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The Pathetic, Desperate Badassness of ‘Hellboy’

Plus some other random thoughts about the terrible reboot

You’ve probably heard that the new Hellboy is terrible — and boy, is it ever — but the strongest emotion it elicits isn’t contempt. It’s actually pity or embarrassment. Rarely do you come across a film that wants so much to convince you that it’s edgy and cool. Hellboy is a nightmare vision of what some people think is badass. Or even worse, it’s what the filmmakers thought the rest of us would consider badass. Regardless, I just feel awful for everyone involved.

Even if you never read Hellboy comics, you may know the big red dude from the two movies that Guillermo del Toro made in the 2000s. They were fun and blessed with a sense of humor about themselves, although they took the material seriously enough to show the proper reverence. The spawn of a human and the devil, Hellboy is the prototypical outsider, which is a familiar comic-book trope. Del Toro loves outsiders — he won a couple Oscars for a film about a love affair between a mute cleaner and a fishman — and he understood what made the character cool but also poignant.

Guillermo del Toro, however, didn’t make the new Hellboy, and it shows. If his movies were lovingly funky, this new one is black-metal stupid. As Uproxx critic Vince Mancini so aptly put it, “[T]his Hellboy feels like the picture Glenn Danzig sees in his head when he doodles in his notebook.” Except Mancini meant it as a compliment. I don’t. The new Hellboy is what happens when a black-light poster smokes bad bud while cranking Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart.” It’s a Hot Topic self-parody for audiences who probably don’t even remember Hot Topic. It’s loud and idiotic and really, really desperate to be nasty and gnarly and bloody.

Hollywood has a habit of rebooting properties by making them darker. Sometimes, this works. (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight sure beat Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.) But in the wrong hands, this strategy turns into “This isn’t your grandfather’s ____!” posturing. (For example, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t your grandfather’s Hansel and Gretel!”) It’s a forced attempt to insert grittiness into something that didn’t need extra grittiness.

Truth is, Hellboy is a perfectly dark character on his own. (He is half-demon after all.) But director Neil Marshall mistakes true emotional complexity — the things that make people genuinely dark, brooding, tormented and mysterious — for a generic badassness, which is a lot less interesting. You can see the frantic revisions everywhere. Whereas the 2000s Hellboy had a chiseled, smooth chest, the new one (played by David Harbour) is hairy. Del Toro’s films were PG-13. The new Hellboy is a hard R, which means lots of swearing and even more gore. The reboot is flat-out nauseating in the way it just ladles out the blood and guts. Because Hellboy works in the realm of the paranormal, he frequently comes across ghouls, wizards, giants and other fantastical creatures. But there’s nothing magical about these beings in Hellboy — it’s just an excuse for empty ugliness. Characters are missing eyes, contorted in painful ways or chopped up into pieces. The remake places us in such a dank, disgusting world — so actively unpleasant — that it feels like a kid’s idea of how to piss off his parents with antisocial behavior. This isn’t a movie — it’s acting out.

Except, acting out against what, exactly? What’s especially annoying about something like Hellboy is that it’s still made by a studio, with millions spent on its production and then more millions invested in promoting it. There’s nothing particularly rebellious or subversive going on here. It’s all soulless swagger, a pigswill of entrails, decapitations, inane cursing and drab deadly plagues.

Occasionally, we’ll get a superhero movie like this in which the filmmakers decide to break with the all-ages niceties and dive into the R-rated edginess: Think of DreadDeadpool or Venom. Some of those films worked, some didn’t, but the overriding principle behind all of them is that, at long last, we’re getting a fucking rad comic-book movie for fucking grownups.

There are many reasons why I enjoy being an adult. But one of them is not that, occasionally, I get to see an R-rated superhero movie that my young nephew cannot. It’s the dream, I suppose, of every prepubescent boy to gain access to the areas of life that are forbidden to him. Getting to drive. Having that first beer. So much porn. Sneaking into R-rated movies was part of that adolescent adventure, and I remember doing it as a kid. It felt thrilling being ushered into a world I wasn’t supposed to be entering. There was a clear demarcation point: Over here was childhood, and over there was where all the cool grownup things happened, like R-rated movies. I wanted to be there terribly.

I’m aware Hellboy isn’t for an adult movie critic like me. It’s for those kids who are too young for it but will try to find a way to see it anyway. I suppose this underage stuff works in the opposite direction, too. When you’re young, you’re desperate to play in the realm of grownups. But when you’re old enough to reside in that realm, you realize that some of that stuff you pined to discover wasn’t actually that badass. It was just kinda bad.

Here are three other takeaways from Hellboy.

#1. Just how much of a Capricorn is Hellboy?

In the new film, Hellboy confronts the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), who is an incredibly evil sorceress and believes they’re meant to be together. Hellboy disagrees, telling her at one point, “I’m a Capricorn and you’re fucking nuts.” (Indeed, this movie is a font of erudite wordplay.)

