Seven Things Writers Can Learn From Watching Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

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I re-watched Hellboy II: The Golden Army recently. Not, alas, as part of the #TrashyTuesdayMovie series, which has been put on hiatus for the foreseeable future, but simply ‘cause I was in the mood for a certain type of movie and Hellboy II was in my DVD collection, waiting to be watched, and I found it before I found my copy of Blade: Trinity.

One of the nice things about re-watching movies – particularly movies that fit into the flawed-but-interesting category, such as this one – is the way it allows you to start looking for patterns. What starts out as a disappointing movie experience gradually mutates into a narrative puzzle; you take it apart, look at all the components, and figure out what could have been done differently.

Somewhere at the core of Hellboy II is one of those genre films that it is designed for mass-market appeal, a film that’s both pulpy and smart in equal measure. A film, quite frankly, that does exactly what Victor Shklovsky says all art should do – make us re-examine the familiar in a new light. Like it’s spiritual sister film, Speed Racer (great visual style, mess of a plot), it’s one of those pieces that’s all potential and no real payoff.

But there are always useful things to be learnt from films and books you don’t like, if only you’re willing to subject yourself too them again and again in order to figure out why, and I’ve chosen to take this particular bullet in order to give you the seven most important things writers can learn from watching Hellboy II.

ONE: THE MOMENT YOU SAY “IT’S FLAWED, BUT…” THE PROBLEM IS NARRATIVE

Let’s be honest, if a film like Hellboy II goes wrong, it’s almost always a problem based in narrative choices. The film has too much stacked in its favour for it to be anything else. Off the top of my head, the merits of the film include: the source material of Mike Mignola, which is full of moody awesomeness; director Guillermo del Toro coming to the project straight off the back of Pan’s Labyrinth, a critical success that’s a masterpiece of visual imagery; Ron Perlman as Hellboy, which is one of those perfect casting choices; Selma Blair being…well, Selma Blair.

With a gun.

And pyro-kinetic blue flames coming off her hands.

And just like XKCD teaches us that there’s a market for a film in which Summer Glau plays River Tam kicking the ass of everyone in the universe, I’d be perfectly happy watching an entire film of Selma Blair carrying a gun, being monotonally sexy and spontaneously combusting every couple of scenes.

Then there’s the fact that del Toro snuck a CGI Elder Thing into the background of the Goblin Market scenes (presumably as a warm-up for his now-defunct adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness), which just goes to show exactly how much of a nerdy confluence of joy and moody, shiny visuals this film has going for it.

This movie delivers pretty. It delivers it in spades. It’s like crack for nerds in every respect but the story.

The film isn’t poorly written – there’s enough smart script-writing going on to keep it semi-coherent, and semi-coherent is enough when you’ve got other strengths going for you in performance, visuals, etc. It’s the reason I can adore this movie, but loathe visually spectacular films whose scripts are just outright bad (see Avatar, Suckerpunch).

But when you look at the components of the script, it should have been a knock-out punch of a movie. The potential is there, but the narrative choices let it down; stories finish too early, themes get lost, and characters…well, somewhere along the line things get a little muddy regarding who the main character is.

TWO: THE MORAL CHOICE AT THE CLIMAX NEEDS TO MATTER

This is one of those tenets I picked up teaching the three-act structure in scriptwriting classes, and it’s a remarkable short-cut for figuring out why an ending doesn’t work. First up, identify your protagonist. Second up, ID the thematic moral choice they make. Thirdly, look at the consequences.

It’s easy to miss that moment in a good movie, because they spend the entire film laying the groundwork for that choice, making sure you feel the sense of elation when it’s finally made. Also, it’s usually followed by pyrotechnics and explosions, just to make sure you realise the consequences of the choice, which means it’s easy to mistake the action as the pinnacle of the movie rather than the choice.

