As a critic, I’m not privy to the backroom financial details of how the new “Hellboy” movie came together. (Those deals are kept close to the vest.) But looking at interviews with the participants, it seems fairly certain that the following things did not happen. Guillermo del Toro, director of the puckishly compelling “Hellboy” (2004) and its heavy-metal-meets-Ray-Harryhausen sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008), did not say, “Man, I’ve had it with this series. It’s so boring to me now. I’ve lost any desire to build on what I did in the first two installments, completing them as a trilogy, bringing the character of Hellboy to a satisfying closure, the way they did with Wolverine in ‘Logan.’ Creatively, nothing could interest me less.”
In all likelihood, Ron Perlman, who played Hellboy with such gruffly charismatic and light-spirited noble-monster élan in the previous two films, did not say, “It was fun to take on this character for a while, but seriously — enough! It’s not as if he’s been at all meaningful to my career. Besides, it just doesn’t feel like the third time’s going to be the charm with this thing. So I’m walking away.”
Del Toro and Perlman are, in fact, both on record as indicating that they wanted to do a third film. As for the financial backers of the series, the ones who control the hiring and firing, does anyone really think they said: “The partnership of del Toro and Perlman was fine as far as it goes, but clearly it was played out. After two films, it had grown tired. You could feel the fans’ desire for new blood. That’s why, as much as we like Ron and Guillermo, we felt strongly about wanting to take the franchise in a new direction.”
Actually, the backers may have said something right along those lines. But what they meant was: The “Hellboy” movies didn’t make enough money. They didn’t bust the bank the way they were supposed to. And now, goddamn it, they’re going to.
The “Hellboy” films were marketed as quirky demonic offshoots of the superhero genre, but there’s no denying that the box-office tally for them, which I always thought of as solid (without ever thinking about it much), wasn’t superhero size. “Hellboy” made $59 million (no, that’s not the opening weekend — it’s the film’s total domestic gross). “Hellboy II” made $76 million. If those in charge wanted to “go in a new direction,” you could argue that maybe on some level they were justified.
Except that now that their master plan has been put in place, down to the casting of David Harbour, from “Stranger Things” (a series they must have thought of as money), in the title role, and the results are in, it’s clear that the plan fell on its face. If anything, it failed far more spectacularly than anything the series had tried before. And that lays bare something essential about the mentality of the reboot era.
A reboot is a shot of steroids: a way to take a known quantity and pump up its value. It can mean going bigger and bolder, younger and hipper, or — in the case of the new “Hellboy” — darker and more hard-R splattery, closer in spirit to the original graphic novels. But however it translates creatively, the “upgrade” represented by a reboot is always, at heart, a paradigm of box-office victory: a new-and-improved franchise designed to produce new-and-improved grosses. In shareholder terms, a reboot is a sturdy old concept retrofitted for inflation.
Except that there’s something wrong — aesthetically, financially, maybe spiritually — with rebooting a series that hasn’t begun to lose its freshness. The two “Hellboy” films were a nifty minor detour within the larger universe of good-vs.-evil comic-book fantasy. They were derivative and signified next to nothing, yet the way that del Toro made them, with coruscating style and flair, and the way Ron Perlman played them, with mordant wit (he was a demon hulk with a heart of valor), they had a little bit of soul. And their popularity, if anything, was building.
But now the series has done the equivalent of taking a sharp left turn and driving into a brick wall. The new “Hellboy” movie is “darkly” frenetic and junky, a kind of pandering grab bag. Its opening-weekend box-office tally will come in at around $12 million (less than half of what either of the previous two installments opened with), and that isn’t just disappointing; it’s downright crummy. How do we read those numbers — as a sign that, 15 years after the launch of the series, interest in it has waned? No, it’s that in this case, a movie produced by reboot culture was starkly inferior to the two films that had come before it.
But that’s no accident. By rebooting itself, the series squandered its identity. Fans were invested in Ron Perlman as Hellboy, and they were invested, maybe more than ever, in the lure of Guillermo del Toro’s pop-art vision. He is now, after all, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, and while I’ve never been all that much of a del Toro fan, I actually think there’s more art in the hellzapoppin’ creature-feature flamboyance of the “Hellboy” films than there is in some of his more celebrated efforts. (I’d seriously much rather watch “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” again than “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which I consider a sodden middlebrow Muppet movie. But that’s just me.)
The idea of changing horses when you’ve got a director like Guillermo del Toro in the saddle, as well as an actor like Ron Perlman who has fused with the central character and made it his own, bespeaks a serious delusion about what the appeal of the “Hellboy” films was ever about. They were (relatively) modest box-office performers, but that’s because they had a cult audience. They weren’t hooked up to Marvel or DC; they were stand-alone spectacles, and Hellboy, as a hero, is a stand-alone oddball. But now he’s an oddball whose connection to the audience has been disrupted. Reboot culture, in this case, becomes a syndrome at once greedy and naive — a form of capitalist self-sabotage. The funny thing is, you just know what the people behind the movie are thinking this weekend: How can the franchise be saved? What direction should we head in now? Do we go for another reboot?