There was plenty of promise in the early career of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro. After struggling with Hollywood over his second film, the horror movie "Mimic," Del Toro bounced back four years later in 2001 when he proved a mastery of both the high budget popcorn film ("Blade 2") and the art film ("The Devil's Backbone.") These twin successes allowed Del Toro to make one of his dream projects, an adaptation of the Mike Mignola-created comic book Hellboy, about a demon who has become earth's greatest paranormal detective.
"Hellboy" was a good film, though not the strongest of the new wave of superhero pictures to emerge in the first half of the decade. With Del Toro's next film, 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth," he leapt light years beyond his previous work. The story combines elements of fairy tales and folklore with dark horror and the period setting of 1940s Fascist Spain. The foreign-language film was a worldwide critical and commercial success, earning three Academy Awards and seven nominations.
With this newfound clout and wholly-earned position on the A-list of world directors Del Toro could make any film he wanted. He chose to return to the world of "Hellboy" and bring with him some of his tricks from "Pan's Labyrinth."
"Hellboy 2: The Golden Army" begins with a bedtime story. It's the early '50s and a young, truly boy-like Hellboy is watching "Howdy Doody" on TV when his adopted father says it's time to go to sleep. With the demon child listening under the covers Professor Bruttenholm reads him the tale of a war between the world of elves and man. According to legend a golden army of magical, mechanical creatures was constructed and could be controlled by the royal wearer of a crown broken into three pieces. Eventually a truce was formed and the pieces of the crown were divided so the limitless power of the golden army could never be used for war again. Del Toro, in a stroke of brilliance, depicts this story in young Hellboy's imagination in the style of a puppet show similar to the classic kids show he was just watching.
Jumping forward to the present finds an adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman) with multiple struggles. The previous film ended with the fireproof demon falling for the pyro-kinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair,) a fellow agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD.) The two are now facing the kinds of problems all couples tend to know well. Hellboy is also growing even more restless with his seclusion and isolation from the humanity he works so hard to protect. He's gone from sloppily allowing grainy pictures of him to be taken to actually posing for them. He's eager to just get out and live instead of always hiding.
Returning from the first film is Abe Sapien (Doug Jones who was the faun in "Pan's Labyrinth,") an aquatic humanoid and the cerebral foil to the muscular Hellboy. Transferring in to lead the BPRD is another superhuman being, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), a bodiless spiritual being who inhabits a bizarre suit and has the ability to possess inanimate objects. The four characters' conflict in the film comes in the form of Prince Nuala (Luke Goss) an elf who seeks to restore his people's dignity by assembling the crown of the Golden Army so he can lead it against humanity.
"Hellboy 2" is a significant improvement over its predecessor - a common trend in superhero film series. I think this is because when it comes time for the second one all parties - actors, directors, writers - are just more comfortable with the characters. They don't have to worry about establishing them like they had to in the first film so they can move on to more interesting things.
They also tend to develop more as filmmakers. Fans of "Pan's Labyrinth" simply must see "Hellboy 2." The film is practically a blending of "Pan" and the first "Hellboy." Many of the fairy tale elements and visuals of "Pan" are explored in "Hellboy 2." The fairy creatures of "Pan" return as the ultra-creepy tooth fairies. The terrifying Pale Man of "Pan" returns in spirit in the Angel of Death.
It's not quite the flawless success of Del Toro's previous picture, though. The sequel finds many themes, plot threads, and characters explored. Del Toro just jams so many ideas into the film that he fails to adequately explore many of them. I was expecting Hellboy's struggle over whether to side with fellow supernatural Prince Nuala against humanity to be more central to the film. Likewise the development of Abe is appreciated but it's almost cruel to tease us and not go further. Also the revelation of Hellboy to the world seems to be downplayed. I think the reality of a demon running around and the existence of the BPRD would all but rewrite much of human history and certainly 20th century American history.
There's also the fact that the superhero film has seen a rapid evolution since "X-Men" emerged in 2000. Audiences have come to expect more from their superhero pictures. In "Batman Begins" we saw the superhero drama, a film of stunning depth in its characters and sophistication. This trend was very much continued this year in "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk." We still want popcorn with our superhero movies but a side of complexity is very much appreciated. "Hellboy 2" just isn't as thematically rich as some of the other movies mentioned. That's tolerable, though, because this deficiency is balanced by a visual richness in the form of Del Toro's signature images.
Del Toro's future is as bright and colorful as the images he's given us. Much of the buzz right now places him at the helm of adaptations of superhero Doctor Strange and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Whether these particular dream projects will materialize is anyone's guess but regardless of what he chooses to do I'll be seeing it.