Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) looks like director Guillermo del Toro’s audition for The Hobbit. (He got the job, but backed out because of scheduling problems with the studio.) The root mythology is Tolkienesque: In remotest antiquity, elves, trolls, and other beings shared the earth with mankind. The visual style is pure Peter Jackson: The elves look like Tolkien/Peter Jackson elves; the trolls look like Tolkien/Peter Jackson trolls; etc.
Once upon a time, the human race was locked in ceaseless war against the elves, trolls, and allied races. Seeking to end the war, the elf king Balor commissioned the creation of the Golden Army, a horde of indestructible robots. When unleashed, the Golden Army fought with such soulless, mechanical ferocity that the humans were quickly crushed and sued for peace. The elf king himself recoiled in horror at the carnage and shut down the Golden Army. The elves and their allies made a truce with men, dividing the world between them, the former claiming the natural world, the latter keeping the man-made one.
Flash forward to the present. In the modern age, we men have forgotten the truce and transgressed our bounds. With billions of mouths to feed and asses to wipe, we have assaulted and despoiled nature with asphalt and shopping malls and oil slicks and nuclear waste.
The elf prince Nuada, therefore, has decided to reactivate the Golden Army, greatly cull the human herd, bring the present Dark Age to an end, and usher in a new Eden, another Golden Age.
The Golden Army raises a very important theme, what Savitri Devi called, in a book of that name, the Impeachment of Man. The elves are guardians of nature, and in the present world, that calls for drastic measures. Like Finnish eco-fascist Pentti Linkola, Prince Nuada realizes that “humanism”—the idea that every human being has unconditional value—is a death sentence for nature. We must, therefore, reject humanism and cull the herd.
I was shocked that Nuada was actually given a chance to make a case for this view. Having unleashed the last “elemental” (think of Tolkien’s ents) on New York City, Nuada begs Hellboy not to kill it. It is, after all, the last of its kind. And the humans it is squashing and the buildings and streets it is destroying? Well, there’s always more where those came from.
Later, Nuada says that when rare creatures like him and Hellboy die, the world is poorer for it. The unspoken assumption is that there are so many human beings that, when we die, the world is better for it.
Yet, in the end, we the audience cannot really be allowed to go there. (In a subtle touch, Del Toro’s Tolkienesque elves have horribly pasty, leathery, scarred faces. Such heresies, it is clear, can never be uttered by someone as beautiful as Cate Blanchett or Orlando Bloom.)
Hellboy does not go there either. Vulgar, “assimilated” demon-American that he is, Hellboy is completely unmoved by Nuada’s logic and dispatches the elemental without qualms. Then, in the movie’s one scene of true poetic beauty, the dying elemental expires in clouds of pollen and carpets of lush grass, transforming a New York street into a verdant glade.
It is a shame that Del Toro squanders a superb opportunity to inject depth and dramatic tension into his script. Even if Hellboy remained loyal to mankind in the end, it would have made the movie infinitely more interesting if he at least entertained some doubts.
Furthermore, such doubts would have been in keeping with another theme in the movie: the choice between love and the world. Hellboy’s spouse, the psychic fire-starter Liz Sherman, gives Hellboy the choice of choosing her or his mission. His mission, of course, is to save the world. Hellboy chooses Liz. Later in the movie, Hellboy is mortally wounded. Liz encounters the Angel of Death, who tells him that Hellboy’s destiny is to destroy the world. Then the angel gives her a choice: to let him die then, thus saving the world, or to save him so he can be with her. She chooses love over the world, and Hellboy’s life is restored. Abe Sapiens also chooses love at the cost of the destruction of the world. He is in love with Nuada’s twin sister Princess Nuala. Allowing her to die would save the world, but he chooses love.
Furthermore, The Golden Army contains a scene that explicitly emphasizes the dangers superheros face from the public they seek to serve and the consequent necessity of crypsis. Hellboy chafes against the secrecy imposed upon him by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the top-secret government agency that employs him. He constantly flouts their desire to keep his existence secret, even posing for photographs. After all, he is a well-assimilated demon-American who fights for the safety of his fellow citizens. Why shouldn’t he get some publicity? He wants his fifteen minutes.
However, after dispatching the elemental, Hellboy returns a baby he has rescued to its mother. The mother angrily demands to know what he has done to the baby. The mindless crowd then turns on Hellboy, “just because he is different.” Ungrateful cattle.
Frankly, I found it remarkable that the issue of the loyalty and benevolence of superheros toward ordinary people was brought up at all, for these are the only things that separate superheroes from supervillains. And, as I have argued in my review of the first Hellboy movie, stressing the loyalty and benevolence of superheroes has a Jewish apologetic element.
This should be no surprise, as Jews pretty much invented the superhero genre, thus superheroes tend to function as symbolic proxies for Jews. Given that Jews are a tiny, powerful group of outsiders who have burrowed their way into the heart of our society, they prefer that we believe that they will use their power like superheroes rather than like supervillains.
In Hellboy, the villains are Germans and Russians. In The Golden Army, they are Tolkienesque elves. What is the common denominator? Tolkien’s elves, of course, are hyper-Nordic. In The Golden Army, they speak Old Gaelic, and the Golden Army itself is hidden in the far North of Ireland. (Hollywood’s customary courtesies to Irish Catholics apparently do not extend to Irish elves.)
Furthermore, the villains in both movies share a cyclical philosophy of history, believe that we inhabit the dregs of the Kali Yuga, and seek to destroy the present world to usher in a new Golden Age. They are anti-humanists, who believe in the sacredness of the whole, rather than in the sacredness of man alone. By affirming the sacredness of the whole, they say “Yes” to the great circle of creation and destruction, good and evil. (The elemental, we are told, is both a giver and a destroyer of life. It is nature itself, where life feeds on death.)
Hellboy is the Beast of the Apocalypse, the very being who is supposed to bring about such a change. Yet he ignores his true identity and throws himself into defeating prince Nuada and making the world safe for Walmart. He fights for America, which is the embodiment of humanism and progress, the idea that man’s happiness is the good, everything that frustrates it is the evil, and that through science, technology, and liberal democracy we can steadily replace evil with good, darkness with light, hell with a dayglo, muzaked, funplex, shopping mall heaven. This is, in short, a character with enormous dramatic potential.
A potential that is squandered. These deep and dramatic themes related to humanism and loyalty and progress remain undeveloped. Thus the film lacks emotional power.
Instead, Del Toro focuses on the rapid-fire delivery of strictly B and C grade movie gimmicks and gags: interminable chases and fights, lots and lots of monsters—ten Star Wars’ cantinas worth, by my count, some of them annoyingly fake looking—and, worst of all, a whole bunch of “regular guy” relationship melodrama, the nadir of which is the most embarrassing inebriation scene since . . . Well, I don’t watch the kinds of movies that depend on funny drunks, so I have no frame of reference. It is vulgar, stupid, and . . . cynical, because one really has to work to make a movie as bad as this.
Yes, The Golden Army touches on important themes. Yes, it is often visually stunning: the Angel of Death, the death of the elf king Balor, the rampage of the elemental. Yes, it introduces an amusing new character, Dr. Johann Krauss, a German who has been entirely sublimated into ectoplasm and thus must occupy a very droll mechanical suit. (As a German, of course, Dr. Krauss is an authoritarian martinet. Hellboy doesn’t like him. But eventually, Krauss redeems himself by adopting American anarchic individualism.)
But the real virtues of this movie just make their betrayal all the more flagrant. It could have been so much more.