Why Loving the Source Material Isn’t Enough to Make a Good Movie

On the failures of Hellboy and Suicide Squad

There are moments where a movie loses you. You haven’t rejected or embraced it yet, until you witness one moment that drives you over the edge and forces you to give up on the work as a whole. In 2019’s Hellboy reboot directed by Neil Marshall, that moment came for me in the very first spoken line.

I had not heard good things about the movie going in, but I still had an open mind as I sat in the theatre, watching the company logos flash by. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to see a movie that misunderstood its own characters so thoroughly that it would deny them any reflection, vulnerability, or emotional connection, keep them from saying anything that wasn’t a one-liner or a battle cry. Sweet, naïve boy that I am, I still held out hope that the critics I’d read had been too harsh.

Then I was treated to a nearly colorless battlefield, while Ian McShane spouted voice-over narration referring to the era of history “called the Dark Ages,” his voice then taking on a loud, belligerent tone, adding, “and for fucking good reason.”

As the film went on, I kept finding new aspects that drove me further and further away. Sophie Okonedo appears briefly, before her character abruptly betrays Hellboy and dies offscreen. Hellboy’s friend Alice needles Ben Daimio about his hatred of monsters, asking if one touched him as a child. At every potentially quiet moment, the soundtrack blares to life with some new generic rock song. Every opportunity for introspection is instead given over to a bad joke.

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Meet the New Antihero, Same as the Old Antiheroes

I realized this wasn’t the first time I’d felt disappointed and repelled like this. The last time was during 2016’s Suicide Squad, DC’s attempt at a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque story of a band of misfits comprised of former supervillains like Harley Quinn and Deadshot. Needless to say, it fell short. I felt alienated from the first frames of the movie, which made a bad first impression that only intensified over the course of the narrative.

Suicide Squad isn’t as fun as Hellboy, neutered first by director David Ayer’s concrete gray color palette and relentless military machismo, then again by its forced PG-13 rating and reshoots. Viola Davis and Joel Kinnaman get the lion’s share of the dialogue, and they mostly spend it introducing the more interesting characters in a bored, glowering tone. Hellboy also has the benefit of David Harbour’s performance, which at least lends the story an emotional throughline, albeit a static one.

So there are certainly differences between the two works, but a nagging similarity kept itching at me as I reflected on them. They each seemed to flop on every front, the dialogue, plot structure, special effects, editing, and acting all underwhelming in their own ways. Was there something aside from general incompetence that these movies shared? The answer, I think, lies in the creative priorities of the two films.

Professors Aren’t as Cool as Soldiers

We are awash in superhero adaptations, with a comic book movie for every emotional tone you could desire. Hellboy, with its constant gore and profane humor, clearly courts an audience that overlaps that of Guillermo del Toro’s previous adaptations and 2016’s Deadpool. Suicide Squad likely would have gone for a similar demographic if it wasn’t for its studio-mandated PG-13 rating. The problem is that these two wannabes have all the R-rated impulses of Deadpool, and none of the character work. Love or hate the film, Deadpool captures the audience’s sympathy by actually showing his pain, his self-doubt, and his anger when he is put through the ringer. Hellboy and Suicide Squad don’t let us see that, preferring cheap one-liners instead.

What we’re left with is two movies that never allow for any vulnerability in their own characters. No one in the cast ever gets to let their guard down and feel, hardly any actor ever gets to play a soft, quiet moment. The closest either film comes to an emotional scene with real stakes is Hellboy shouting at his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm, for not telling him his apocalyptic origin story. Bruttenholm, played by McShane, later tells him to get over his feelings and “grow a pair,” because obviously Hellboy’s dad always loved him and he should stop whining and start killing the bad guys. This is portrayed in the film as an effective motivational speech.

Bruttenholm is afflicted with the same flat military edge the characters in Suicide Squad display. Where del Toro’s adaptation showed a gentle, scholarly old man, McShane’s version describes himself as “a killer,” before practically winking when he adds “and a damn good one.” Like many, many other characters in both Hellboy and Suicide Squad, he talks about his painful past, but the audience doesn’t get to see him hurt or vulnerable, because that wouldn’t be cool. And above all else, these films want you to think they are cool.

Just Happy to be Here

The obnoxious attitude, the lack of emotional depth, the juvenile dialogue all stem from the fact that the creators behind Hellboy and Suicide Squad seem supremely confident that they have made something really, really cool. “You guys are gonna love this,” the movies seem to declare before every setpiece. After all, the next big scene has Hellboy mutilate a trio of CGI giants, or Diablo sacrifice himself for the Suicide Squad for no real reason. How could you, a superhero fan, not love it?

