Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

The designation of Hellboy II: The Golden Army as “horror” is dubious, to be sure. I will not spend the bulk of this article defending its inclusion in my run of horror-related pieces (and anyways, I will more than make up for this genre fraud next week), but I will say that the guiding hand of director Guillermo del Toro, along with the soul of the source material, are enough to merit an exploration of this film in the present context.

I have yet to write about the first Hellboy film directed by del Toro, and while I think one could jump into Hellboy II without seeing the first (a virtue of most comic book films 1978-2011), I would recommend seeing Hellboy because it’s a gem. The setup is fairly simple: the titular character is a world-ending demon from hell who ends up being raised by a kindly British professor and expert in the occult. As an adult, he works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) along with other agents with “enhanced talents.” Hellboy likes cats, beer, cigars, and the music of Tom Waits. Ron Perlman plays Hellboy in one of the great character/actor matches in all of film history.

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The plot of the film is not particularly important. There are ancient artifacts, a troll market, an abandoned underground city, a forest god. What makes this film distinctive is the meticulous, handcrafted nature of everything put on camera. Del Toro is famous for this. I might say that Hellboy is a better film than its sequel, but Hellboy II is a better film to look at. Every frame is stuffed to the edges with real things, intricate things. Every item in the film is something you could pick up and flip through, or open, or play with. The tactile, physical nature of the film extends to the enormous cast of creatures that populate the various set pieces. If you look far into the background, what you will see are extras in heavy costume and makeup, filling up a world so that we can be engulfed in it.

This is an old idea of horror – going back to the silent era – that mise en scène sets the mood, and plays a larger part than plot in building atmosphere and suspense. The sets of Hellboy II are lavish, but they range from the playful to the sinister. These are not merely dark places, but whole worlds unto themselves.

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The playfulness of del Toro’s design spills over into the rest of the film. This movie is fun. And not in the way that a movie trying to be fun is fun, but in a genuinely, organically pleasurable way. The emotional beats are simple and build gently on the groundwork from the first film. They are effective because the actors never oversell them, and in fact, the film is more subdued than one might imagine. One of the film’s best moments involves Hellboy and Abe Sapien (a sort of mer-man who also works for the B.P.R.D.) lamenting their troubles in love over beers and singing along, gently, to Barry Manilow. It’s an unexpectedly warm and touching scene.

Couched in del Toro’s elaborate world, the characters’ dramas both big and small never feel silly playing out in such lovingly constructed environs. Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic, hash out their domestic problems in blazes of flame. Only later when they reach a shadowy chamber where one of del Toro’s more terrifying creatures (a dark angel with eyes dotting its wings) hands them their fate, do they put their arguments behind them and commit to each other for good. The small scale of the human drama could feel absurd in this fantasy world, but it doesn’t because del Toro and his actors treat the world with respect – they know how fragile it is, and things do threaten constantly to fall apart.

Hellboy II is a monster movie where the monsters are the bad guys and the good guys. Really, its not even that, because the good guys are fighting to subvert their own dark destinies, and the bad guys fight for what they believe to be a noble cause. But it still manages to be an excellent evocation of classic creature features, showing reverence to its references and giving care and attention to its own creations. We need more comic book films like this. We need more horror films like this. Hellboy II is not a perfect film, but it is a film undoubtedly assembled with love and passion by all involved. With all that care put on the screen, how could we not enjoy it?

New Comic Book Day Top 5: October 5th

Hello Revuers! It’s time for another edition of #NCBD Top 5! This week represents a very special week for me as it’s my birthday! Not only that, but this week sees a ton of fantastic comics drop, including the start of several series. Marvel starts their NOW! initiative (again?), and we see new series’ from Black Mask and Aftershock comics as well. So without any further delay let’s jump right in!

 

5: Jessica Jones #1

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Following the success of Jessica Jones on Netflix, Marvel has decided to relaunch Jessica with her own series again. Bringing back original creators Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. As an added bonus they have David Mack back on covers (Though not the one featured above, that’s a variant cover by David Aja). I enjoyed the Netflix series and I am excited for this rebirth and interested in Jessica Jones. The old volume of Jessica Jones was released on the MAX imprint of Marvel which featured more mature content. This imprint no longer exists, so it’s safe to assume this volume with have much tamer content. Though I’m sure they will push the envelope when possible.

