Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

“We die – and the world will be poorer for it.”, laments elven Prince Nuada, towards the end of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The “we” he is referring to is that of the magical denizens – elves, fairies, trolls, demons, angels, gods – who make up the very fabric of mankind’s mythological understandings of the world around them. It is a very sad and profound moment in the film and one which helps to define the theme of the entire picture. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

This past Friday (July 11th) was a long awaited day for me as it marked the premier of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a sequel to one of my all time favorite films, 2004’s Hellboy, based on my all time favorite comic of the same name, and directed by the amazingly talented Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth). I went to a midnight showing of the film on Thursday but, unfortunately, have been unable to blog about it until now…

Hellboy and I: A Short History

For those of you who don’t know, next to my obvious love of mythology, folklore and legend, my second biggest interest has always been art. In particular sequential art, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘comic book art.’ However, despite my love of the comic book genre I have never really cared for the medium’s most prominent subject matter – superheroes. Call me crazy, but there is just something about the idea of guys who fly around in spandex and capes saving the world that I find utterly ridiculous on every level. So needless to say, it has always been a bit of a challenge for me to find comics that I actually wanted to read.

Part of this problem was resolved in 1993 when DC Comics created their mature readers imprint VERTIGO which specialized in mostly non-superhero themed comics, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of which I am also a fan. VERTIGO helped to pave the way for other non-superhero themed comic books and later that same year Darkhorse Comics published the first issue of Hellboy.

Hellboy is the creation of Mike Mignola, an amazingly talented artist and writer of whom I am constantly in awe. I first heard about Hellboy and Mr. Mignola back in 2003 on an NPR news radio show on comic books – which had become the new big thing in Hollywood since the success of Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men movie. On the show the guest – whose name has long since left me – was asked what his current favorite comic was. He responded that it was Hellboy and then went on to explain that it was a series about a demon who fought monsters and that the stories in it were basically retellings of Old English folktales. The name and premise stuck with me and it wasn’t long after that I started hearing that there was going to be a Hellboy movie in 2004.

Well, 2004 came and I saw that movie and it was… good. It was a fun, quirky and slightly absurd (which is, in my book, a good thing since one of the key foundations within the realm of mythology is a very palpable level of absurdity). The first movie didn’t blow me away, I liked how it was filmed and the way the characters looked and the references to both history and myth scattered within. It was a few weeks later then, that Free Comic Book Day rolled around and I decided to stop by one of the local comic shops to see what they had. It was then that I saw the first collected volume (or trade) of the Hellboy comic sitting on the shelf. I looked through the book, recognized a lot of stuff from the film, and thought the art was really great and decided to buy it. Like the movie, the first volume of the comic didn’t blow me away, but it was still good.

Anyway, to make a long history short I eventually ended up picking up the second Hellboy trade at Barnes and Noble and that was the book that solidified my loyalty as a die hard Hellboy fan. The second volume was thoroughly amazing between its art, story, and its references to vampires, witches, Greek mythology, the Baba Yaga and Elizabeth Bathory. I was, to say the least, ecstatic. It wasn’t long after that that I began to collect every volume of the Hellboy series and then hunt down all the comics that hadn’t yet been placed into trades. Today, I own nearly every single issue of Hellboy either as single issues or in the form of trades. I also am the proud owner of the Hellboy actions figures, t-shirts, lunch boxes, collector’s books, original novels, animated films, posters and both the original and director’s cut of the first film.

And for the past four years I have eagerly been awaiting the debut of Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Review
What follows is not a conventional movie review. The first thing you should know, and probably don’t need to be told at this point, is that as a fan of Hellboy this review is going to be overwhelmingly positive and undoubtedly bias. Also in this review I don’t so much intend to review the film as a film but rather as a modern testament to the power of mythology. So if you are look for an actual critical review of the film I suggest you hop on over to Rotten Tomatoes, who have already collected nearly 200 overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics across the country.

For past six months or so I have seen numerous critics and film writers try to sum up the plot of Hellboy II, and for some reason, unlike every other film, they seem to be unable to do it in less than a paragraph. For me, the premise of Hellboy II is not a complicated affair. Hellboy II features the return of demonic do-gooder Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), as well as aquatic sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who this time must protect humanity from a slew of monsters and a robotic clockwork army that has been unleashed by the villainous elf, Prince Nuada (Luke Gross). Simple as that.

But the truth of the matter is that Hellboy II is not simple. It is a complex story with a deep – though not quite heavy handed enough – point. That we, mankind, have endangered ourselves by destroying our own mythologies and our own cultures via modern technology and convenience.

