Hellboy Movies, Ranked Worst To Best
With the release of the latest version of Hellboy this week, we take a look at where the three films rank from worst to best. Mike Mignola's half-demon hero Hellboy has been a comic book staple since 1993, becoming the unofficial mascot of Dark Horse Comics as well as ranking as one of the genre's most beloved characters of the past three decades. The sardonic demon on the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) has appeared in numerous comic books, straight-to-DVD animations, video games, and crossovers, winning over countless fans with Mignola's blend of pulp horror, Lovecraft, black humor, and 1930s action-adventure serials. But for general audiences, Hellboy is probably still best known for his appearances on film.
Over the past fifteen years, audiences have been given three Hellboy movies. The first two are within the same continuity and both directed by Guillermo del Toro, ended without del Toro being allowed to make his 3rd movie, while the most recent iteration is an attempt to reboot the franchise with a new lead, new characters, and a more adult-oriented tone and R-rating, directed by Neill Marshall. But how do they all rank against one another? While the Hellboy films haven’t had the same cultural impact as some of their predecessors or influenced those in their wake in the same way Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton did with their takes on Batman, they still represent a big step forward for auteur-driven superhero cinema.
The newest Hellboy movie starring David Harbour as Hellboy was reportedly subject to major behind the scenes issues and is expected to mark a Hellboy franchise low at the box office. But where does it fall among the best or worst of the franchise? We’re ranking the three big-screen Hellboy movies from worst to best. Whether you degree or disagree with our ranking, let us know in the comments what Hellboy film is your favorite and which one should be sent to the fiery pits of the underworld.
- This Page: Hellboy (2019)
- Page 2: Ranking the del Toro Hellboy Movies
The latest iteration of Hellboy, directed by The Descent’s Neil Marshall, as of the writing of this piece has a low 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The number isn't all that surprising given how long the studio held out on lifting the review embargo for it, but it's still one hell of a stumble for a movie that fans had, at the very least, solid expectations for. While the film itself isn't the catastrophic train-wreck that number would suggest, it is still by far and away the weakest of the Hellboy movies.
What this Hellboy has going on in its favor is a game cast, many of whom are sturdy character actors and genre regulars who know a thing or two about elevating middling material to the level of watchable. Ian McShane is exactly the sort of father figure you want slinging F-bombs at you, while Milla Jovovich is obviously having the time of her life as an evil witch. David Harbour of Stranger Things fame certainly has the physicality and sardonic line delivery to be a great Hellboy, but he’s clearly struggling under some odd make-up changes and isn’t given a fleshed out character arc to work with.
Indeed, there’s something oddly incomplete about the entire film, with big chunks of story feeling left out on the cutting-room floor and character developments that jump from A to Z in a flash. Harbour has talked about aspects of the character, like how Hellboy can't have a sexual relationship with a human, but the weight of the concept is entirely absent from the final product, and it lacks the emotional resonance of the previous other films, which were savvy enough to put the heart of the narrative front and center with these creatures, human or otherwise.
The Hellboy reboot is R-rated, which is mostly evident through an increased amount of bloodshed and swearing, but it adds nothing to the story and feels like a kid playing dress-up with dark toys. Some of the jokes land but Hellboy himself cannot help but feel soulless when all Harbour is given to do is fire off one-liners in place of a personality. It’s impossible not to compare the film to the del Toro duology, especially when those films are so alive with style and achingly detailed visuals and this film has some seriously shoddy effects and a lot of bloodshed instead of true world-building. One can’t help but get the feeling this Hellboy wants to be more like Deadpool than its source material, but even Deadpool knew you need something more than profanity and pop culture gags. It’s not a worthless viewing experience, but Hellboy seems like a film nobody had any fun making (and going by some of the rumors that have emerged about the production, it seems as though that may have been the case).
Page 2 of 2: Ranking the del Toro Hellboy Movies
When Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was given the opportunity to make a Hellboy movie, he jumped at the chance because he loved the comics. And it shows. While del Toro had made big Hollywood movies before, like Mimic, and joined pre-existing comic book movie franchises like Blade II, Hellboy was something far more in tune with his increasingly iconic sensibilities.