 

4: Moonshine #1

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Monnshine is a new series from Image comics, featuring the creative talents of Brian Azzarello and  Eduardo Risso. The series is set in the U.S during the time of prohibition. It centers around a group of gangsters from New York trying to embargo illegal alcohol from Virginia back to NYC. But, there is a twist. There’s always a twist. I don’t know very much about this title other than the premise and that is enough to make me want to purchase it. Add in it’s from the creative talent behind 100 Bullets, and I’m sold.

 

3: Shipwreck #1

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Shipwreck is the latest title to come out of Aftershock Comics. Having already scored some major talent for their other titles, they now bring in Warren Ellis on writing duties and the wonderful Phil Hester on art. The synopsis of the story is that the main character is a survivor of a “mysterious” shipwreck. The catch is he can’t remember what happened and he seems to be stuck on a road that never ends, with a companion that may not have his best interest in mind. The creative team is top notch, Warren Ellis is one of my favorite writers since his stints on Moon Knight and Trees. Phil Hester’s art is always phenomenal on any book that he contributes to. Aftershock has been bringing it lately, and this series appears to be another win for them.

 

2: Justice League #6

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DC Comics has seen a revitalization since Rebirth that is nothing short of astounding. Their sales are up and their stories are better. Even at the frantic shipping twice monthly pace they are on. Justice League by Bryan Hitch, Tony S. Daniel and for this issue on art Matthew Clark has been no exception. The story telling of the first arc was fast paced and intriguing. The art by Tony S. Daniel was some of the finest of his storied career. Issue 6 sees the start of a new arc titles “State of Fear” in which it looks like the Justice League will have to face their fears…..starting with Jessica Cruz. Every week when I see this on my pull list my heart starts beating faster as I know it’s going to be incredible. The connecting variants by Yanick Paquette have been astounding and fun to collect as well.

 

1: Black #1

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Coming from Black Mask Studios, the company not afraid of anything, comes Black #1. Black #1 is set in a world where only black people have super powers. After being shot by the police, a young man learns a secret about himself and his community. The creative team on this book includes Kwanza Osajyefo, Jamal Igle, Tim Smith 3 and Khary Randolph. With our reality teaming with political, racial and violent unrest this could be the comic that creates real change. It will definitely be the comic that asks hard questions. I can’t wait to read it and see what it makes me question about myself.

 

So there you have it! Did your most anticipated books make the cut? Tell us in the comments below. We would also love to see you list of most anticipated comics!

 

-Andrew

 

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): A Hulk-Sized Post: In Praise of Ang Lee’s Hulk

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Every Comic Book Movie (Ever) is an ongoing series which examines the long-standing relationship between comic books and film through individual works as well as groups of works. While it is likely impossible that a single person could write about every single comic book film ever made, the series hopes to provide insight that ranges widely across eras and styles of filmmaking – covering acknowledged classics, hidden gems, huge disasters, and relatively unknown works with an empathetic and critical eye.

 

In theory, the Hulk should be one of the easiest characters to put to screen. He is Frankenstein and his monster. He is Jekyll and Hyde. He is King Kong. The Hulk is gothic horror retold for the nuclear era. In fact, in his first comic appearance, he is betrayed by his assistant Igor (who turns out to be a Soviet spy) while testing his breakthrough, the G-bomb. The literary and cinematic family from which the Hulk descends is rich and ripe for constant reinterpretation. It is a deep well. So it makes sense that he has been depicted many times since his creation.

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In the hands of the creative team at CBS in the 70s and 80s, the Hulk became a lonely drifter, whose curse cuts him off from close human relationships, but allows him to do some limited good in the world. The TV series deserves a much longer column, and will hopefully get one in the future, but what makes it successful is the way in which it explores Banner/Hulk as a psychological construction as much as a biological one. The Hulk comics have always had a gnarled psychological undertone, but the show’s modus operandi was to explore that, taking the subtext of a flashy comic book and elevating it. This is a practical decision, on the one hand, as television budget and time constrictions made it impossible to, week after week, mount huge, expensive action sequences. But character studies also make for effective television. Instead of upping the spectacle with each episode, a game you cannot win, what the show chose to do was dive deeper and deeper into Banner’s relationship with himself. By giving him a lifestyle (that of a drifter) which lends itself to episodic exploits, the creators were able to deliver discrete adventures each week while making the complexities of the Banner/Hulk dichotomy the long arc of the show.

