When people say that comic books are as close as our secular late-capitalist culture gets to having its own mythology, it's not generally meant as a compliment. But over the course of two Hellboy movies (based on the comic by Mike Mignola), Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has started to look like a legitimate successor to Ovid. Del Toro is not so much a creator of myths as a collector of them, a transhistorical myth nerd whose pantheon of influences ranges from Hesiod to Harryhausen (with liberal helpings of steam punk and Catholic iconography). In Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal), del Toro continues to develop his own private eschatology, a vision of the end of the world dominated by motifs of meshing gear wheels, dangling rosaries, and the looming visage of a devil with sawed-off horns. The joke is that this crimson-faced demon is also a beer-swilling regular guy, not to mention the universe's only hope for salvation.
Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is known as "Red" to his friends, who consist mainly of his fellow residents at the Jersey-based Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development. This top-secret facility houses such freaks of nature as Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a water-dwelling fish/man with empathic powers, and Hellboy's girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyro-kinetic woman who can burst into flames at will. These preternaturally gifted research subjects are smuggled out of the bureau to fight crimes by night—until the less-than-discreet Hellboy gives away the game by falling out a window into a crowd of waiting reporters.
Soon, though, the BPRD has bigger problems than a publicity leak. The underground prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has decided to assemble the long-defunct Golden Army, an unstoppable platoon of mechanized warriors, to take back Earth from humans. (This all has to do with a long-ago war, explained in an inventive puppet sequence, between men and the magical beings who once ruled the planet.) In order for Hellboy, Liz, and Abe to stop Nuada, they must enter into a secret netherworld that exists just beneath our own: In one scene, the base of the Brooklyn Bridge serves as a portal to a "troll market" teeming with creatures straight out of Hieronymous Bosch. In another, Hellboy battles a building-sized, plantlike being that's so amorphous it seems to embody the self-regenerating power of nature. The eerie pathos of the plant-creature's eventual defeat reinforces Hellboy II's ambiguous message: Though Red and his pals are doing the right thing by teaming up to save humanity, they're also killing off some of the last of their own kind and thus adding to the endangered-species list of beautiful freaks. But despite this nostalgic tone, Hellboy II is no pseudo-existential gloom fest. Perlman's Red is hilarious, combining the gritty delivery of a film noir cop with the physiognomy of a horned behemoth. And the script, by del Toro and Mignola, alternates action smackdowns with sweet, goofy moments, like a scene in which Red and the lovelorn Abe drink beer and croon along with a Barry Manilow record.
Unlike many action filmmakers, del Toro doesn't thrill to the hardware of manmade technology: weapons, cars, high-tech lab equipment. He prefers the soft, organic textures of flesh, and his trove of imaginary beasties (many of them created with a combination of CGI animation and puppetry that gives them an impressive sense of realness) is unmatched in modern fantasy filmmaking. In the feverishly beautiful fantasy Pan's Labyrinth (2006), del Toro and his frequent collaborator, actor/mime Doug Jones, created the horrific "Pale Man," a nearly featureless wraith with eyeballs on the palms of his hands. Believe me, Pale Man looks like your mailman compared with some of the weirdos on parade in Hellboy II. One of del Toro's upcoming projects is to direct two films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, executive-produced by Peter Jackson. Peopling Middle Earth with creatures like Smaug the Dreadful and the Great Spiders of Mirkwood may be del Toro's best chance yet to let his freak flag fly.