Thursday, April 21, 2011

Random Observations about Hellboy

Having seen a good deal of Guillermo del Toro's handiwork, I have to say that I'm not a fan. I've seen Mimic, Pan's Labyrinth, Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and with the exception of Blade II, I've found his films cartoonishly gory and just fair overall. I do have to say, though, that he has a fairly unique conception of magic. I was just watching the first Hellboy, and when it wasn't being incredibly tedious and full of really bad comic-book dialogue--like, not just bad dialogue, but really terrible stuff--it had a few interesting things about it.

The thing that sets Hellboy apart from a lot of other magic movies is the ease with which that magic is summoned. In the opening sequence (before the title), we're shown a massive Nazi operation on a deserted island, constructed for the purpose of summoning some hideously powerful, lifted-from-Lovecraft octopus gods from outer space. Some throwaway Nazi tells us that the operation has taken up "five years of research and construction", but Rasputin (yep, the villain is Rasputin) activates the portal-device with literally five words and a giant glove. Sure, we hear about how science and black magic have fused for this device, but it's an astonishingly simple setup for the end of the world.

This pattern continues throughout the film. To summon Rasputin back from the dead, one need only go to a certain location in Moldavia and fill a certain stone pattern with blood, and Rasputin will appear. Yeah, it took sixty years (for some reason) for the Nazis to find it, and yeah, they needed a special book to get there, but my point is that once you have the knowledge or know where to look, in del Toro's world, there's eldritch nightmares and occult shit literally all around you. To summon a monster from its imprisonment, Rasputin breathes into his hand and then says "Sammael, come forth!" To grant everlasting life and youth, he literally just says "I grant you everlasting life, youth and the power to serve me". Once you've got the power, being a wizard in this world is literally as easy as speaking.

It's not as if this pattern is confined to Rasputin, either, or even Hellboy itself. In Hellboy II, Hellboy and company take their act to a thriving magical community located directly under a humongous bridge, where all you need to see the magical creatures there is a pair of special spectacles. In Pan's Labyrinth, if we are to believe the little girl, she can create a doorway into another world merely by drawing on a wall with chalk, and affect her mother's pregnancy with a bowl of milk under her bed. In Mimic, one need only look into the sewers to find giant mutant cockroaches. And in Blade II, nightclubs, Czech fortresses and sewers are merely facades for the vampires lurking around the corner. The common denominator here is the ability of the characters to find magic, magical creatures and whatnot literally anywhere you choose to look, as long as you can see them.

The reason I find this remarkable is, it always seemed to me that in fiction, the magical world required a lot of time and planning to enter. You had to construct elaborate spells, build whole buildings on ley lines, prepare endlessly for even the simplest thing. And in del Toro's world, not only is magic all around us, but we can interact with it as well. It's a very Lovecraftian philosophy; his demons were beaten back with guns, dogs and university professors, not humanity's own spells. This time around, bullets, grenades or a good old-fashioned punch in the face will do the job just fine. Sure, Hellboy and Blade aren't strictly human, but they are essentially Human 2.0. They don't have superpowers or the ability throw fire; sure, they're stronger, can jump higher and take more abuse than the average human, but they're still fighting these things using essentially human tools. Instead of casting a spell to repel the demon at the end of Hellboy, the hero blows it up with a bunch of grenades. If you're in our world, the message seems to be, you play by our physical laws.

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