What defines a really good movie director? Visual style, of course—but film is a storytelling medium, so without the ability to use visuals to tell compelling stories, a director, in my judgment, can’t truly be great. This is what makes Guillermo del Toro perplexing. No doubt, he is one of our most visually stunning directors. But he’s only made one great movie, 2006’s Pan’s Labirynth, which made the hyperactive imagination of a girl raised on the dark fables of European children’s lit a metaphor for Franco’s fascistic rule of Spain. Who can forget Mr. Eyeball Hands, that humanoid skin flap without a face, or the goat-boy himself? What better stand-ins for the inhumane officers of fascist regimes? Even the Brothers Grimm never concocted such a nightmare.
The problem with del Toro’s Hellboy franchise is that it’s all visuals. He doesn’t employ the comic’s concept in any meaningful way. Hellboy is a demon who slipped through the portal of hell ripped open by the Nazis, but then is adopted by a professor of the occult and raised to fight evil on Earth. Especially considering del Toro’s success in Labyrinth, you’d think we’d be in for a visual spectacle, melding religious and political imagery with comic designs to create one of those rare blockbusters that doesn’t dumb it down for the popcorn crowd, but still wows the masses.
It doesn’t happen, and I sense that del Toro intentionally dumbs it down because he doesn’t really care about these Hellboy movies. The first movie, which del Toro made before Labyrinth, uses the Hellboy story to set up a potentially fascinating exploration of the relationship between violence and religion. This isn’t the standard post-9/11 superhero vigilante stuff—it’s about dogma and violence. Hellboy is Catholic in the same way that Denis Leary’s Rescue Me firefighter is Catholic: non-practicing but still wears his crucifix, and saves people for a living, with a guilty, self-loathing sin streak masked by a snarling cynicism. The original movie used Rasputin to symbolize a kind of nihilistic mysticism, where Hellboy—even thought he’d rather pound Red Bulls and work rather than go to church—still blows away bad guys with a cannon-sized revolved with “Good Sammartin” etched in the handle.
But then the movie just becomes a mish-mash of action sequences that don’t take these ideas anywhere. Hellboy garnered a cult following (it took off on DVD, even after it was buried in an early April theater release), mostly because del Toro created some very cool visual sequences, and Ron Perlman was so convincing as the big lug. To those of us who saw the first Hellboy, Labyrinth didn’t really come as a surprise—I just assumed that del Toro had found the right story for his visuals.
This is what makes Hellboy 2 so frustrating. Del Toro doesn’t even try to use the Hellboy character for anything. He sets up a couple of love stories (Hellboy’s girlfriend sets herself on fire when she’s mad; “Abe Sapien” falls for a non-gill breathing female), and then proceeds toward the massive Attack of the Golden Clones conclusion. The visuals are stunning, yes—and the finale, which involves Hellboy fighting through a maze of gears, is a bravura exercise in arranging an action sequence. But even the visuals are disappointing—some are recycled from Pan’s Labyrinth (this time, the eyeballs are on the wings), and some look like test shots for del Toro’s next project, The Hobbit.
In the end, that’s exactly what Hellboy 2 feels like: A Guillermo del Toro batting practice session. Del Toro has said that he doesn’t want to copy Jackson, and I have no doubt that his Hobbit will be a virtuoso exercise in visual artistry. But what del Toro needs to understand is that he doesn’t need to top Jackson visually—Jackson’s brilliance was that he was able to sustain nine hours of movie narrative. You have to be a storyteller, not just an artist, to pull that off. Del Toro’s Hellboy franchise doesn’t prove that he has that skill, and suggests that we might be in for six hours of beautiful confusion and a half-dozen technical Oscars in his next.