There is a sprawl to both movies, each of them stuffed with characters they don’t really need, dialogue hinting at future plotlines in nonexistent sequels. These details virtually never service the plot of the actual film, and instead seem to mainly exist to prove that the writers know what they’re talking about. They, presumably superhero nerds, have made these movies for other superhero nerds, and have ensured the films were packed with as many references to the deeper canon as possible. There’s vigilante Lobster Johnson in the Hellboy mid-credits scene, there’s Slipknot getting murdered before he can actually be a part of the Suicide Squad. These references, displays of love for the source material, rank much higher on the to-do list than the interior lives of the characters.

The creative team is so excited to be here, making a naughtier, bloodier superhero movie. You can feel their enthusiasm for the material, but you can’t find a way to get swept up in it, because there’s no way to empathize for the characters. Hellboy and Suicide Squad are too caught up in the superficial trappings of the genre to let their characters breathe.

It should be noted that these are hardly the only two movies like this. Just as Suicide Squad bastardized Guardians of the Galaxy, Netflix’s Polar bastardized John Wick. Just as Hellboy (2019) failed to live up to Hellboy (2004), the recent Gotti failed to live up to gangster movies of years gone by. This particular brand of failure loves the genres it’s aping, just not enough to learn the lessons of the stories those genres tell.

But there are plenty of movies made without vulnerability, plenty of movies that try to sell on confidence and style alone. What separates disasters like Hellboy, Polar, Gotti, and Suicide Squad from the merely mediocre? Even without emotional resonance, movies can rely on style and spectacle to make the viewing experience at least passable, right? Well, Hellboy, Suicide Squad, and all the others of their ilk fail there, too.

The final nail in the coffin for these movies is the ineptitude in their craft. Much has already been made of the editing of Suicide Squad, the plot structure of Hellboy and the list just goes on. These movies fail on every emotional level, setting the cheap goal of coolness without requiring viewers to turn their brains on. And they might have succeeded, if the one-liners were well written, or the action was well choreographed, or the editing flowed well. But none of it works. There is such an apparent lack of effort in these films, all made by men with obviously dated views on entertainment, that it creates a final product that is simultaneously too loud, too boring, and too juvenile. It’s like the worst guy on MTV from ten years ago suddenly decided he had to make a love letter to his favorite film genre.

This isn’t a case of trying to have it both ways, it’s a case of not putting enough work in to have it either way.

Love and Monsters

But there is one scene in Hellboy that felt right. Near-comatose from drink after killing a former colleague, Hellboy sits with his head on the bar, arm outstretched on the counter. A scorpion crawls down his oversized wrist, and Hellboy watches it, bemused. Suddenly, the little black creature tenses up, and jabs the big red creature with its tail. Hellboy is stung, and angry, and could so easily crush the scorpion in retaliation. He doesn’t. He lets the little guy go, forgiving the scorpion for acting according to its nature. The scene stands out from all of the others, in any of the movies I’ve mentioned, because it just lets Hellboy be. He doesn’t reference pop culture or say something jokey or tough, he just forgives. And then two agents arrive to pick Hellboy up, and we’re back into standoffish one-liner mode.

Hellboy isn’t a good character because he’s a big red guy that punches monsters real hard. He’s a good character because underneath the exterior of the hardboiled paranormal detective, he’s a lonely guy with an affinity for all life, no matter how venomous. This is what drew Guillermo del Toro to Hellboy, and his love for the genre and all things monstrous bled through every frame. Much like other films by del Toro, Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army portrayed the supernatural with a tender, loving respect, an awe that understood its beauty and its danger. The two films fall right into place with the other works in del Toro’s catalog; they may be blockbuster films, but it is clear that they are also personal works of art that reflect the sentiments of the artist.

The filmmakers behind Hellboy (2019) and Suicide Squad, Neil Marshall and David Ayer and everyone else on the creative teams, clearly love the genre as much as del Toro, but they learned the wrong lessons from him and filmmakers like him. They focus on the jokes, the attitude, the makeup, the action, and stop short of putting themselves into their work. After watching these films, there is nothing I could tell you about these filmmakers, other than that they really like Hellboy and the Suicide Squad.

You can’t be vulnerable if you don’t put yourself on the line. You can’t expect an emotional connection from your audience if you don’t invest emotionally yourself. The only blockbusters that succeed artistically are the products of a creative team making them personal. It’s not enough to be a fan of the intellectual property you’re controlling. You have to be an artist, too.