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 TV. 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 Hellboy II: The Golden Army spends a few minutes on Red’s early training as 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 on TV. His rescuer and caretaker, Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), urges him to stop for the night, to brush his impressively white teeth and get to bed. But Red is mesmerized, and resists his adopted father’s assessment to boot. “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 own version of a fiction that’s also real, a bedtime story about the humans, magical beings, and the Golden Army.
As prelude to Guillermo del Toro’s second Hellboy movie, 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 U.S. government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, 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, and so 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. And 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 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 life-and-death battle inside the building, Red literally 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 become 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 TV, however, that’s special. And so, 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 TV, where Karloff’s Frankenstein exclaims his own despair to his bride: “We belong dead!”
Red’s ongoing efforts to decipher the intersections of fear and desire, of fantasy and reality, grant his film 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 in order 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), distraught on learning his plans, defects to BPRD, and immediately 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 reinforced as well by the elaborate creatures who populate the film’s assorted undergrounds. Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge exists a lively troll market, each being uglier and more extraordinary than the one before. As Red, Liz, and Abe pursue their mission to stop Nuada and so save people, they also contemplate the fallout, that they are in fact called on to destroy beings who are, like them, one-of-a-kinds, each decimation one more step toward making the world homogenous and boring. As much as Red enjoys being on TV, he’s also part of a process (call it Reality TV), whereby magic is incrementally transformed into mundanity.
Nuada articulates this point in an effort 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 viney 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 at all, but a transformation of options, is crucial to understanding Hellboy II. While the movie is frequently distracted by battle scenes — especially during the climactic Golden Army smackdown — the more forceful and rewarding focus is exactly here, in 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 at all, but a grand rebirth, the exploded goo revivified as fabulous foliage, essentially a splendid oasis of green in the midst of the overbuilt city.
Liz walks into it, her eyes wide as the camera pulls out to reveal the greenery’s sudden, vast expanse. Elated and quieted, she breathes, “It’s beautiful.” It is, too, like her and like her erratic, noisy, brilliant lover. In turn, as he loves Liz, life, and TV, Red embodies possibility, faith, and imagination.