Hellboy is a character who, to some surprise, has made the leap from a non-Marvel or DC comic book character to household name. While we can thank Guillermo del Toro and his film adaptions for that, his surge in popularity in the mid-2000s reflects how bizarre yet approachable writer/artist Mike Mignola’s character is. I picked up the first trade paperback of Hellboy due to its Lovecraftian influences, but have been so drawn to Mignola’s aesthetic that I have blitzed through the main series and many of its numerous spin-offs in the past few months. Mignola’s world and characters are so fleshed out, so unique, that they invite the audience to bring their perspectives to his strange, strange universe. As a result, a humanoid demon who was brought into the world by Nazis and raised by an English professor is emblematic of a fictional universe that is more approachable than most major super heroes.
However, while I appreciate the multiplicity of everyone’s favorite demon-spawn, the multitude of angles from which the character can be approached is not without its drawbacks. Hellboy: Sword of Storms, for instance, is an animated adaptation of the character that doesn’t know what angles work best, and so chooses too many. Is directors Phil Weinstein and Tad Stones‘s film an extension of the books, or of del Toro’s interpretation? Is it adapting the material, or merely using it as a jumping off point? And most conflictingly, is it meant for kids, teenagers, or adults? While I appreciate an ambitious amalgamation, Sword of Storms is a hodgepodge.
I don’t think these stylistic tensions arise from my adoration of Mignola’s work, in that I am not simply crossing my arms and saying, “Woah, now, this is different!” I actually like the piece-of-this-piece-of-that nature of the movie, in some ways. For instance, the voice cast consists of del Toro castmembers Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones, but the characters themselves pick up nuances lifted from the comics—e.g. Hellboy’s continuously unimpressed attitude of the Mignola stories, rather than his emotionally stunted badass of the films. Kate Corrigan also appears in Sword of Storms, and she is a wonderful character that might not have worked in the films, but whose presence was missed. On occasion, the directors lift their favorite aspects of all interpretations to make something new.
Yet, the Weinstein and Stones seem to have no idea who their audience is. The animation style is reminiscent of every cartoon to come out of Cartoon Network in the 2000s. The characters tend to have punchlines that are only tolerable in a children’s show, but there are also guns, light swearing, and instances of disturbing imagery. I overlooked some lazy aspects in the art style and dialogue because I didn’t want to be too critical of something made for all-ages, but then the movie seems to contradict its all-ages intentions with violent or wonderfully creepy moments. Suddenly, those aspects that I’d willfully overlooked stuck out. I mentioned similar complaints in my review of Dear White People in terms of stylistic inconsistency.
While I do appreciate the liberty Weinstein and Stones exercise, the thematic whiplash and pacing issues make this movie hard to feel strongly about, even if it is a fun way to burn 80 minutes. I generally feel disappointed though, because the potential is so clear when the overly-dramatic music fades out, and Hellboy encounters a character or creature that has all the disturbing aspects of folklore that Mignola uses so well. When Weinstein and Stones use what makes Mignola’s books so powerful, they make something powerful that is still theirs. When they try to bring in the congeniality of del Toro and kids’ shows, they undo their hard work. Direct adaptation would not have worked—after all, the most direct adaptation of Mignola is the incorporation of the Hellboy story “Heads,” and the comparison is not favorable for Storm of Swords—but the incorporation of themes and style would have.
Further, while using Japanese folklore and characters might work on the page, it does not on the screen. The voice acting and dialogue comes across as antiquated at best and racist at worst, with the type of fragmented English that you wish your favorite 1960s comedian didn’t use in his otherwise wonderful comedy bits on visiting Japan. Further, Hellboy’s apathy comes across as a tinge condescending, almost saying, “Man, you people and your weird customs.” I don’t think there is any malicious intent here, but that aspect of the story hasn’t aged well, and the movie is only nine years old.
Hellboy is a great intellectual property, and Mignola himself has used him in several different ways over the past few decades. Del Toro showed that you can abandon the themes and style of the comics and still make something fun. Sword of Storms could have combined all of these, or mimicked them, or done something entirely new—any of them would have been fine. But it also needed to commit to something, or several things. Because it doesn’t, Sword of Storms is destined for the occasional viewing and relegation to sales bins.