You see, I feel sad when you’re sad,
I feel glad when you’re glad,
If you only knew what I’m going through,
I just can’t smile.— Barry Manilow, “I Can’t Smile Without You”
Hellboy (Ron Perlman) loves television. His fascination with the medium, as information, entertainment, and distraction, is plain enough in his super-secret rooms in Trenton, New Jersey, filled with vintage sets that show everything from Abbott and Costello to Boris Karloff to the local news. Again and again, Red shows himself to be a most excellent viewer, repeatedly transported, distracted, and enchanted by his screens.
The start of Guillermo del Toro’s action/fantasy Hellboy II: The Golden Army spends a few minutes on Red’s early training as an enthusiastic audience member. As a child in 1955, having been rescued from the Nazis who conjured him, little Red (Montse Ribé) is watching Howdy Doody. His rescuer and caretaker, Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), urges him to stop for the night, brush his impressively white teeth, and get to bed. But Red is mesmerized and resists his adopted father’s assessment of the show. “Don’t call him a puppet,” the boy says earnestly. “Howdy Doody’s real.” Given that he’s dealing with a child who has brick red skin and devil’s horns sprouting from his head, the professor essentially concedes the point by offering up his version of a fiction that’s also real, a bedtime story about the humans, magical beings, and the Golden Army.
As a prelude to del Toro’s second Hellboy film, the Howdy Doody episode is an apt reminder of the ever-blurry line between truth and fiction. In his present day, sometime near now, Red lives in between, a full-on superhero charged with saving citizens from all manner of perils, but also hidden away as part of the US. government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), located in Trenton, New Jersey. The official thinking is that he and his peers – fiery Liz (Selma Blair) and fishy Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) – are too scary for regular humans to contemplate, so they are best deployed as secret weapons against villains and monsters. Managed by rules-monger Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), the team is delivered to crime scenes and crises, equipped with advanced technologies and superior weaponry. Time and again, the team works quickly, effectively, and – thanks to Red’s thrillingly gargantuan touch – devastatingly. More often than not, the scene they leave behind is decimated, and Manning has to come up with a cover story – a fiction to cover up the magic that’s too bizarre to be believed.
Red has little patience for such efforts to spare humans from the reality of magic. So it’s hardly surprising that the first mission of his sequel leads almost immediately to his and the BPRD’s outing. Called in to discover who’s caused mayhem at an upscale Manhattan auction house – all the workers and bidders have been reduced to excremental muck on the floor – the team is beset by the culprits, swarms of little Tooth Fairies who have speedily consumed and pooped out their prey. Even as his fellows stick to the script, doing their best to stay “invisible” as they do a life-and-death battle inside the building, Red explodes onto the public scene, falling in brilliant operatic slow motion to the street, where he lands on a police cruiser and appalls the assembled crowd of press and people.
Red is, of course, an instant sensation, the legend becomes a large, loud reality. People in the streets begin to call out to him (“Hey, you’re Hellboy!”), bestowing on him a celebrity that is concurrently exciting and utterly boring. Yes, he’s Hellboy!, but, he sighs, can’t his fans come up with something more intelligent to say? Seeing himself on television, however, that’s special. When he’s supposed to be focused on the tasks at hand–- listening to Liz (who has news concerning his imminent fatherhood) and tracking down this film’s bad guy, the painfully white and very resentful Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) – Red is distracted by glimpses of himself on screen.
Red is caught in between, again, perceived as a freak and a superhero. “I killed that thing, and for what,” he wonders. “They don’t even like me. They’re afraid of me.” Frustrated, he turns to television, where Karloff’s Frankenstein exclaims his despair to his bride: “We belong dead!”
Red’s ongoing efforts to decipher the intersections of fear and desire, fantasy and reality, grant Hellboy II a lively thematic resonance. Nuada, it turns out, is descended from those magical beings the professor described so long ago. He means to resurrect the Golden Army to take back the earth from humans and restore it to trolls, gremlins, and monsters. Nuada’s twin sister and emotional opposite, Princess Nuada (Anna Walton), is distraught about his plans. She defects to BPRD and immediately becomes the object of Abe’s intense affection. It’s a spectacular cross-race romance that not only parallels Red and Liz’s, but also offers the two forlorn male halves (both briefly separated from their beloveds) to engage in drunken reverie, singing robustly along to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You”, a moment so simultaneously sappy and bizarre that it underscores Hellboy II‘s most compelling point: fantasy is reality, as long as you believe it.
This notion is also reinforced by the elaborate creatures who populate Hellboy II‘s assorted undergrounds. Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge exists a lively troll market, each troll being uglier and more extraordinary than the one before. As Red, Liz, and Abe pursue their mission to stop Nuada and save humans, they also contemplate the fallout that they are called on to destroy beings who are, like them, one-of-a-kinds. Each decimation of a creature becomes one more step toward making the world homogenous and boring. As much as Red enjoys being on television, he’s also part of a process (call it Reality TV), whereby magic is incrementally transformed into mundanity.
Nuada articulates this point to recruit Hellboy to his side. But at that precise moment, Red happens to be holding a human baby, swaddled in a blanket and in immediate danger of being flattened by a giant vine creature. Nuada has called up the creature, but Red has beaten it back to a point where he now faces what seems an absolute choice: let the unique green beanstalk live or save the human infant.
That the choice turns out not to be absolute, but a transformation of options is crucial to understanding Hellboy II. While the film is frequently distracted by battle scenes – especially during the climactic Golden Army smackdown – the more forceful and rewarding focus is exactly here, in the blurring of lines between fantasy and truth (or, again, in the film’s language, magic and reality). The apparent demise of the beanstalk is not an end but a grand rebirth, its exploded goo revivified as fabulous foliage, essentially a splendid oasis of green amid the overbuilt concrete city.
Liz walks into the greenery, her eyes wide as the camera pulls out to reveal its sudden, vast expanse. Elated and quieted, she breathes, “It’s beautiful.” It is, too, like her and like her erratic, noisy, brilliant lover. As he loves Liz, life, and television, Red embodies possibility, faith, and imagination.