Roger Ebert put it best when he described Hellboy as "one of those rare movies that's not only based on a comic book, but also feels like a comic book." The 2004 movie is vibrant and almost giddy with itself over how lavish and ridiculous its own concept is. What else could it be when you're combining demons, Nazis, Rasputin and a love triangle featuring a woman who can set things on fire? Del Toro has never gotten to make the Lovecraft movie he's wanted to for decades but Hellboy is chock full of those sensibilities on fine form.
The true star of Hellboy is, of course, the man himself, played to perfection by Ron Perlman. A regular collaborator of del Toro’s (the actor appeared in his directorial debut Cronos), Perlman as Red may be one of the best pieces of casting in all of superhero cinema. On top of just nailing the physicality of the character, looking more at home in red skin and sanded down horns than he does in his own body, Perlman also keenly understands the balance between Red’s otherworldly nature and his petulant schoolboy side. His relationship with his father remains especially touching in its mixture of antagonism and genuine affection.
Crucially, Perlman gets how ridiculous Red is and has an absolute ball with it while never diluting the emotional pull of his plight. Del Toro juggles multiple tones alongside its endless array of cultural references, and the end result is something that remains fresh and entertaining 15 years later. It’s only let down by its need to adhere to some of those more tired tropes, such as having a boring human protagonist tag along to act as an audience avatar. Thankfully, when it came time for the sequel, del Toro got to make something even better.
Guillermo del Toro has famously bounced from commercially friendly English language titles to more esoteric stories in his native Spanish throughout his career. While Pan's Labyrinth was the film that first captured the attention of the Academy and The Shape of Water was the one that got him his long-awaited Oscar, it's Hellboy II: The Golden Army that is arguably the most del-Toro-esque film in his career as well as his secret masterpiece. He even told Twitch Film in 2013 that "Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan's Labyrinth."
That’s at its most evident in The Golden Army, a film that blends all of del Toro’s most beloved styles and ideas into a frenetic and visually astounding narrative that sees the filmmaker at his best. It’s debatable whether 2008’s The Golden Army is the strongest film in terms of being a Hellboy adaptation. The first film has more direct connections to the source material whereas this one is all del Toro. Think of it as his version of Batman Returns, wherein Tim Burton went wild with his oft-imitated Burton-ness while using the structures of the Batman stories in the vaguest way possible.
That’s not to knock the film, which is still the best Hellboy film ever made, but it is one whose strengths and pure visceral thrills come from seeing a director at the height of his powers with the freedom to do whatever he wants. The film is much goofier than its predecessor, offering some of the best laugh-out-loud moments of any Hellboy movie (including a scene where Red and Abe Sapien get drunk, complain about their love lives, then sing along to Barry Manilow).
One of the reasons del Toro was the perfect director to take on Hellboy is that he, as is evident throughout his entire filmography, adores monsters, often liking them way more than the humans. The Golden Army lets his id run rampant, doing away with the stock human audience avatar from the first film (sorry, Rupert Evans) and blending the monstrous with the mundane. New additions to the crew of monsters include Johann Krauss, a psychic whose body was destroyed by a botched séance, leaving him as an ectoplasmic cloud contained within a mechanical suit (Seth MacFarlane voices him to hammy German perfection), and the elven siblings Nuada and Nuala, bound together by their spirits but forced apart by their opposing views on the human world. In what may be one of the true highlights of del Toro’s career, the team visit the troll market and interact with a dazzling plethora of beautiful and grotesque creatures.
Ultimately, what makes The Golden Army the best Hellboy movie is its overwhelming heart. Del Toro blends domestic drama with otherworldly stakes to highlight how Red simply wants a life vaguely resembling normalcy. The film embraces soap opera elements and fits them comfortably in-between the grandeur of epic fantasy. It’s a story of such propulsive energy and genuine emotion that you can’t help but think this may be the best thing del Toro has made, and competition in that field is tough.