Just when I had given up on comic book movies, along comes "Hellboy II."
Superheroes and comic book characters have nearly ruined recent summer seasons, including this one, with their bad dialogue and over-cooked special effects. Which is why "Hellboy II" is such a pleasant surprise.
"Hellboy II" is rude, over-the-top, and absurd. Add to that list great action sequences, effects that are actually special, and an intriguing villain, and we've got ourselves one helluva summer blockbuster (sorry, couldn't resist).
Once upon a time, the human world and the mystical world (which apparently includes all creatures strange and legendary) engaged in a long, terrible war. The conflict climaxed when King Balor, the woodland king, commissioned the creation of an indestructible army of golden warriors. The awful scale of destruction wreaked by the army leads the two sides to forge a truce: the humans would inhabit the cities, and the mystical creatures would keep to the shadows.
Fast forward thousands of years to New York City (gee, summer movies are hard on the Big Apple). Balor's son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) thinks his "race" got shafted in the truce, which they did, and seeks to regain dominion over the earth.
Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his pyrokinetic wife Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and their amphibious friend/fellow superhero Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) must fight Nuada. They also get some help from ectoplasmic scientist Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane).
Meanwhile, Hellboy and Liz work through relationship troubles, and Abe falls in love with Princess Nuala (Anna Mathis), Prince Nuada's peace-seeking twin.
The best part of both Hellboy movies is that they don't take themselves too seriously. They prove superhero movies can be dark, complex and silly all at once.
It's also the rare comic-based movie whose humor reaches beyond a 10-year old sensibility (no offense, young 'uns). Not that it's Harold Pinter or David Mamet, mind you, but the dialogue only made me cringe a few times, which is a good percentage for a superhero movie.
Director Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of the cinema's most unique visionaries. Even though the characters come from a Mike Mignola comic book, del Toro's distinctive fingerprints are all over it.
During one scene, Hellboy and the crew go to a Troll Market, an underground bazaar bustling with otherworldly creatures. We feel as if we've stepped into a whole new world. In other words, del Toro actually accomplishes what George Lucas has attempted in all of his Star Wars films.
By now, it's difficult to create special effects that actually impress audiences. We've seen it all at this point, and usually "it" doesn't look all that great. But "Hellboy II" and "Iron Man" are now in a dead heat in the contest for best effects of summer.
But underlying all the smoke and mirrors, we have a villain who is terrifying yet sympathetic. Despite his destructive intentions, it's difficult to root against Prince Nuada, a character who represents an entire race that has, indeed, been unfairly kicked around.
Nuada is pitted against our own Hellboy, a great anti-hero himself. He's a big, brutish oaf but also an overgrown kid with a heart as big as that crazy right hand of his. He's good in spite of his nature, and underneath the playful, wisecracking exterior he and his teammates struggle with the fact that the very people they protect view them as freaks.
That's the kind of complexity all superhero movies shoot for, but few attain.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.