The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Del Toro: Inside the Labyrinthine Mind of a Master

Written by: Ron Bricker

Image Guillermo Del Toro is a rare breed of director indeed.  In a business that’s as much about getting "what you can while you can" as it is making art, he has made a name for himself by doing only projects he believes in.  Sure, he’s hit a bump in the road before (Mimic), but for the most part his career is a list of projects that meant something to the man personally.  While you could talk for days about the impact Del Toro’s two Spanish language films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, have had on the horror community, I’m going to discuss his two more well known features, 2002’s Blade II and 2004’s Hellboy.

Blade II could have been a kiss of death for Del Toro’s career.  Sequels have a way of turning an otherwise good movie into a train wreck of a franchise.  Instead, the talented director took the film and made it his own, parlaying his unique style of filmmaking into big box office success, success that he would ultimately use to get his pet project, Hellboy, to the big screen.

Blade wasn’t exactly the deepest character.  True, he was a black superhero at a time when black characters were still few and far between in the world of comics.  But the times, and the restraint of the comics code, kept him from being anything more than a fairly one-dimensional bit player for years.  It wasn’t until his battles with Morbius the Living Vampire, which heightened his powers and all but eliminated his vampiric weaknesses, that Blade began to evolve as a character.  So Del Toro came onto a follow-up to an entertaining yet ultimately disappointing first film based on a fairly one-dimensional and forgettable character.

Hellboy was quite the opposite.  Created by Mike Mignola for Dark Horse comics, Hellboy had the room to breathe that the comics code would never allow Blade.  Much like Blade, Hellboy existed between worlds.  A demon whose right hand was meant to unlock the evil lurking at the edge of the galaxy, Hellboy was raised by the caring Professor Broom and became a hero, not a harbinger.  The comics offer a classic example of the argument of nature versus nurture, and Mignola’s style injects that argument with the creeping things found in the dark pages of H. P. Lovecraft and the high adventure of Robert E. Howard.

In both characters Del Toro saw an opportunity to explore what has become a recurring theme in his career: when the very foundations of our beliefs are challenged, we are willing to question not only authority, but our very instinctual nature, in order to make the right choice.  In Blade II, Blade is forced to work alongside a group of vampires to eliminate a much larger threat to the world.  In doing so, he is faced with a decision that we all must make at times: the decision to judge people by more than just what we see on the surface.  In Hellboy, the hero is paired with agent John Myers, a man meant to guide him and help him, not only to fight evil, but to be more human.  So both characters have to work outside their respective comfort zones in order to fight, and to grow.

Fantasy, science fiction, horror, they are all important because, by being so otherworldly and unbelievable, they heighten the humanity of a story.  In a place of total darkness, the light becomes that much more pronounced.  Del Toro understands this, and he attempts to inject both films with that classic element of storytelling.  But where Blade II emerges as a shining example of Del Toro’s theme, Hellboy falls short.  The reason?  Del Toro loves Hellboy.

That’s not to say that Guillermo Del Toro isn’t a fan of Blade.  I’m sure it’s entirely possible that he owns and enjoys comics featuring the Daywalker.  But he didn’t sit around daydreaming about making Blade movies.  The Daywalker was an opportunity to make something great out of something so little, but Hellboy was a dream project.  There was already so much there to draw on, so much there to work from, and that was the film’s ultimate downfall.

Hellboy suffers from a sort of “hyper-humanity” that is an unfortunate side effect of bringing an epic, involved, beautiful story like that to the screen.  In the comics, Hellboy is something of a loner.  He cares about Abe, and about Broom and Liz, but they aren’t what drive him.  It his constant struggle with his own dark nature that causes him to grow into the person that he is.  Involving the character of Agent Myers, which could have easily been a cardboard cut out with a voice recorder attached to it, and creating a love story between Hellboy and Liz, heightened the humanity to a point that Hellboy’s struggle with his own need to be human was lost.  The human characters act as a crutch, a kind of deus ex machina of revelation, for a character that never needed them.  In the books, Hellboy is assaulted at all times with the reminders of his true nature, and it is those struggles with the unreal, with the dark, that allow who he truly is to shine through.

With Blade II, Del Toro let the studio have everything they wanted.  There were involved fight scenes, elaborate set pieces, and lots of flashy special effects.  Since he wasn’t as emotionally connected to the character of Blade, he was able to work his magic much easier.  It didn’t matter to Del Toro if he got aspects of this great story arc, or recreations of that iconic panel, so he was able to focus more on the character than the story.  A story like Blade II is so formulaic, so straightforward, that he could let it tell itself while he took the opportunity to squeeze in moments of genuine character growth.  So by the end of the film, Blade has been forced to make difficult decisions, and his perspective on so many things has been changed.  In a very one-dimensional world, a very talented director was able to get a lot out of a very one-dimensional character.

With Hellboy, it was Del Toro’s emotional connection to the stories that did the film in.  His love of Mignola’s grand stories caused him to make the wrong decisions.  He added new characters and changed existing ones in a way that would speed up the story enough for him to work in as many different aspects of the comic as he could.  If you watch closely, you can pick up more than four different story arcs from the Hellboy comics crammed into one film.  It’s understandable that Del Toro would do this, as he never thought in a million years he would get to make another one, so the fan in him tried to get as much Mignola on screen as he could.  In doing so, he gave fans a visual feast based on so many great stories, but he sacrificed the aspects of the characters that made those stories so great in the first place.

So my final summation is this:  Blade = Shitty Comic & Good Movie, Hellboy = Fantastic Comic & Decent Yet Flawed Movie.  Here’s hoping that the sequel to Hellboy, which Del Toro turned down such high profile projects as Harry Potter and Halo to direct, will improve upon its predecessor.  After all, improving on an entertaining yet ultimately disappointing first film is something he’s proven he is more than capable of doing.