It took me a long, long time to figure this out, given that I tend to write a particularly passive breed of protagonist who isn’t big on making choices, but in genre terms its right there in everything. You hit the end of the story and the protagonist makes a decision that chances their life forever and ensures victory: Hellboy rejects his destiny as the prince of darkness and kicks mini-Cthulhu’s ass in the first Hellboy movie; Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer and puts his trust in the force at the end of Star Wars; after nine hours of Lord of the Rings films Frodo Baggins finally caves and elects not to throw the powerful McGuffin into the volcano of Mount Doom (upon which the universe fixes that decision for him via Gollum and he’s punished for making the wrong choice by the loss of a finger and the inability to be a normal, farm-loving hobbit ever after).

But when you take a look through the series of decisions being made at the end of the Golden Army it’s basically a series of narrative no-brainers: Hellboy elects not to kill the faerie prince after beating him a fair fight and claiming control of the Golden Army; Princes Nuala elects to kill herself in order to save Hellboy when the defeated Prince tries to stab him from behind; Abe elects to tell Nuala how he feels as she lies dying.

All of these feel like they should be big decisions, because we’ve seen movies where they’ve been big decisions before and they signal “end of film climax” to the viewers, but within this context they’re all kind of weak – Hellboy, for example, loses nothing by playing the hero and not killing the bad guy; Nuala has basically been a cipher for most of the film, existing primarily to exposit and serve as a love interest for Abe; and Abe, well, his loneliness and alienation gets entirely one scene leading up to this point, so there’s nothing particularly transcendent about his reveal given that he’s a secondary character. In order for a decision to be big, the crux of it needs to be ingrained in the storyline somewhere.

THREE: IF YOU’RE GOING TO BLOW THE CLIMAX, DON’T PACK THE MOVIE WITH BETTER ALTERNATIVES THAT FIT YOUR INITIAL THEME

To be fair, Hellboy II isn’t exactly light on characters making meaningful moral decisions, it’s just that they’ve gotten them all well-and-truly out of the road by the time we hit the end of the movie when the biggest of big decisions needs to be made. Consider how much more impact *any* of these scenes would have if they were moved to the end of the movie

The MID-POINT, when Hellboy kills the last Elemental with a baby in his hand, thus destroying a piece of magic humanity will never get back.

Or JUST BEFORE THE CLIMAX, when Selma Blair and a dying Hellboy confront the angel of destiny, and Selma chooses to damn the world and bring a whole lot of pain down on her own head in the future in order to save Hellboy now and have him be a father to their unborn child.

Big decisions, big consequences, and entirely in keeping with the narrative theme of mortal world versus the supernatural; all of which happens before the climax of the film, which only serves to highlight exactly how weak-ass the decisions being made there truly are.

FOUR: YOU ONLY GET ONE PROTAGONIST

It’s a very strange problem to have when you name your film after a character, but there’s an inescapable feeling that this film really shouldn’t have focused on Hellboy as a protagonist.

There are a bunch of handy “rule of thumb” guides that writers can apply to figuring out who the protagonist of a story is: who hurts the most? is a good one (note: in this film, it’s not Hellboy); who has the most to lose? is another (note: also not Hellboy). My personal rule of thumb is this: who has to make the biggest choice at the climax (bonus points if said choice involves some form moral conflict rather than physical).

The movie starts off with Hellboy as the protagonist, but by any reasonable measure, he’s passed the ball off to Abe by the midpoint. Abe is the isolated man who falls in love, and his isolation trumps Hellboy’s by virtue of the fact that Abe lives in a tank and Hellboy already has a love life.

This makes Abe the guy who hurts the most, the guy who has the most to lose, and…well, two out of three ain’t bad. And all the choices made at the end of the film are primarily about hurting Abe and his love interest, which rather makes them seem like they should be the folk’s front-and-centre on the movie cover, rather than the big red guy and his gun.

Should the movie not focus on Abe and his pain? No, that’s fine. Abe’s an interesting character and I’ve got no problem with him getting his fair share of screen time. The problem is that the emotional beats of the final moments of the story are all about him, which pushes him into the protagonist role right about the point where I’d like to see Hellboy making big, important decisions about his own internal conflict.