There is also the matter of how they portrayed the Hulk visually. With limited options, they chose to cast another actor (the truly hulking Lou Ferrigno) and paint him green. The psychological duality of Banner (played with agony by Bill Bixby) and the Hulk is manifested physically by the performances of the two actors. In addition to this, the show offered an equally complicated antagonist in the form of journalist Jack McGee, who is always hot on Banner’s heels, obsessed with proving the existence of the Hulk in order to advance his career. This obsession mirrors Banner’s own scientific obsession which turned him into the Hulk in the first place. The show works because of its intense focus on the characters’ states of mind. The rampages of the Hulk merely serve to spice the thing up a bit. A similar approach would be taken when the Hulk was finally portrayed on film.

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It is possible that, due to the fevered pace at which superhero films have been put out in the intervening years, you have forgotten that 2003’s Hulk even exists. It was a different time in the world of superhero films. After a decade which saw the rise (in the hands of Tim Burton) and fall (at the hands of Joel Schumacher) of Batman at the box office, studios were still laying low. However, the success of Fox’s X-Men in 2000 and Sony’s Spider-Man in 2002 had studios reconsidering the potentially lucrative comic book properties which they owned the rights to. So before WB gave Christopher Nolan the wheel on Batman, and when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was merely a dollar sign twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, Universal Studios (along with Feige, Avi Arad, and Marvel) tapped Ang Lee to helm the first big-screen iteration of the character.

Thirteen years later, Ang Lee remains the most interesting directorial choice for a comic book franchise. He does not at all seem a natural fit for the material (unlike say, Nolan, whose noir sensibility fits Gotham). Aside from, perhaps, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is nothing to suggest a turn heading a comic book tent pole in Lee’s filmography, which is mostly made up of beautifully shot dramas. And unlike more recent indie/art house promotions, Lee’s career was both established and praised, so the studio had less leverage in shaping the final film. The trade-off was that Lee’s experienced hand could guide the film competently to completion. The development of the film had started in 1990, and I won’t delve too deeply into its history here, but over the course of the decade, several directors and screenwriters worked on the film and millions of dollars were spent in development. The studio needed a veteran hand, so Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus were left to sort through the material and make a film of it.

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Lee and Schamus take an even more thoughtful and staid approach to the material than the TV series. The film takes its time developing and revealing Bruce Banner’s backstory, the lynchpin of which is his complicated relation to his long-disappeared father, whose experiments on himself are inherited by Bruce. Bruce’s own research in the same field leads to the accident which causes his transformation. The film’s take on the origin story adds a thick layer of family drama over the b-movie science. Betty Ross, who leads the research into gamma radiation along with Bruce, also has a complicated and cold relationship with her father, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who shut down Bruce’s father’s research and is highly suspicious of Bruce. Complicating matters further, Bruce and Betty allude to a failed romantic partnership in the past. The tension between all of these characters is further heightened by the arrival of Maj. Glenn Talbot, a military sub-contractor interested in appropriating Bruce and Betty’s research for military use. In addition to this, a mysterious new janitor is employed in the lab, skulking around gruffly. It turns out that he is Bruce’s father, returning to finish the work he began.

All of this is hard to keep track of in print, but the film does a commendable job of balancing the melodrama and the science which make up its first half. As the pace begins to quicken and conflicts come to a head, the slower development of the first hour proves its value. We care about these characters and have at least a basic understanding of their motivations, whether simple or complex.

And some are fairly simple. Talbot is transparent from the beginning: he’s in this for the money. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. The character would be unnecessary and boring if it weren’t for Josh Lucas’s scenery-chewing performance (he excels at playing these sorts of characters). Talbot is the furthest removed from the Banner/Ross drama, with motives separate and unrelated to the history the two families share. But he serves a purpose in the plot, first as Gen. Ross’s henchman, then going behind his back to take control of research on the imprisoned Banner.

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Betty’s characterization is a bit thin as well. The specifics of her sour relationship with her father are left untouched. This is a shame because vacillation between distance and needing access to her father for help is well played by Jennifer Connelly, whose performance is intelligent and low-key. When the fact of her actions seems incongruous with the qualities of her character, Connelly sells them carefully. For what is essentially a Fey Rey role, Betty is filled out by the compassion that Connelly exudes. In fact, aside from a scene where they walk through the ruins of the town they (unwittingly) grew up in, the most affecting scenes between Betty and Bruce are when he is transformed. If Belle were not the protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, it might look something like this. And while her father is not exactly a complicated man, his priorities of safety, and the revelation of his past dealings with Banner the elder, make his motivations understandable, if a bit straightforward. He wants his daughter safe. He wants to keep his job. He wants to finish what he started.

