Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hellboy II: The Golden Army -- fame and fitting in

Director: Guillermo del Toro, 2008.

Del Toro, noted for directing the acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth, returns to the Hellboy movie franchise he started in 2004. While the original Hellboy was fun, and Pan's Labyrinth was dark and gripping, a fairy story for adults, Hellboy II feels old and tired. There is no question that Del Toro has a fertile imagination, but I can only take so many monsters and weird creatures, especially when most of them are secondary to the plot.

The movie opens with a young Hellboy hearing a bed-time story from his father. It is the story of a long-ago war between humans and elfs. When the elf king has a a mechanical army of golden warriors made, his victory is secure. These mechanical warriors cannot be defeated. Neither hungering or fearing death, they unreservedly push forward until their enemies are totally destroyed. But the king cannot let that happen and so he seals a pact with the humans. They can have the towns and cities, and his people will have the forests. So the golden army is put back to sleep, locked away until they are needed again. Only when the three pieces of the broken crown are reunited and placed on a royal head can the army be awakened and ordered once again into battle. This prologue is portrayed in an interesting and simple animation.

Moving ahead two millennia or so, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) returns from exile and wants to wage a final war against the humans, using this golden army. Since it defies his father's w, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Breaking the ancient pact, even killing his own father to become ruler of the elves, he sets the scene for a war between species.

When we see the adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman) he is more or less confined to his room where he lives with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). His superiors do not want him seen out in public for fear of the terror this red demon-looking being will incite. But "red" (Hellboy) wants out. He has cabin fever and a desire to be known. The gauntlet that Prince Nuada throws down is his first opportunity., wanting to initiate the war, brings Mr. Wink, a one-eyed monster, and a set of tooth fairies to an auction where one piece of the golden crown is up for sale. Of all the bizarre creatures that Del Toro throws at us here, the tooth fairies were by far my favorite. They are like fanged flying piranhas. When they swarm onto a person they can devour him in a matter of minutes, starting with the teeth of course.

In the scene where Hellboy, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz do battle with these little monsters, the final recourse is for Liz to do her thing, setting herself ablaze. And Hellboy, seeing what is coming is ready to be blasted out of the building right in front of the gathered crowd and the press cameras. Talk about low profile. Gone is any attempt at keeping Hellboy, Abe (aka blue) and Liz a secret. They are on all the network news channels. As a result his boss Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is replaced by Johann Krauss (John Alexander), a German ectoplasmic being who uses a special suit to keep his spirit-like substance contained. And being German, he is a stickler for protocol ("there are procedures, rules and little handbooks . . ."), which immediately puts him on the wrong side of Hellboy. Nuada's twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), escapes with one third of the crown, she meets Abe and Hellboy in the weird troll marketplace. Filled with beings of all shapes and sizes, Hellboy and Abe fit right in. They are more normal than most.

The second half of Hellboy II pits red, blue, Liz and Krauss against the power of Prince Nuada and his awakened army. On the way, they face the goblin who created the army, as well as the angel of death. scene stands out as a humorous if bizarre commentary on love and male insensitivity. Hellboy walks in on Abe who is listening to a CD of Barry Manilow singing, "Can't Smile Without You." Abe is smitten with the princess and is both singing and living these lyrics. Hellboy, in turn, is having relationship difficulties with Liz and does not know why she is behaving the way she is. He, too, is in love and not smiling without his Liz. So, Hellboy does what any red-blooded red-demon would do, he grabs a six-pack of beer. Together, red and blue get drunk and sing-along with Barry. It's a sing-along moment.

Two of the main themes in Hellboy II are fame and fitting in. Throughout the first half of the film, Hellboy wants to know if he is liked. He wants to be known, to be famous in the outside world beyond the confines of his underground home. His boss, too, keeps asking if others like him.

This striving after fame, typically accompanied by the desire for fortune, is common to humanity. We often want our children to be rich and famous. But fame and fortune are fickle bed-fellows. Even when Hellboy becomes famous, he is not always liked. Some people see him as simply an ugly creature, not someone to interact with and like. Wanting to be liked is sometimes a response to an internal insecurity. If we are not comfortable with who we are, we look to others to assuage our anxieties. Being liked is not in itself an ethical issue. But the underlying inner problem that drives this desire can be.

Furthermore, being liked often comes at the price of fitting in, conforming to others' expectations. Prince Nuada sees through Hellboy and points this out, "Demon. Born from a womb of shadows, sent to destroy their world and you still believe you belong?" Later, when confronting Hellboy, he adds to this challenge: "You have more in common with us than with them." Hellboy does not fit into the world of humanity. He is demon-like, with red skin, sawn-off horns and a tail. In a word, a freak. He does belong in the world of Nuada, where there are other monsters. But he loves Liz and will not leave her. As she has made her choices in this film, so Hellboy has made his choices. He will not fit in but he comes to realize this and to live with it. Sometimes we don't fit in. Especially as followers of the Christ, our world view has been turned around and values and beliefs no longer match those of our relatives, friends or coworkers. Yet, with our choice comes the responsibility to push aside peer pressure and live openly and honestly with integrity. We may not be liked by some but we are loved by the supreme one (1 Jn. 4:10). fact, at the outset Prince Nuada makes a startling claim to the auction-goers, dressed in their fine black evening wear. He tells them they are hollow humans, with a hole in their heart. They are missing something. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French scientist and philosopher, said something remarkably similar: "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” Many centuries before Pascal King Solomon said that God has set "eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecc. 3:11). We can only find fulfillment and true satisfaction when we turn our lives over to Jesus. When we do this we find that he fills this void with himself as he comes to live in our hearts. How is your heart?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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