any weaknesses? What are they?

  3. What does the spiritual symbolism used throughout the film suggest to you about Hellboy and his story? What does his important choice at the end of the film tell you about him?

  4. What is your answer to the film's opening question: What makes a man a man? Does the movie answer that question sufficiently?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The film has some harsh language and extremely intense "comic book violence" that involves a lot of gory dismemberment. There is also a lot of spooky conflict involving demons—the fantasy sort, not the real stuff of Scripture.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 04/08/04

The Nazis—the world's most popular big screen villains—are back in this week's most popular new movie. The story begins during World War II, as Hitler's minions attempt to harness the power of the paranormal. Led by that resilient Russian villain Grigory Rasputin, they attempt to open a portal to another, darker dimension. But Allied forces arrive just in time to upset this otherworldly experiment, foiling Rasputin's plans—but not before a childlike demon jumps into this world. The Allies capture the little imp and train him up to be a redeemed devil who devotes his life to saving the world from supernatural bad guys. His name, appropriately, is Hellboy.

Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic book series brings to life a conflict of good versus evil. The "good guys" belong to the United States Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. The bad guys, who have varying methods of cheating death, are trying to invite some particularly nasty alien forces called the Seven Gods of Chaos down to earth to wreak havoc.

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As comic book films go, Hellboy may prove particularly interesting to religious moviegoers. It boasts more religious symbolism than any comic-movie yet produced. Our enormous, crimson-skinned hero has a fondness for pizza and kittens, but he also carries rosary beads the way other heroes carry secret weapons.

The idea of Satan being opposed by one of his own raises interesting questions. Unfortunately, Hellboy fails to explore them. The movie has more in common with Ghostbusters and Men in Black than it does with any story about true spiritual conflict. Religious symbolism lends it an air of importance, but it's not much more than a live-action cartoon about a sarcastic, grouchy hero who goes around smashing big ugly monsters. While the high points of the films are the quieter moments of character development, these are drowned out by a lot of noisy chaotic action that is not particularly interesting or inventive.

My full review is above.

"Watching Hellboy makes you appreciate all that the X-Men movies, Spider-Man, and even Hulk got right," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). He is disappointed at the film's failure to acknowledge the spiritual questions at its center. He also observes that Del Toro fails to provide "vivid and memorable villains … an intriguing and clever story … well-rounded supporting characters and meaningful relationships."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "There are emotional interludes, clever character development and plenty of subtext. The clear message that it matters more how you end things than how you start them is a good one. As is the idea that none of us have to remain slaves to our evil inclinations. But non-stop violence and nods to necromancy should dissuade discerning families from bonding with this horned boy from (way) down under."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) cautions families not to rush off to this film, due to its focus on paranormal activity and heavy violence. But he adds, "Surprisingly, Christian messages are communicated quite clearly during the course of the film. We don't have horns or a tail, but our story is similar. We were born dead in sins, subject to the god of this world and his evil ways. Our Father loved us enough to give us a choice as well as the ability to turn away from the evil and embrace the good."

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William Foote (Christian Spotlight) says, "Hellboy continues the same humanistic world view theme that we have seen so frequently in recent comic book movies, i.e., man is morally good and has the power to prevail over evil."

Mainstream critics are calling Hellboy a better-than-average comic book movie. The film looks likely to earn itself a sequel, if viewers go back for a second round.

from Film Forum, 04/22/04

This week at Metaphilm, Annie Frisbie goes about interpreting Hellboy as a parable of the way God has made us heirs of his kingdom. "The moral of the story is that adoption trumps nature. Hellboy is not prisoner to the accident of his birth, he is freed by adoption to triumph over his innate evil, and to eradicate that evil from every fiber of his being. When God adopts us, we change entirely. No longer are we creatures of sin, bound to darkness, doomed to fail. We are freed from our birth. We are freed for something great: to be the true heirs of God's promise of salvation."

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and frightening images)
Directed By
Guillermo del Toro
Run Time
2 hours 2 minutes
Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, Selma Blair
Theatre Release
April 02, 2004 by Revolution Studios
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