Okay, so I had a nice long review of Hellboy written out and then I lost it.
I saw Hellboy a few days ago but I waited to review it until I could watch a related documentary that was slowly downloading onto my computer. What was the documentary? It was, as it turns out, a somewhat underwhelming piece called The Occult History of the Third Reich: SS Blood and Soil, a poorly done voiceover-with-crap-footage piece which attempted to encapsulate the more credible bits of the Nazi Occult Mythology. That is, the Blavatskian New-Age occultism which Himmler certainly adored, but nothing so far out as the old story of Hitler’s finding the spear of Longinus (the spear that pierced the side of Christ), the purported Nazi Hollow Earth theories, or any of that other weird stuff that only a few kooks and weirdoes believe, but which gave me many long hours of entertainment when I read pulp books spun out with this mythology as a teenager.
I find, at the heart of this mythology (which is pulled apart admirably by Lowell K. Dyson on this site; another lovely dissectionone infinitely better written, I might addoccurs here), something strange. I find a desire to explain how the Nazis could be so evil, how they could have become so powerful. Human evil being an insufficient explanation, we turn (as humans have a tendency to do) to the supernatural. Evil, demonic forces aided the Nazis! Hitler believed in
Anyway, the truth or untruth of all that is pretty useless to me; I don’t believe any supernatural forces are necessary to explain Human Evil, believe it or not, and I’m more than happy to think any Nazi who believed in the supernatural as a pitiful, evil kook. But what interests me is the way that we think of the Nazis and that, it seems, isin the popular imaginationlaced with all kinds of mystical mumbo-jumbo. It shows up in all kinds of things, such as the Indiana Jones (which Roger Ebert tells us is far more about the Nazis than we may ever have thought) movies and It’s one thing to think that Heinrich Himmler was a kook who believed in a lot of Theosophist claptrap; it’s quite another to find such beliefs significant to, or explanatory of, the terrifying power that the Nazis accumulated for themselves. It’s a kind of mythology crutch which I guess a lot of people need when confronted with the kind of scale of evil the Nazis managed.
Which brings me to Hellboy. Now, I’ve never read the comic book (something I hope to remedy in the next couple of years) but my friend Adam sent me an RPG book by Steve Jackson Games based on the comics (I won it in a contest he ran once) so I knew of the general premise of the story and characters. For those of you who don’t, here’s a blurb from the DVD’s promo site:
From visionary writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, The Devil’s Backbone) comes Hellboy, a supernatural action adventure based on Mike Mignola’s popular Dark Horse Comics series of the same name. Born in the flames of hell and brought to Earth as an infant to perpetrate evil, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) was rescued from sinister forces by the benevolent Dr. Broom (John Hurt), who raised him to be a hero. In Dr. Broom’s secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Hellboy creates an unlikely family consisting of the telepathic “Mer-Man” Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), the woman he loves who can control fire. Hidden from the very society that they protect, they stand as the key line of defense against an evil madman who seeks to reclaim Hellboy to the dark side and use his powers to destroy mankind.
Now, you might be tempted to dismiss a film about a demonic good-guy superhero fighting Nazi evil on the grounds that… well, that this sort of thing is bound to be silly. I have to admit I expected it to be more a fun, rollicking thing than an exercise in clever, thoughtful cultural studies. Well, it’s certainly silly in bits, and definitely it says a lot about the other half of the American formula of Wold War II:
Nazis Evil = Americans Good.
But, suffused as it is with all of the props and references of the paranoiac Nazi Occult theorists of all of pulp publishing, the movie also goes farther. You don’t just find the humorous placement of the Speak of Longinus at the HQ of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, or mention of the Thule Society; the story goes all out: the Nazis resurrected Rasputin and had him summon a demon to end the world. But the demon, rehabilitated in America, has decided to deny his purported Apocalyptic destiny to fight for good and becomes an otherworldly superhero.
What is it that turns Hellboy’s heart human? The beginning and end of the movie (narrated by Dr. Broom and Agent John Meyers respectively) constitute a meditation on this via the question, “What makes a man human? Is it is origins?” Meyers finally concludes that no, it is decisions and actions that make sombody human. But far more fascinating than this old question (which had its beginnings in Frankenstein, perhaps, or maybe even farther back in fiction) is the question of what is it that motivates Hellboy to be good, to fight for the side of rightness, to give up all he could have in the AfterWorld of evil that Rasputin urges him to bring about.
It’s not love, although there is a longstanding and fascinating love affair between him and Liz Sherman, a troubled Firestarter who also sometimes works for the BPRD. It’s not the lure of heroism, for most people don’t know he exists or, if they do believe in his existence, see him as a freak and a monster regardless of his actions. It’s not even the work itself that does it, for he’s very quick to run off to see Liz after he finishes his work, and expresses nothing but disdain for his official supervisors. It’s not friendship either, though he does look upon the telepathic merman Abe Sapien as true friend.
No, what saves Hellboy (in the film) is nothing more than good old American Family values. He is taken in, beloved, and nurtured by his innocent, pure-hearted “father” Dr. Broom. The BPRD may be a dysfunctional family, but it is his, and he finds peace with it, even with his abusive and disrespectful supervisor whose life he finally saves. Hellboy was saved by soldiers, and became a soldier in the fight against evil (which, as the movie tells us, is being waged by America alone); but what brought him across was the love of a concerned human father and a family to take him in. This, to say the least, is curious. The Nazis could flirt with supernatural evil, and become evil; but America is good enough even to turn a demon against the darkness. I shall definitely have to read the graphic novels and see what the originals offer in terms of this.
In the meantime, I’d like to see the film again, as it was, all of this aside, a whopping good time. We’ll see if I get the chance.