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Musings on Hellboy and the superhero

With the fuss around the almost-superhero – James Bond, relooking at this much-loved genre becomes inevitable. A strange dichotomy faces us today, technological advances are at an all time high, to put it crudely, with James Bond all but flying, it looks like very few things are unachievable; and yet, the demand for fantasy is growing. Be it Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or the any of the superhero films – the craze is unprecedented. The superhero films are particularly interesting, primarily because they provide the link between the human and the fantastical, with characters that look like you and me, but have that extra something that gives them the power to make the world a better, safer place.

Not unlike most superheroes, Hellboy (created by Mike Mignola, filmed by Guillermo del Toro) lives on earth, separated from his actual parents, and is lovingly adopted by someone he comes to think of as father. And like most, he too has a responsibility towards the people, one of keeping them safe. The question that arises at least once in every superhero film, ‘Does the world need xyz?’ is to facilitate the answer – yes, the world does in fact need a hero – and this is the case with Hellboy (Ron Perlman) as well.

In spite of all these similarities, there is an inherent difference with which Hellboy has been approached. The Hellboy films play a tricky game of in and out of the superhero genre – using the popularity when in, and reflecting on the genre when out.

Hellboy came into the ‘real world’ with the American attempt to destroy a portal made by the Nazis to conjure a power that would ensure their victory in the World War. Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, an American doctor, comes with a small army to stop the Nazis. Their attempt is partially successful, and they are left with a little red creature, with horns on its forehead – evidently not human, but also not animal. Bruttenholm adopts the creature and calls him Hellboy. Hellboy grows up to be a big red monstrous looking creature, but has the superhero-special sort of heart, courage and ability to save the world.

What, then, is Hellboy’s origin? Superman’s father was a scientist on Krypton, Spiderman was licked by a radio-active spider who inadvertently passed on his characteristics to Peter Parker — but where did Hellboy come from? He is a result of the darkest magic that was called upon to destroy the world, (actually to provide victory to the Nazis, but it’s the same thing apparently). The Americans found him in the most hellish times, and therefore, Bruttenholm names him Hellboy. The name is a constant reminder of the existence of a dark side, at least potentially, to this heroic character. It goes hand in hand with the horn stubs that are present on his face. In the first film itself, we can see that the dark side has merely been subsided by his constant interaction with ‘the good’ – the changeover being a matter of skill and strategy in the hands of Rasputin. There is a vision of what the world can be, and by suggestion, how safe it is right now.

There is a question waiting to be asked; del Toro leaves it to the audience to ask it – what is maintaining this balance? The answer is – Hellboy. Or rather his sense of right and wrong, that corresponds with ours. He uses his strength for what is right, but can be pulled into using it for what isn’t. The relatively unidimensional Superman stands in sharp contrast. The White man with neatly parted hair, cannot have a compromising side. This is perhaps the reason he is an iconic figure in a sense America itself – given the costume. Hellboy, with his capacity for evil will never be an icon, or a symbol of America, though he is raised there. He likes candy, swigs beer from cans like any average Joe, and cracks the usual ‘I would give my life for her but she wants me to do the dishes too’ jokes, but he can never be American. There is a particularly moving scene in Hellboy 2, when the public has started fearing Hellboy all of a sudden because the mother of the baby he saved thought he was trying to kill him. Just as Hellboy starts to discover his paternal capacity, he is accused of trying to harm the baby. Liz (Selma Blair) keeps trying to say, he’s trying to help, but no one listens. Of course, the moment could have been more powerful if Blair was a better actress, but the idea comes across fairly well. The people he considers his own, who he risks his life to save, suddenly decide he is a monster. Supernatural elements aside, there is a critique of American society that creeps up here, one that comes at an opportune moment.

The first Hellboy film saw del Toro’s fascination with the ugly, not just in the figure of Hellboy himself, but also in the figures of Abe (Doug Jones) and creatures like Sammael that Rasputin invoked. This art of reversing order and making the ugly attractive took definite shape in Pan’s Labyrinth, and reached perfection with Hellboy 2. The big, clumsy Hellboy and a slimy fish-like Abe are together the most effective duo that come to the rescue of human beings. They are contrasted with Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), the Director of the FBI, the normal among the paranormal. He spends his time trying to deny the existence of Hellboy, and looks idiotic not just to the public, but to the Bureau of Paranormal Research as well as he tries desperately to exercise control, and fails (in both films). The figure of Sammael, the foulest creature in the film, is stretched to a limit in its grotesque appearance that you move beyond the initial distaste and start coming to terms with the scale del Toro has in mind. The emphasis on the grotesque creates a beauty that is, in some senses, removed from the Christian ideal of beauty. The troll market in Hellboy 2 is a good example of what I mean. In one film, there are two worlds visible – that of downtown New York, and that of the underworld, where the troll market is, and Hellboy looks visibly happy to be there – because everyone there is like him – no one stares and no one thinks he’s a freak. The complete vision of the troll-market is almost sublime, in a way where awful really is awe-full. The lack of a definite shape, and instead a kind of grotesque mass that pervades the Hellboy films, has a flowing quality, which gains significance when seen from the perspective of history. The first Hellboy deals directly with historical figures like Rasputin, but then push them beyond all sense of logic, time, space and death. The visual of the purple blood flowing everywhere, gives us a sense of excess, which defies the control of a traditional historical narrative. History then goes beyond the human. Its ugliness and animal-instinct provides a perspective to human history that is fast becoming del Toro’s trademark.

The sense that one goes back with, after watching Hellboy, or any del Toro film for that matter, is far from fleeting. Whether it is a fascination for the superhero, for history or just for sheer theatrics and a grand scale in filmmaking – with Hellboy, he has decided to please everyone.

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