Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Hellboy’ films are the pinnacle of the superhero genre

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You may have heard the news that the latest Marvel outing, “Avengers: Endgame,” has taken in a record $2.6 billion budget, or come across the controversy about Robert Pattinson being cast as the latest in a long, often blandish list of Batmen to grace the screen. But no matter how much the current stream of superhero content clogs the veins of the cinematic world, let’s not forget the true greatest superhero franchise: Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of “Hellboy” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” released in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

The two films are the gold standard of any superhero franchise, maintaining a precise balance between action and emotion — all while communicating the ethos set forth by the franchise’s origins in Mike Mignola’s comic book series. It traverses mythology, a team of paranormal researchers and fight scenes in museums, and Rasputin shows up at one point as a main villain: What more could you ask for?

Hellboy, as portrayed by the ever-underrated Ron Perlman, is a surly-yet-kind hero who consistently goes through meaningful character development and exhibits real emotional depth. He is an anchor to a cast of likable, also well-developed characters who have clearly defined motivations and personalities. Everything in this series is well-thought-out, from Hellboy’s personal quirks to the rhythms and choreography of its fight scenes. And the films are visually stunning, with a well-honed aesthetic that utilizes folkloric iconography established in the comics. These two movies are rich in detail and an antidote for the often empty superhero films that are getting pumped out today.

Del Toro is also a master of the deeply underrated craft of practical effects, which are utilized throughout the two films to a dazzling effect. Give me a good prosthetic costume and a well-conceived folkloric monster and I’m sold — none of this sterile CGI business. “Hellboy” is among the most ridiculous superhero films on paper in the general canon, but somehow, the combination of Perlman’s salt-of-the-earth approach to the character and the living, breathing nature of the costume design make it convincing.

Even though the “Hellboy” films came out before the real sweep of Marvel madness began (disregarding in full the 2019 “Hellboy” remake, which by no means can be considered on the same page as the del Toro films and should be eviscerated from the franchise completely), they remain a refreshing take on the superhero genre. Yes, there’s action; yes, there’s romance; yes, there’s a give-and-take relationship between son and father figure in which both learn something from the other. But none of it is stale or trite in this case. “Hellboy” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” are the gold standard of superhero filmmaking and have set a bar for this genre that simply hasn’t been matched since.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].