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One of the strange things about the modern age of blockbusters is that despite ‘superhero’ being the biggest genre in the world heroes that don’t come from Marvel or DC just can’t manage to break through. This rule has been in place pretty much from the dawn of the modern blockbuster/superhero romance in 1978, though there are a few notable exceptions.
There was a time in the ‘90s when Savage Dragon and Spawn commanded genuine respect, the Witchblade/Darkness franchise has always flirted around the edges of relevance, and even now the folks at Valiant Comics are committed to turning Bloodshot and Ninjak into multimedia success stories.
Still, for every one of those examples, there are five or six superheroes that never break through or fail within their first year. By in large, the public will just never care as much about the likes of Supreme, X-O Man of War, the Occultist, or Green Hornet. However, we cling to exceptions to this rule that we’ve managed, like the continued viability of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Static Shock. As such, it really shouldn’t come as this much of a surprise that Hellboy is getting rebooted.
Let’s take it back a minute for the uninformed. Hellboy is the creation of Mike Mignola from that often misunderstood decade the ‘90s. Despite being the decade, most comic fans tend to just write off this was actually a pretty standard time in comics for quality. There were certainly bad comics but not really any more egregious than you could find in other decades. However, what the ‘90s boasted that no previous decade did was a revolution for creator rights.
This was the point where comic artists and writers were done handing over their intellectual labor to the publishers for minimum wage and demanded to start keeping the rights to their creations. This ended spurring the birth of third party publishers outside of Marvel and DC who were more willing to work with creators in this department, which is why a lot of long lasting popular heroes from outside the big 2 emerged from this era. Hellboy, Spawn, Savage Dragon, Astro City, Static Shock, Youngblood, Witchblade, the Darkness, and Bloodshot all emerged from this time.
Stylistically Hellboy was a fusion of two popular genres of the time. Conceptually it drew inspiration from the urban fantast/gothic horror aesthetic that informed a lot of ‘90s hits like Spawn, the Crow, and Gargoyles, while visually it was grounded in a pulpy adventure style in the vein of the Shadow or the Phantom, a genre which found renewed life after 1989’s Batman.
The plot of the comic world is that in the last days of WW2 the Nazis turned to dark science to defeat the allies, summoning a demon from Hell to defeat their enemies. However, the ceremony was interrupted when American forces stopped the Nazis, though the demon still came through in the form of a baby. Rather than destroy the creature, the Americans decided to raise him as a monster puncher and slowly built a whole organization of other occult super beings around him- giving him the name Hellboy.
After a trio of popular major stories in the ‘90s and early 2000s, Hellboy became a major franchise in the mid-to-late 2000s. Aside from the main comic, this is when the BPRD spin-off book got off the ground, and the two became a consistent pair of best sellers for Dark Horse Comics. Given the vast popularity of the character at the time and the growing craze for superheroes after the success of Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man the time was ripe for a movie.
As I said, this is where the franchise really broke mainstream, around 2004, with the film adaptation doing solid box office numbers and becoming a real cult classic. This is where the bulk of Hellboy’s multi-media output happened including 2 animated films, a pair of video games, and a sequel to the 2004 film.
Unfortunately, the entire Hellboy brand kind of tapered off as we hit the 2010s. There were still comics, probably more than ever before given there were about 4 ongoing spin-offs at the time, but the breadth became a lot harder to follow. As the Mignola-verse continued to expand it became harder to tell what exactly was happening, especially as the story became nested across 5 ongoing series with no clear reading order and referencing material from two decades ago.
Eventually, Mignola decided to put a stop to the whole thing with the conclusion of his comic Hellboy in Hell in June of 2016. Even, there are still new installments of the Hellboy and the BPRD prequel comic coming out, but as I say there’s just not as much widespread interest as there was before the whole enterprise became so diffuse and apocalyptic.
Traditionally that would’ve been the end of the Hellboy story but, not so, as Mike Mignola announced on his personal Facebook page that the film series will get a reboot at the hands of Neil Marshall. Marshall has become a somewhat in demand director for TV work recently though a lot of his early work, like Doomsday, Centurion, and The Descent, is very well remembered for its action and horror.
The new film, entitled Rise of the Blood Queen, is reportedly going to have an R-rating and feature Stranger Thing’s David Harbour as the new Hellboy. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this decision, but I at least get how it happened. These days, hard-R action flicks made for cheap and dropped against limited competition have made a lot of money, like John Wick, Deadpool, and Logan. Indeed, I suspect the success of Logan, in particular, was a large influence on the studio decision to give this project the green light, which is also the biggest red flag for fans.
I liked Logan, it’s a good movie, but as much as I enjoyed, I’m also keenly aware that not every superhero needs to be Logan- an idea I suspect will be lost on most studio executives. So, while I enjoy a lot of Neill Marshall’s work and David Harbour is a fine actor I’m not terribly looking forward to an “Old Man Hellboy” type flick from the combo. I mean, a big part of what made the Hellboy comics work was Hellboy himself’s sense of playful humanity, which Ron Perlman captured expertly. Dropping that for a doom and gloom approach drenched in buckets of blood isn’t an evolution of adaptation.
This was basically the same problem that drained the Hellboy comics of their forward momentum, digging more and more into harsh and depressing storylines. Most fans got into Hellboy for the pulpy urban fantasy aspect, but by the series conclusion, it was a full on post-apocalyptic nightmare world where every victory was tarnished by some greater defeat. Hellboy and pessimism just don’t go together, and I get the uncomfortable suspicion that’s what we’ll be getting in the upcoming reboot.
My biggest fear going into this reboot is that, as rumored, it’s happening because Mike Mignola wasn’t happy with the two previous films. I’m not sure if that’s true or not though given Del Toro and Perlman’s eagerness to make a third installment I do have to wonder.
The thing is, the tone set by those first two films of genuine humanity, the beauty amid deadly fantasy, and finding your place between two worlds was absolutely the most relatable and engaging a Hellboy plot has ever felt. As fun as the lore and monster smashing in the comics is, it’s always been uniquely absent of a deeper character or core to hang it all on and those first movies fixed that.
It’s my fear this reboot’s main goal will be to finally get all that character and depth out of the way for more mythos and more blood. Hellboy is one of the best things to come out of the ‘90s, it’d just be a shame if it eventually fell prey to one of the worst philosophies to come out of the ‘90s.
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