FIVE: ALSO, YOU ONLY GET ONE DOOM 

Here’s another mistake the movie makes that should have been easy to avoid – when Hellboy and Prince Nuada square off at the climax, engaging in a one-on-one slugfest for the fate of the world, earth is pretty much doomed either way. Either Hellboy loses, and Nuada emerges with the Golden Army to take his vengeance on humanity for wiping out his people, or Hellboy wins…

…and earth is doomed, as we’ve just learned, because the Angel of Death told Liz that’s the price of bringing Hellboy back. She loves him and needs him, but his survival will hurt all of humanity and Liz most of all.

And so the climax of the movie hinges on a lose/lose fight for the bulk of the world.It’s a little thing, but it matters. Even if we’ll nominally be on Hellboy’s side for the rest of the fight, there’s a nagging voice in our subconscious saying, well, yeah, but…

Don’t feed that nagging voice.

You only get one doom.

SIX: THE LESSON – PICK YOUR THEME AND STICK WITH IT

Hellboy II starts with a morality play about power and exceeding boundaries, set-up in the form of a bedtime story for its young protagonist. Pertinent, ’cause Hellboy’s going to spend the rest of his life being a powerful entity protecting the powerless, in the form of humanity, and he’s going to need to make big decisions about that.

When we move forward, into the future, we get a bunch of other conflicts emerging: teething problems between Hellboy and his girlfriend (rarely explained well, but there’s the seeds of an important decision coming because she’s pregnant and that’ll become pertinent in the plot); Hellboy’s growing discomfort with being an invisible hero, unknown by humanity at large, when he feels a stronger kinship with the creatures he hunts; Abe being lonely and in-love with the faerie queen; bad guys who should be heroes ’cause, yo, they’re trying to stop their entire race from being wiped out.

If all of these tied into the morality play mentioned at the start, then Hellboy II would have been brilliant. Some come close, some don’t, but they all drop away and, as mentioned above, utterly cease to be relevant by the end of the movie.

The theme by the end of the movie? Tell the girl you love that you love her now, ‘cause you never know when she’ll kill herself to stop her twin brother from destroying the human race.

What I wanted to see? The equivalent of the elemental scene in the middle of the film, but turned up to fucking eleven.

SEVEN: ONE PLOT, THEN SUBPLOTS

Really, when you get right down to it, all the problems in Hellboy stem from a single problem: it’s all subplots, no through-line. At no point does it commit to a single idea of what the film’s about, and let everything else revolve around that.

I spend a lot of time arguing that there is a good movie in Hellboy II, hidden down beneath the poor structural choices. Move one of the big moral choices to the end of the film and make Hellboy the focus of the climax, and suddenly you’ve got a central plot and everything else can hang around it, creating complications.

Subplots are tricky things: by their very nature, they’ve got components that happen off-camera. You hit their major beats, but skip the quieter bits. At times their progression is suggested rather than overtly shown. Characters can find themselves embroiled in more than one – Hellboy versus the Faerie Prince is (or should be) your main plot for Hellboy II, but big red is involved in a number of the sub-plots including his rocky romance with Liz, his clashes with authority over his desire to be seen, and his role as a (admittedly crappy) mentor figure in Abe’s developing romance.

But if you’re smart, you use your subplots to build your main plot, and it doesn’t take long to get them firing on all cylinders. All you’ve got to do is remember which plot serves which. I mean, consider this simple change: Abe realises that Nuala and Nuada are joined, and begs Hellboy to find another way to stop Nuada in order to preserve Nuala’s life.

It’s a simple thing, but it utterly changes the scope of the ending. Hellboy choosing not to kill someone ’cause he’s a hero doesn’t mean much; going into the fight expecting to kill your opponent, but being unable to do it ’cause of the pain it’ll cause your friend, is one of those bad decisions we love our heroes for making, especially if there’s someone else standing by to rectify things for them.

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