I have come to view movies based off of comic books (and sometimes graphic novels) as falling into one of two types: comic book movies and superhero movies. Comic book movies are a cinematic representation of the paper and ink comic book. To me, this means a basic, but not stupid, story containing a few moral lessons and a slightly sketched creation story, engaging, if not terribly deep, characters, and brilliant visuals. Superhero movies, on the other hand, take a different tact. The story and character development, including the creation story of the superhero, are of central importance to the entire arc of the film, and special effects, while important, are certainly a tertiary element.
Any comic book, be it the Punisher or Superman can be made into either a comic book movie or a superhero movie. It is a decision largely controlled by the vision of the director and writer(s). A problem arrises, however, when the movie, or more likely the movie franchise, attempts to be both. Great superhero movies and their franchises, like X-Men II or Spiderman II, were lessened when X-Men III and Spiderman III were changed to comic book films (and pretty poor ones to boot). It would be extremely difficult to combine the traits of both comic book movies and superhero movies into one film, though if done successfully, it would probably win itself some Oscars (Here’s hoping Batman II is just such a film).
One thing that may have become obvious from my depiction of films based off of comic books is that superhero movies represent the attempt at “high art” –at least in the literary sense of this term–within the broader genre, while comic book films represent the more purely entertaining side. I think this is a fair characterization, but I do not regard one form of these films over the other. Both, if done well, are a joy to see in the theaters, and if done poorly, can be excruciating.
Hellboy II falls squarely into the realm of the comic book movie, and is a pretty good example of the subgenre. This film is the story of Hellboy–the spawn of Satan who was raised by a scientist and works for the federal government–and his team (Abe, an aqua man who can see the past and future in objects, Liz, a fire starter and love interest, and the newly introduced Johann Krauss, a physically formless individual who can control physical forms) as they try to save humanity, despite itself, from a mythical army and its leader who feels, rightfully so, that humanity has forgotten and broken a truce it made long ago. The theme is simple, humanity is destroying itself and everything else through greed and over consumption, particularly in terms of the environment, but that they are worth saving if only for the small moments of good that can be found in them. This is nothing new, and nothing that cannot be found in The Lord of the Rings in much greater detail, but it is a perfectly satisfactory story through which the real stars of Hellboy II can shine–the wonderful, wonderful creatures from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro.
I have always enjoyed Del Toro’s films, and while Hellboy II does not have the depth of story as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, and its special effects are perhaps not as emotionally impactful as in those films, they are the most visually (and viscerally) satisfying of any of his works. I am deeply appreciative to the movie exec(s) who decided it would be a good idea to let Del Toro go wild and give him the money to do so. This was not the case with the original Hellboy, and though that is a decent film, it suffered by not being completely in the hands of Del Toro. Honestly, words cannot really do the brilliant hues, rounded and elongated faces, and playful eye placements of Hellboy II’s mythological world justice, so I will stop attempting to do so, but I will say again that this is one of the most fascinating cinematic worlds to look at in recent memory…and that under no circumstances should anyone watch Hellboy II and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly back to back because it may cause one’s head to explode.
There is one other element of this film that should be brought up because it is such an improvement over the original film, and that is the character development. Hellboy as played by Ron Perlman is great in both films, and while he is certainly still the physical and emotional center of Hellboy II, his supporting cast has been given a lot more to do here and through that action we are able to learn their motivations for being a part of this otherworldly crime fighting team. The most noticeable character improvement is to Abe. In the original Hellboy he was every bit the classic sidekick, but in Hellboy II he is his own ‘person’, complete with feelings of love and loneliness (I do wish he had still been voiced by David Hyde Pierce, though). Selma Blair’s Liz was also better, if not still a little dull. She paid great dividends just from the subtraction of her rival love interest from the first film Agent John Myers (as played by Rupert Evans) who sucked the life out of the first film every time he came on screen. Also, the introduction of Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane–Family Guy) who was not in the first film really rounds out the team nicely, and sets the stage for more enjoyable Hellboy films in the future.