I love smashing, and lighting things on fire, and monsters fighting on top of giant gears with huge mechanical creatures covered in golden carapaces — but I don't love a sloppy allegory about minority rights, and that's unfortunately what you'll get in the new Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. And no, the stuff about minorities isn't something I'm "reading into" the plot of this awesome monster extravaganza from the brains of comic book artist Mike Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro. It's right there on the surface, with a Magneto-style separatist from the elf underworld wanting to crush humans who make his people "ashamed" to be open about their monstery ways. Also, at one point, we hear a television news anchor complaining about how Hellboy's organization, the Bureau for Paranormal Defense and Research (BPRD), "promotes inter-species relations, thereby undermining traditional marriage." Gee, do you smell a subtext? Spoilers ahead.
I don't want to overemphasize the monster-as-minority allegory too much, because there's a lot about The Golden Army that's pure bash-em-up fun. The latest threat to the human world is a prince of the elves, who wants to reboot an ancient mechanical army of golden soldiers who will obey the command of anybody wearing this special golden hat. The army has a Lord of the Rings gone steampunk feeling, which is quite simply terrific from a concept design standpoint (and also makes sense when you consider director del Toro's next project will be two Hobbit movies). If you want cool monsters and awesome fights, del Toro is there for you. The creator of Pan's Labyrinth, he knows his non-CGI stuff and brings bizarre beauty to scenes set in a monster-clogged Goblin's Market (located under a bridge in Brooklyn), and a lush gravity to the decaying kingdom of the elves.
Like Mignola, who wrote the Hellboy comic books that inspired these films, del Toro gravitates to stories where monsters are sympathetic and heroic characters. This is an interesting twist on the monster tale, which usually focuses on an evil, ugly creature (like Cloverfield or Freddy) that humans must destroy. Still, there has always been a thriving counter-genre about good monsters, including Swamp Thing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Clive Barker's magnificent and underrated movie Nightbreed. One might argue that Frankenstein is really the first sympathetic monster, though for contemporary audiences a more relevant reference point is X-Men, a comic about heroic mutant outcasts. Stan Lee debuted X-Men in the 1960s, an era of social liberalism in the US and Europe, and X-Men has (generally) remained a book with a liberal message about tolerating those who seem different and embracing your own mutations.
There is a lot of X-Men in Golden Army, which pits a Magneto-like monster separatist (the Prince) against the Xavier-esque integrationists of the BPRD (Hellboy and girlfriend Liz just want to be regular people who fight crime, get married, and have babies). When Hellboy fights a nature elemental who is crushing Brooklyn, the Prince warns him that he shouldn't fight for the humans, who will never accept him. "You have more in common with us than them," the Prince says, warning Hellboy that if he kills the elemental he is destroying the "last of its kind." After pausing to consider the extermination of an ancient race, Hellboy shrugs and blows the giant plant away.
Hellboy is constantly trying to "come out," as he puts it to his colleagues. Like the evil elf prince, he wants to stop making a secret of his life and mission. Instead of trying to crush the humans with a mechanical army, however, he tries to use the power of PR to promote a little interspecies understanding. He's constantly posing for pictures and showing off in front of large crowds, and eventually, this behavior gets him and the allegedly secret BPRD in trouble. There is a public backlash against the BPRD's lax attitude to "interspecies relations," as well as against Hellboy himself because he looks so ugly and monstrous that nobody can buy that he's the good guy.
While this is a vaguely funny idea, and underscores how ordinary and human Hellboy really is, del Toro has a tendency to get mired down in the humanizing part of his tale and forget that we really want to see monsters being, well, monstrous. There's a tedious and annoying subplot about how Hellboy and Liz are having relationship problems, and Liz is pregnant but doesn't want to tell Hellboy, and Hellboy gets drunk and acts like a jerk, and blah blah blah. There are even fights over toothbrushes and "needing space" — it's as if about 15 minutes of a Mad About You sitcom plot made its ugly way into an otherwise defiantly cool movie about kickass demons.
I think these kind of "we're a married couple just like you" moments are what drags this otherwise entertaining movie down. Turning Hellboy, Liz, and even Abe Sapien into domestic squabblers defangs them. They aren't humanized so much as homogenized. I like the idea of a monstrous hero, but only if he can remain essentially monstrous. Things start to feel like a movie of the week about accepting our gay neighbors when it turns out that Hellboy might be a demon on the outside but he's basically good old Archie Bunker within.
Luckily, del Toro seems incapable of completely pinioning his monsters, even when he wants to. The character of Johann Strauss, an ectoplasmic guy who lives in a strange steampunk diving bell suit, is a case in point. Here's a guy whose life is so far beyond human experience that one simply cannot imagine him settling down to do anything other than fighting mechanical armies and forming perverse relationships with undead tooth fairies. Similarly, Abe Sapien remains emphatically freakish, as does the hidden world of monsters lurking right beneath the streets in New York City. Defiantly unassimilated, these monsters flout convention and could care less about conforming to our human ways.
We can identify with them, but we never forget that they are monsters, fundamentally different from us. If there is any upside to the slightly clumsy minority rights allegory we get in this flick, it's the possibility of representing a truly difficult concept: that of the group who cannot be assimilated, but whose members are nevertheless our allies and heroes. And that is, finally, why I adore Mignola and del Toro's monsters. We identify with them, but cannot tame them, cannot make them ours.
Bottom Line: Yes, Golden Army is a rip-roaring good time, and I dug it, though it's draggy in places. You'll love it if you love monsters, but sometimes the allegorical subplot will feel like it's bopping you on the nose unnecessarily.