Every now and then a news story comes along that causes a very complicated reaction. The news of a new Hellboy movie is exactly that, mixing the elation at seeing Big Red back on screen with the sadness that we’re not getting Guillermo Del Toro or Ron Perlman back. Instead, Neil Marshall of The Descent and pretty much every big Game Of Thrones episode will direct with Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the lead role.
See? That’s so finely balanced on the good news/bad news axis we’re pretty sure Michael Caine is crouched nearby going, “Don’t worry lads…I’ve got an idea.”
Let’s put the new boys under the spotlight first. Marshall, before heeding the call of Westeros, was the unofficial poster boy for British genre cinema. In the dark days before Ben Wheatley’s career, Marshall brought us a stream of low-budget, high-energy, maximum invention genre movies. Dog Soldiers is one of the very best British horror movies ever made, following a group of soldiers who find themselves fighting a very real (and very funny) war against a clan of werewolves. The Descent, following a group of female cavers’ battle with a subterranean species, is much darker, much more ambitious and less successful but still worth your time. Doomsday is a gloriously over-the-top Escape From New York-alike which features Rhona Mitra beating up post-apocalyptic knights and Centurion, a Roman-era action movie is an instrumental part of Michael Fassbender’s early career.
His films haven’t always been successful but they have, without exception, always been fun. Marshall excels at brawny, close-range action and, combined with his clear love of genre, that’s a very good sign.
There’s something else to consider though. The wonderful squamous aesthetic of Guillermo del Toro gave the Hellboy movies something truly extraordinary. Marshall’s style is vastly different: up-close and personal and, crucially, small-scale and grounded. Marshall is a director with blood on his knuckles, as his Black Sails and Game Of Thrones work shows. A Hellboy movie from him is going to look very, very different. Not worse, at all, but there will be no continuity of style whatsoever here.
There may be continuity of performance though. David Harbour is a household name thanks to his stunning turn on Stranger Things but his past work is no less impressive. Harbour is one of those actors you’ll have seen in a half dozen movies in tiny roles. He’s great for two minutes in Quantum Of Solace, helps Viola Davis hold some of Suicide Squad together and is fantastic as a relatable and yet still deeply unpleasant cop in the excellent End Of Watch. Our personal favourite is his role as Elliot Hirsch on The Newsroom. Harbour was handed the impossible job of playing a man who knows he’s not quite as good at his job as his colleagues and is at peace with that. He nailed it. Likewise, of course, Hop in Stranger Things.
Harbour excels at laconic, deadpan delivery and physicality. He holds your attention on screen without having to try and his physical presence is every inch the equal of Ron Perlman’s. His Hellboy will be quieter but no less impressive.
So that’s what we’re getting. But what have we lost?
Guillermo del Toro is one of the greatest directors of his generation. A long-standing lover and scholar of all things horror, del Toro is an extraordinarily articulate, precise director whose aesthetic is organic, complex and completely gripping. His back catalogue includes the excellent gothic romance Crimson Peak, extraordinary vampire story Cronos with Perlman and, of course, the best giant monster-punching robot movie EVER, Pacific Rim. Not to mention the two Hellboy movies to date, which have this glorious combination of grounded realism and twisted, baroque designs. Del Toro put a clockwork Nazi ninja filled with sawdust on screen and made it not only work but be genuinely unsettling. His work is never less than interesting and frequently brilliant.
Which could also describe Ron Perlman. Perlman’s colossal presence, incredible voice and comic timing have been key to the success of numerous projects. His extraordinary work as Vincent on Beauty And The Beast is one of the all-time great genre TV lead roles. His work on the under-appreciated Magnificent 7 TV show was just as impressive. Along with Charlie Hunnam, he was key to the success of Sons Of Anarchy and his willingness to embrace any role, regardless of the demands it placed on him, is remarkable. He’s appeared in movies like Cronos, City Of Lost Children and Pacific Rim and impressed in all of them. Perlman’s screen persona is larger than life, endlessly laconic and at times delightfully immature. He was, and always will be, about as close to perfect casting for Hellboy as it’s possible to get.
So why have he and Del Toro been replaced? Details are sketchy but it seems the movie in development has been championed by series creator Mike Mignola. Uncomfortable, and upsetting, as it is to see him throw the arc plot from the del Toro movies under the bus, that’s Mignola’s right. It’s his toybox after all.
If we had to guess, and make no mistake we are, we’d say that Mignola wants to take the series in a different direction. Del Toro embraced the cosmological elements of the comic wholeheartedly and did so, it could be argued, at the expense of some accessibility. A reboot, with a director as pragmatic as Marshall could well reposition the series as something far more grounded. Also, del Toro’s incredible work ethic notwithstanding, he is a director who likes to take his time. It’s possible that Mignola saw the chance to get a movie rolling for a new generation with people who could turn it around faster than in the past.
We don’t know, and may never do. What we do know is if this movie gets off the ground it’ll be very different but have just as impressive a pedigree. But we can’t lie, even that doesn’t pull the sting of GDT and Perlman being replaced. They deserved better. Time will tell if the same is true for Hellboy himself.