The overabundance of high-budget comic-book movie adaptations worries me. Every decade or so, a couple of them will hit big (the Tim Burton Batman, the early Spider-Man and X-Men films), and before you know it, studios have the moviegoing public knee-deep in derivative cash-ins designed only to turn a quick buck. Eventually the market becomes so saturated with knock-offs that the bottom falls out, turning jilted fans away from comic-book movies and sending studios fleeing from the genre like it carried a form of financial leprosy.
Though we haven't hit the kind of nadir marked in the past by such wince-inducing efforts as the Dolph Lundgren Punisher, some inspired productions are necessary to fend off this periodic collapse. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the second feature-length collaboration between director Guillermo del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, could easily have been a bulwark against that collapse, but it instead contains so many flaws that it's at best a mere shadow of its predecessor.
Nobody expected Hellboy II to be the Citizen Kane of its genre, but del Toro has accumulated the kind of credibility that lends itself toward high expectations. Pan's Labyrinth's visual effects kicked del Toro's reputation as a stylistic genius into overdrive, and the first Hellboy proved that he could produce faithful adaptations of established works and sell them to mainstream audiences.
Unfortunately, Hellboy II concentrates on the former while abandoning the latter. While del Toro's aforementioned visual prowess is in full effect here, his treatment of every other aspect of the film pales in comparison to his previous works.
For what it's worth, Hellboy II is beautifully wrought. Del Toro once again deftly brings to life Mignola's vision of a world brimming with hidden folk-tale fauna, pitting Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the heavy hitter of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, against a renegade elven prince and his attempts to claim the right to command the titular Golden Army, a stereotypical unstoppable force once wielded to devastating effect by his father against the human race.
It's a loose adaptation when compared with the previous film's more or less faithful origin story. While Mignola's Hellboy never fought a patricidal elven prince (he did piss off a leprechaun king once), it's a fair to expect that the spirit of the comic would remain intact once again in Hellboy II. It does in certain places, but the plot points Mignola and del Toro decided to use seem random and unconnected. When combined with the liberties taken by the movie's storyline, they feel like an afterthought.
Somewhere along the line, del Toro forgot everything he ever knew about how to effectively craft screen versions of Mignola's characters. Although Mignola shares a story credit with del Toro, Hellboy II's dialogue sounds like it was written by the title character's own stone right hand. It lacks depth, it reveals nothing about the characters delivering it, and it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Comedic scenes feel forced, and dramatic ones (particularly a near-endgame reversal of the first Hellboy's denouement) lack pathos.
The characters themselves are bereft of the distinct flavor each one carried in the first film. Perlman's Hellboy, minus the angsty nuances that made him more likeable for the surliness they endowed, is now just a strong guy with a skin condition and girl problems. Doug Jones' Abe Sapien (all the more conspicuous for David Hyde Pierce's absent voice work), is now just a fish guy with a book and (again) girl problems.
The list goes on: Hellboy's pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman is now just a girl with a fiery temper, BPRD director Tom Manning is now simpering comic relief, and newcomer Johann Krauss, a disembodied German psychic spirit kept alive by a containment suit, is portrayed as a power-hungry, protocol-happy xenophobe whose every movement comes too close to goose-stepping for comfort. For a group of abused paranormals fighting humanity's weirdest threats, few of them are sympathetic, and fewer still fun to watch.
And those weird threats? A stilted elven exile who prepares for a war with humanity by hiding in the sewers and rehearsing a Bruce Lee highlight reel, a shaven wookie with a low-rent prosthetic, and an unstoppable army of clockwork killing machines. I can get behind that last one—remote-controlled killer robots are fine by me. The other two, and thereby the film's entire conflict, are just there because the plot needs someone to cause trouble. A modernized race of Tolkien rejects could easily hate humanity for a hundred different reasons—dwindling forests, increasing pollution, not believing in Tinkerbell—but del Toro chose to hang his entire conflict on the idea that some elves are just grudge-holding jerks.
It's reminiscent of the two Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan films. In the same way that Conan the Barbarian worked as a Western in a fantasy setting, Hellboy combined Lovecraftian pulp and film noir elements to create a unique and entertaining fusion. Both sequels dropped the things that made the originals special, relying on name recognition and special effects to bolster a lackluster product, and both sequels suffer for it.