The emotional and psychological core of the film is the oedipal conflict between Bruce and his father, David. The reason Bruce continues to transform all comes down to his father – both the emotional and physical damage caused by the man are a large part of what makes Bruce the Hulk. The revelation, late in the film, that what Bruce had been blocking, what was behind the closed door in his nightmares, was his father charging out to murder him in a fit of twisted compassion and, instead, killing Bruce’s mother by accident, is what allows Bruce to begin to face his demons, both physical and emotional. The last memory of the woman, dying on the desert floor, reaching out toward a green mushroom cloud on the horizon, is a source of trauma for both of these men.

Eric Bana’s performance is noticeably restrained, even wooden. While the performance doesn’t exactly light up the screen, it does track with Bruce’s psychology. The Hulk becomes a metaphor for Bruce’s repressed feelings – rage, passion, love, sadness. While Bruce remains closed-off, the Hulk is both gentle and fiercely protective of Betty when David sends mutant, radiated dogs to test his son’s abilities. In a lovely moment during the climactic sequence of the film, the Hulk leaps far into the desert, away from pursuing helicopters and sits, cross-legged on the ground. It is a contemplation which Banner cannot achieve in his normal life. Betty’s reasonable assessment of Banner as “emotionally distant” is why the romantic pair can’t make things work before the accident. But afterwards, where others see a dangerous monster, Betty sees the messy humanity that Bruce has been trying to hide, it just so happens to be contained in the body of an eighteen foot, bright green lab accident.

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While Bruce sees these past events as a curse to match his monstrous transformation, David uses them as fuel for his revenge against those who ruined his life, Gen. Ross being chief among them. Unsurprisingly, Nick Nolte has the most memorable performance in the entire film. As David Banner, he channels all the anxiety and madness of a protective father and mad scientist. Unleashing mutant dogs, stalking his son at his work place, springing on him the revelation of his parenthood without so much as a hello – all the good dad stuff. Although he is clearly warped and lacking perspective, there is a tragedy to his character. Nolte’s wild hair, grizzled beard, and rumpled jacket hide a broken man, looking to atone for his past sins and punish those who orchestrated his tragedy. David is unhinged, but the madness has a method, and so he replicates the accident which created the Hulk in order to “cure” himself and set about on his revenge.

The key to his plan is that he turns himself in, the only condition being that he see his son one last time. And while the plot machinery that brings them together is a bit convoluted, the operatic scene that it leads to more than makes up for that. David emerges from the darkness and sits across from Bruce, blackness all behind them, and two huge suppressive on either side (this is one of those great moments where science fiction can give physicality to mental states).

Bruce is the first to speak: “I should have killed you.”

David responds: “And I should’ve killed you.”

Bruce breaks down over his mother’s death, David moves in to console him, but Bruce rejects him, telling him that he isn’t his father. David chuckles, “I’ve got news for you.” In David’s mind, Bruce’s true being is made manifest in the Hulk, and David is the sole creator of the Hulk. He is more than a father, he is a god. Bruce is “nothing but a superficial shell” concealing his “true” son underneath. Nolte’s monologue here is Shakespearian. The drama, Greek. The madness and tragedy of David is unleashed in the way Nolte slowly loosens up, voice growing louder, arms flailing. His voice breaks with sadness, then with anger. It is theatre. It is musical, his voice rises and falls as if he is reciting poetry. It echoes in the black space. He is possessed by power and self-righteousness. His vision is mythic and apocalyptic. Bruce screams it to a stop. David collapses in his chair, play-acting a tantrum to mock Bruce. “Stop your bawling,” he says, before sucking his teeth and impishly glancing around, as if to ask, “is it time to begin now?,” before biting into the thick electrical wires draped on the floor.

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The result of this scene is that David absorbs the energy from the surrounding city, becoming a hulking figure of pure electricity (literalizing the electric performance of Nolte in this scene). With no other choice, Bruce gives in, and becomes the Hulk. David takes him for a ride through the sky in what is the most beautiful and painterly scene in any superhero film. David flashes like lightning, like Zeus, in the sky, illuminating in stabs his son and he, absorbed in battle. The alternating light and murky darkness of the scene frames each of them in still poses. Without the limitation of movement, the CGI here is emotional, physical, primordial, and mythic. The final conflict ends with the two of them blasted by the technology they helped create. David and Bruce disappear. While we are left to wonder about the fate of the father, we catch a glimpse of the son, deep in the rainforests of South America, helping people, a man-on-the-run in the tradition of the TV series.

