Someone kicked my seat. The thump and wiggle of a movie theater seat when it meets a human foot is unmistakable. Then it happened again. When it happened a third time, I did what any normal person would do: I huffed and turned around and discovered that there was no one jostling my seat at all. Rather, it was four people behind me who had left my Hellboy screening.
We weren’t even an hour into the movie. A few minutes later, a few more hunched-over human lumps in front of me made their ways to the aisles, headed for the exits. I excused the couple sitting two seats down from me as they got up to leave too.
And I don’t blame them. I envy them.
Helmed by film director Neil Marshall and based on the comic book character created by Mike Mignola, the 2019 Hellboy reboot is far and away the worst movie of this young year. It’s the kind of movie that makes us feel mean for naming the people attached — the kind of movie that makes Suicide Squad seem like a delight.
Hellboy, like Suicide Squad, is a superhero story with an antihero at its center, which asks whether he can overcome the worst parts of himself to be good. It’s much more entrenched in the horror genre, delving into fiends and witches instead of supervillains.
And while its nightmare visuals are stellar, the real villain of the movie is its rotten writing, which turns Hellboy into hanging action sequences loosely stitched together by two or three sentences and a vague suggestion of a narrative.
Sloppily scripted by Andrew Cosby, the dialogue is a maelstrom of interchangeable sameness — a conversation from the first act could very well be swapped for one of the movie’s final lines. It’s like listening to the same sentence said over and over.
The script also squanders its main actor, David Harbour who plays the titular hero. How one manages to turn Harbour, who is disarmingly goofy and charming in Stranger Things, into a dour, emo hell-demon brat while snuffing all the fun from his being is a true wonder of cinema. Among the many reasons this movie stinks, wasting its top-tier talent may be the biggest.
Hellboy tries to stuff too many origin stories into its thin script
You could leave after the first five minutes of Hellboy and not miss anything; you might even think it was a pretty good movie. Shot mostly in black and white, and hacked with stylish edits that make each character look like a strained marionette, the movie opens with an Ian McShane voiceover telling us the story of Nimue the immortal Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), a powerful sorceress who wants to unleash a plague that will ravage the world, leaving behind nothing behind but bone and dust.
But King Arthur, Merlin, and a double-crossing witch named Ganeida (forgotten about entirely) decapitate the Nimue with the famed sword of Excalibur. (The decapitation sound this makes is pretty stellar, like someone coughing up gravel.) They then separate and safeguard her various body parts in body part-size chests, sealing them with the prayers of monks, hoping that no one ever cobbles together the dismantled Blood Queen ever again.
With McShane’s raspy voice doing the heavy lifting and a sly sense of humor, the sequence works. But we haven’t even met Hellboy yet. We’ll soon miss the part of the movie where we didn’t know him.
The next hour and 55 minutes fails to capture any of what made those first five minutes enjoyable. Instead, what follows is an intensive and overwrought heap of roundabouts trying to connect Hellboy, a paranormal investigator of demon descent, to Nimue and King Arthur while taking every single detour, side quest, and expositional origin story montage possible along the way.
This journey involves Nazis, necromancy, immortal secret societies, a spirit medium, Daniel Dae Kim giving us his best British accent, a Baba Yaga, and a humanoid boar that walks on its hind legs, and eats human lips and somehow is able to mimic their voices.
The script renders moments like these into completely forgettable plot points. For example: We meet a young woman named Alice (Sasha Lane), who is spunky and can talk to spirits. We know this because she tells us she is spunky and can talk to spirits. At first, we don’t know how Hellboy knows her, but like any other character in this movie, there’s a heavy-handed expository montage dedicated to filling in those details.
Granted, exposition is not uncommon for comic book movies, where things like Infinity Stones, living planets, Themyscira, and wizards imbuing champions exist and are difficult to explain. But Hellboy employs the strategy of cramming these interminable montages with tons of voiceover to fit everything in, and turning the meaty swaths of the movie where characters interact with one another into nothing more than one-liners.
Perhaps the one-liners in lieu of meaningful dialogue are the expense of the mountain of makeup and prosthetics on Harbour’s face. Enunciating through those layers must have been difficult, based on nearly every time Hellboy speaks. Throughout the movie, Harbour, who beams with charisma and winsome earnestness in Stranger Things as Chief Hopper, mumbles through his Hellboy mask. Hellboy’s lines that we can more easily make out are generally said offscreen, seemingly added in post-production. The result makes it seem as if Hellboy’s true mission is to end any conversation as swiftly as possible.
From what we can parse through Hellboy’s downbeat one-liners, the forgettable emotional fulcrum of the movie is that Hellboy doesn’t feel like he belongs in the human world because he’s a monster, and doesn’t belong with demons because of his will to do good. On top of that, he’s spent his whole life killing and hunting demons, which makes him feel like he’s hunting his own kind. Somehow, Nimue and her giant humanoid boar bring him to this emotional revelation about his identity.
But without any dialogue, and with Harbour’s mouth caked under layers and layers of moviemaking (or, in this case, movie-ruining) magic, Hellboy’s emotional journey lacks punch and doesn’t seriously entertain the faux-philosophical idea it throws into the ether: that demons wouldn’t gargle with human blood and savor licking meat off children’s bones if they weren’t hunted. Hellboy then becomes nothing more than a tensionless goop that squanders its star, a story that might be better served as a montage in a future Hellboy sequel, should some unfortunate mind create another one of these.
Hellboy’s visuals are great, but not enough to save this disaster
One thing that Marshall and Hellboy do successfully is bring the horror and foul ghoulishness of demons and other underworld denizens to life.
The most impressive of these is the Baba Yaga, who skitters like a spider with broken legs — bones snapping and popping at each maneuver — and whose skin resembles spoiled yogurt. You can almost smell this monster’s rotting corpse face through the screen. (The Baba Yaga, curiously enough, might be the only character without a dedicated origin montage. Perhaps that helps matters.) That gory aesthetic extends to Hellboy’s fight scenes, turning them into beautifully deranged spectacles. The camera focuses on the fibers of skin ripped apart by gashes, and gushes of thick crimson blood sputter and slosh the battlefield.
The indelible gruesomeness is a credit to Hellboy’s ambition to deliver bloody, grisly shocks and nightmare fuel. Unfortunately, these three or so scenes — one could probably compile them into a single six-minute YouTube clip — do little to make up for the hefty amount of disappointment and unspooled storytelling throughout the rest of the movie.
Had I known this earlier, I would’ve walked out with my fellow moviegoers.
Hellboy is in theaters on April 12.