“It is said that at the dawn of time…Man, Beast, and all Magical Beings lived together under Aiglin, the Father Tree…” intones Prof. Bruttenholm (John Hurt) at the opening of the film. Prof. Bruttenholm continues to tell of how man, “in his infinite greed”, sought dominion over the entire Earth and with it the eradication of all magical beings. There are those who will, from this set-up, mistake the film’s message for an environmental one (like in Wall-E) or a social one (like in Narnia 2). But del Toro and Mignola, who wrote the script, are not talking about either racism or the destruction of the natural world. Rather they are talking about the destruction of our mythologies, our imaginations as noted by del Toro in a recent interview with MTV; “We live in a world right now [where] everything not provable, nonlogical, nonlinear, not supported by science or technology, is a childish concern, and we are destroying things that we find tangible.”

Likewise, in the film elven Prince Nuada – who wishes to remind mankind “why you once feared the dark” – declares that “the humans have forgotten the gods, destroyed the Earth – and for what? Parking lots – shopping malls – greed has burned a hole in their chests that can never be filled. They will never have enough…”

All this naturally creates a very large dilemma for Hellboy. Though Nuada and his ilk are “Sons of the Earth” while Hellboy is a “Son of the Fallen One” both are still part of the race of magical invisible beings. As Nuada frequently reminds Hellboy; “You have more in common with us than with them…” the “Sons of Adam”, mankind.

For me, del Toro and Mignola, have brought up, in this film, a very real concern. Here in the modern western world we have slowly but surely begun to destroy everything that we once held sacred, whether that sanctity be pagan or Christian. This was the concern expressed in folklorist Jane Yolen’s 1981 book Touch Magic and it is still a concern today as can be seen, from a more religious perspective, in Stephen Prothero’s 2007 best seller Religious Illiteracy. Having created a culture of high-tech toys – Ipods, camera phones, satellite TV – which can provide us with often mind-numbing instant gratification and entertainment we no longer feel the need to exercise our minds and imaginations and explore the world around us. Ask big questions, think deep thoughts, ponder that which is absurd and nonsensical.

And it is perhaps in this light why a movie like Hellboy II is so important. Early this year, movie goers saw another blockbuster comic book movie called Iron Man. For me, Iron Man is the embodiment of everything that Hellboy II tells us to be wary of. It is a film about high-tech, wiz bang toys and the billionaire who builds and owns them. It’s a film that asks no deep or meaningful questions and attempts to shed no light on human culture, it just says “Look at this! Ain’t it cool!! You should own one too!!!”

The Mythology Behind Hellboy II

So what is some of the mythology that is once again brought to life in Hellboy II? A man after my own heart (or perhaps that should be the other way around), Mike Mignola loves his mythology. Whether that mythology is Greek, Roman, Celtic, Russian, Polynesian, Christian, or Lovecraftian matters not; in the Hellboy comics he makes reference to it all.

The same can be said for director Guillermo del Toro, and in Hellboy II del Toro drops more than a few names and pays plenty of homage to the myths and legends of old. In addition to your standard trolls, goblins, and ogres Hellboy II gives us elves with names plucked strait out of Celtic mythology – Nuada, Nuala, and King Balor –, some particularly nasty “tooth fairies”, and an Angel of Death who acts like she has just stepped out of a Jewish folktale and who looks like something one would find on a Medieval woodcut. There is also the elves’ subterranean homeland of Bethmoora – a name taken from the 19th-Century writings of Lord Dunsany – and the infamous “troll market” which is essentially a beefed up version of poet Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Also, lets not forget the gigantic forest god who appears midway though the picture and in whom one can see more than a little reference to Hayao Miyazaki’s own god of the forest from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke. I could go on all day about the number of references one can find in this amazing film – such as how the entire thing has a very Hieronymus Bosch type aesthetic about it – but there are other things worth mentioning as well.

For starters, Hellboy II is just a great film. It’s a great story that is both cool and exciting, funny and entertaining, emotional and thought provoking. It is beautiful to look at and great to listen to. It is a movie that everyone needs to see, pay attention to, and then go see again. And then after you have done that why don’t you put down the Ipod, go outside and try see if maybe the Sons of the Earth are still there, waiting in the shadows, waiting to be remembered.

Top: Hellboy, Abe, Liz and new commer Johann (Seth McFarland) return to save mankind, who really don't deserve it.

Center: He may have snow white skin but Prince Nuada is about as far from conventional fairy-tale elves as you can get.

Bottom: The Angel of Death, with eyes on her wings, is just one of the many mythological creatures who appear in the film.

Sources: Hellboy II: The Art of the Movie (2008), Edited by Katie Moody and Dave Land.


John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for including my blog as a link on your own. We have many similar interests and pursuits in terms of academic study and pop culture. Nice to meet you in the blogosphere.

katrina said...

Indeed you did a review about my favorite movie HB 2! The Sons of the earth and gaellic concept were the most attractive aspect. It has many of us hungering for more of this gifted director's work.

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