I saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army in the theaters and loved it. I just watched it again on DVD and I can tell I’m gonna like this one a little more each time I see it but a couple things struck me. One is, of course, Guillermo del Toro’s incredible visual style. The man does amazing stuff with fairy tales and I’m salivating at the thought of The Hobbit with him involved.
The other is how layered the story is. It opened as a summer action movie and delivers on that score; it’s fast paced and action packed with lots of fights and spectacle. It’s also one of those stories that’s sort of about what you want it to be about. The first time I watched it the main message felt ecological: man’s progress leaving no room for the raw beauty of nature. There’s also an anti-war message if you want it, or what it means to be in love, or what it means to be alone. All of those are there but according to the director’s commentary none of them were his main aim. The big theme was how people become so entrenched in and in love with the banal; they are numb and uncaring at the passing of the sublime.
All of that’s good stuff but what really hit me when I watched it this time was that I really felt like I was more on the side of the bad guy. Nuada is a prince in exile. His people had a terrible weapon that guaranteed them victory. Rather than pursue a genocide his people chose to stop using the weapon and forge a truce with humans. Flash forward a few thousand years; the humans have long since given up their end of the pact and Nuada’s people are all but extinct. Under those circumstances it’s pretty easy to make a case for his declaration of war and his decision to use the weapons at his disposal. That’s kind of how it’s done in the real world.
This makes for a much more interesting and affecting story. Nuada is a noble and tragic figure fighting for what he believes instead of some stock madman. He’s a graceful and elegant figure as well which contrasts with Hellboy. Hellboy’s our hero but he’s a juvenile brute (likable enough but still) who handles all situations by beating up or destroying what’s in front of him. Nuada makes him think about what he’s doing for the first time. Hellboy still does his duty but it’s not just empty rah-rah fights where the good guy wins.
The axiom for all characters is ‘everyone is the hero of their own story’. That’s easy to say but del Toro took that seriously here. Contrast Nuada with somebody like Stryker from the X-Men movies. Yeah, Stryker’s schemes follow his internal logic but it’s ‘villain’ logic. The audience has no problem recognizing him as crazy and a bad guy and we’ll always cheer when Wolverine stabs him. Nuada is much more real (despite being an immortal Celtic elf) and his actions, even if you don’t agree with them, are at least understandable and arguably defensible. That’s some damn fine storytelling.