The film does not always achieve these visual heights however. Lee films the lab spaces and character interactions (especially early in the film) in a kind of ambient light which gives everything a drab aspect. The lighting becomes more dramatic as the film goes on, but the camera work remains mostly traditional. Except for one distinctive feature: Lee attempts to adapt comic book paneling to the screen. Sometimes it is successful in establishing the space, or defining characters’ relationships to each other, but mostly it is gimmicky and distracting. In the best scenes of the film, Lee resorts to this tactic only briefly, and these scenes are noticeably diminished for it. The different ways in which he organizes panels and swipes is completely arbitrary, violating the cinematic language of the film, and ignoring the kind of sense these framings bring to comics. The only purpose they seem to serve is in reminding us that we are watching a film based on a comic book.

The CGI of the Hulk has not aged particularly well, but this is mitigated by two important factors. First, Lee is a good director, and he knows when to bring out the monster. As a result, the Hulk is only onscreen for about 15 minutes of the 2+ hours of runtime. The scenes in which he appears are spread out fairly evenly besides the last act of the film, so it feels like he appears more. On top of this, Lee uses practical effects as much as possible. While the Hulk himself is obviously digital, Lee blows out windows, flips cars, busts plaster, breaks walls, and does everything he can to give actors real, physical destruction to respond to in these scenes. The Hulk looks removed when he is standing still, but when he moves, the world around him responds naturally.

The film is, at worst, a fascinating failure, in which the disparate parts do not quite coalesce into a coherent whole. But I think the film makes daring choices that, for the most part, pay off. Visually it has lows and highs, but the highs are staggering. By pushing the characters to the forefront, Lee makes sure the film centers around a relational, human conflict, rather than a set of world ending jargon. Nolte’s performance is a huge part of this and it would not surprise me at all if Heath Ledger had studied the sci-fi Freudian couch scene that precedes the final battle in preparing to play the Joker. Unfortunately, the mixed reception of the film, its less than impressive box office, and the onslaught of comic book adaptions we’ve been hit with since have buried the film’s exceptional qualities.

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After Hulk failed to perform as well as Universal would have liked, Marvel Studios reclaimed the rights to the character (though not to stand-alone features, as the 2008 film is still a Universal production) and set about making, I believe, the first superhero reboot. Bringing Edward Norton in to play Banner, The Incredible Hulk came out just a little over a month after Iron Man and solidified the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite being named after the television show (and borrowing the flourish of Banner as a man-on-the-run), the film flattens the complexities of the series. As a reaction to Lee’s interpretation of the character, both the film’s psychology and biology are simplified. Where before, Banner was driven by rage (the TV series) or repressed trauma (Hulk), here the explanation is as simple as a set number of heartbeats in a minute. In this iteration of the character, anything can set him off so long as it elevates his heart rate. The transformation loses its tie to Banner’s state of mind and becomes something like an allergic reaction. An uncontrollable byproduct. Indeed, Banner is something of an unfortunate byproduct himself as his origin in the MCU is tied (isn’t everything?) to the super soldier program. Instead of spending time developing Banner, the film opts for CGI fireworks (the lack of these being a primary criticism of Lee’s film) which fail to thrill in the same way as Lee’s animated conflicts because they are devoid of his thoughtful character and psychological work, which serve to imbue the conflicts with drama both personal and relational.

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In all of the other MCU films in which he appears, Banner is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo who, with what little time he is given to explore the character, comes close to the kind of tortured but mild-mannered scientist that Bixby portrayed in the TV series. The Hulk, since the 2008 film, has been settled as a sort of tragi-comic supporting character, complementing the feather-light tone that most of the MCU films have while acknowledging the gravity of the character’s background and predicament. Age of Ultron attempted to advance the character forward through a romantic relationship with Black Widow. But ultimately, the film casts Hulk out into space, which is fitting way to describe what marvel has done with him the past 8 years (and, seemingly, into the future, as he does not look to be getting a stand-alone film anytime soon) through their inability to properly or even interestingly render one of the great movie monsters.

This is what, I think, makes Lee’s adaption so interesting and (dare I say) essential: he had an understanding of the Hulk as both monster and myth. He stripped it down to the bone and built up his story around it. Comic books are fairy tales obscured by cartoons and thought balloons. They tap into the same place as all the old myths do. They are filled with tragedy, comedy, and passion. They are ancient and archetypal in their construction and work best when treated as such, rather than pop escapism or self-serious video-games, hiding behind posturing edginess. If there is a way forward for superhero films as vital cinematic art, it is in finding artists with this kind of insight and allowing them to make good movies free of studio, or fan, interference.

 

-Ian