Fathers figure prominently in Hellboy II: The Golden Army – their sins, their legacies, and the responsibility that comes from turning into one. In this superlative sequel from Guillermo Del Toro, a cloud of parental duty hovers over Hellboy (Ron Perlman), who – having lost surrogate dad Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt) in the 2004 original – grapples with issues of commitment, allegiance and sacrifice while oblivious to the fact that firestarter girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) is pregnant. Maturation, though, isn’t quite what Del Toro is after for his horned protagonist in this rollicking, affecting comic book adaptation, as he continues to be the same crass, sarcastic and cantankerous secret government agent of his prior outing. That badass attitude, perfectly in tune with his muscular red-skinned physique, remains grafted to a surprisingly tender heart, with the hero still struggling to prove – to both himself and to the public from which his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) wants him hidden – that he’s more man than demon. His of-two-worlds nature becomes an especially pressing concern once ancient exiled Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) shatters his paterfamilias’ truce with the humans and pursues the key to the unstoppable Golden Army in order to incite war against mankind, a battle in which Hellboy, Liz, and psychic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) – all supernatural creatures employed by mortal men – find themselves mired.
Del Toro’s baroquely bizarre imaginativeness has never been more mesmerizing than in Hellboy II, its cornucopia of extraordinary creatures (some beautifully melding flesh with metal) seemingly stolen from children’s nightmares, and its preponderance of metal gears intrinsically linked to the saga’s fascination with fate and free will. Tableaus of gorgeously disgusting majesty abound, such as one involving an angel of death whose eyes are situated in its wings, as well as two movies-worth of breathtaking action sequences, each notable for their distinctiveness, propulsive energy, and coherent visual dexterity, this last quality particularly present in Hellboy’s throwdown with the titular battalion. There’s a proficiency to each of the film’s set pieces – including Hellboy fighting a towering forest god while protectively cradling an infant – but, as importantly, a poignant center to the often-frenzied mayhem. Embodied by Perlman with a blustery gruffness that masks a sensitive soul, the rebellious Hellboy is a fountain of hilariously acerbic wisecracks. For all the humor, however, Del Toro consistently focuses his narrative on the crimson giant’s earnest, anguished desire to fit in, a yearning that stems from a conception of himself – formed during a childhood of watching Howdy Doody and clutching shiny toy six-shooters in bed – as fundamentally human.
The pain of outsiderdom and corresponding need for companionship course through Hellboy II’s heroes and villains, with Del Toro bestowing considerate complexity upon Prince Nuada by positioning him as a would-be destroyer driven by desperate self-preservation impulses. Empathy runs deep for these characters, providing the narrative with a sentimental spine that gives meaning and value to their rollercoaster-ride predicaments. Even more than in his much-heralded Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro wields outsized, seamless CG-animated fantasy to amplify internal turmoil, staging hectic, frenzied showstoppers that are emboldened by emotional and relationship dynamics. While the gaunt, acrobatic Nuada too closely resembles Blade II’s baddie (both portrayed by Goss), the director otherwise laces his mythic tale with shrewd cinematic allusions, be they an overt clip from Bride of Frankenstein (“We belong dead!”) or a sly, strange nod to Total Recall-via-Kindergarten Cop (a kid attached to a mutant adult’s torso states “I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor”). Yet abundant references aside, Hellboy II is about a man, a woman, and their attempts to achieve normalcy despite social alienation, identity confusion, and constantly intruding chaos, a story intensely rooted in that most essential of feelings – love – and the mad, selfish, destructive things people will do to both attain and retain it. Thrilling and touching in equal measure, it’s on the short list of great superhero films.