Since I’m a Capricorn, I was curious just how Capricorn-y Hellboy really is. According to the comics, Hellboy arose on December 23, 1944, so that makes sense date-wise. But I wanted to dig deeper.

Enter Erin Taj, MEL’s art director and resident astrologer. She hasn’t seen the new Hellboy, but she told me that he’s a pretty typical Capricorn. “First, he’s, well, the devil,” she writes. “Which is the symbol for Capricorn, along with the Baphomet, a.k.a. that satanic goat you see on the death card in tarot decks, and the symbol for the satanic church. Second, we have his actual personality. He uses sarcasm and wit to cloak his deeply painful past, and is generally disgruntled with anything ‘new.’ The planet that rules Capricorn is Saturn, which is associated with Cronos, Father Time, restriction, anyone who has authority over us, and the person we grow up to be (a.k.a. our adult selves). His destiny (which is to be the ruler of hell and all the underworld) was laid out in front of him by someone/something that has more power than he, and although he tries his best to avoid this fate, he ends up having to deal with the reality (a Saturnian word) of his responsibility (another Saturnian word).”

That all totally matches up with the Hellboy we’ve seen in the del Toro films and the new one. My next question: I’m not like that, am I? Are all Capricorns like this?

Taj assures me that’s not the case. “Your rising sign and other planetary placements would more than likely reveal that you and he have little in common (unless he’s also an Aquarius rising with a Libra moon),” she replies. (I was born on January 4.) “Generally speaking though, Capricorns deal with this idea of duty and responsibility. Either they’re tethered to their North Star or they hate that someone has predetermined their North Star and want to run from it.”

That is reassuring. But I suppose Hellboy and I do share a dislike for anything new. In my case, however, that’s mostly true when it comes to terrible new reboots of good comic-book films.

#2. Who are Unprotected Innocence? And why are they covering Scorpions?

Occasionally, a film will feature a well-known song, but instead of using the original version, the producers will select an exotic foreign-language cover. I’m thinking of Marie Laforêt doing “Paint It Black” for Talladega Nights or Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

The thought process behind this strategy is obvious: Most listeners will be able to recognize the melody, but then they’re thrown by the unexpected lyrics. The well-known song suddenly sounds brand new, yet still comfortingly familiar. It’s like hearing it for the first time.

That was probably the idea behind Hellboy, which opens in Mexico, giving us a rendition of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” that ends up not being by Scorpions. Instead, we’re treated to the musical stylings of Unprotected Innocence, who decide to rock us like a Spanish hurricane.

I just have one question: Who (or what) is Unprotected Innocence? I’ve searched all over the internet and been unable to find any explanation. This is their only song on Spotify. They don’t have any other tracks on Amazon or iTunes. There’s no information in the Hellboy press notes. Is this some sort of supergroup of musicians working in secret? Is it a joke band? And most importantly: Why am I thinking this hard about anything connected to Hellboy?

#3. Sasha Lane is one of the stars of Hellboy. If you don’t know her name, here’s the film of hers you need to see.

Hellboy strands a decent cast, which includes Ian McShane, but the standout is Sasha Lane, who plays a psychic who’s friends with Hellboy. You may not be familiar with Lane. If that’s the case, I’d like to recommend you see American Honey immediately.

First, though, some backstory. Before Lane appeared in that 2016 drama, she was going to college in Texas, not exactly considering a career in acting. One spring break, she went to Florida with friends and family. That’s when she met filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who will be directing the upcoming second season of Big Little Lies. Arnold often casts her indie films (Fish Tank) with unknowns, and she was in Florida specifically to find someone who could portray Star, who has a troubled home life and gets recruited to be part of a group of young people who sell magazine subscriptions.

“It was so weird,” Lane told me in 2016 about meeting Arnold and being asked to star in a movie, all while she was relaxing on the beach. “I told her, ‘I don’t do well with a camera in my face. I’m a really uncomfortable person.’ [But] she explained to me why she wanted me to do it, which was because of everything that I am, and that she just wanted me to be me. Something about that just calmed me. I had this feeling — something just told me to go with it. It just felt right.”

Lane is terrific in American Honey, capturing all the restlessness and vulnerability of a young woman who runs away from a bad family and gets taken in by a surrogate one. (Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance to date as one of the ringleaders of the group, which travels by van from town to town.)

American Honey is a road movie, and it pulsates with the energy of getting on the highway and just discovering how vast and weird and beautiful this country can be. Star meets everyone from horny Texans to scared, neglected children to well-to-do Christians to lonely truckers. Arnold’s camera is compassionate to everyone it sees, and as Star, Lane proved to be a confident, electric leading lady.

You see a little of that electricity on display in Hellboy, which I’m sure paid her a hell of a lot more than American Honey did. I met her when that film was out — we did a Q&A together after a screening. She seemed so impossibly young. (She actually was celebrating her 21st birthday that day.) I remember being really charmed by how honest and unpolished she was in person. Acting hadn’t turned her into a sound-bite zombie, much to my relief. She was likable and funny, like a big happy kid. I remember rooting for her. I still am.