Read between the lines of the news that Millennium Films is developing a “Hellboy” reboot and you’ll find a major diss. Back in January, Guillermo Del Toro asked his Twitter followers if they’d like a third installment of his colorful approach to Mike Mignola’s comic book series; the response was overwhelmingly positive. One month later, Del Toro announced that the sequel would not go forward, but the producers and Millennium had other plans. The studio’s now developing a new “Hellboy” adaptation directed by Neil Marshall (“Descent,” “Game of Thrones”), and speaking to “Stranger Things” detective David Harbour for the leading role. Theoretically, that’s an exciting concept — but it’s also a problematic one.
Reached by IndieWire the morning of the announcement, Del Toro declined to comment. It’s easy to see why: What’s left to say? The results are frustrating in their implications, and they also speak to an underlying problem that filmmakers need to learn how to address — the challenge of saying no to pointless reboots.
Released a decade before “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Del Toro’s first “Hellboy” movie was the first successful attempt to take an eccentric, little-known comic-book creation — in this case, a demon child resurrected by Nazis and raised by American soldiers who grows up to fight supernatural threats — and turn it into an imaginative adventure both in tune with the source material and visually dazzling in a unique cinematic way. Four years later, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” continued the pulpy energy, with a range of fantastical characters exchanging banter and just kind of hanging out almost as much as they battled for humanity’s future.
This was Del Toro’s precise touch, his capacity to funnel gothic and fantasy elements into a vivid adventure. The movies didn’t operate as a franchise so much as a fully realized world. Del Toro, whose Mirada production company explores next-level storytelling technologies, took cult source material and transformed it into an absorbing, layered experience that opened it up to more audiences without falling back on familiar experiences. It was a terrific case of an original vision that translated into commercial appeal.
Could Neil Marshall pull off the same challenge with his own flair? Hard to say. His bloody medieval 2010 tale “Centurion” was forgettable, but it had exuberant period detail and battle scenes that continued into two “Game of Thrones” episodes. However, his post-“Descent” career hasn’t shown the mark of a visionary able to wrestle idiosyncratic material into something exciting and palatable on its own terms. Harbour is certainly a reasonable choice to take the “Hellboy” reins from Ron Perlman, as his macho swagger has much in common with Perlman’s cigar-chomping badass.
Setting aside whether or not Marshall could achieve anything with “Hellboy,” the question is whether he should even try. If Del Toro and Perlman deem that a new “Hellboy” entry isn’t in the cards, no attempt to resurrect the brand could possibly replicate their approach — and given that “Hellboy” was such an unlikely commercial proposition in the first place, any attempt to do so registers as an inane and improbable means of cashing in.
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In all likelihood, Millennium doesn’t care about that characterization. But Marshall should, for the same reason that Jonas Akerlund eventually stepped away from an attempt to produce an unauthorized sequel to “Spring Breakers.” Any involvement in this project is an implicit endorsement of the idea that smart, innovative filmmaking with the potential to reach mass audiences can always be steamrolled by a weaker version.
When Sam Raimi left the “Spider-Man” series after the third entry, the studio rebooted it with another director, Marc Webb, who showed some potential for making rom-coms with “500 Days of Summer” — but didn’t possess the grand vision necessary to rejuvenate a blockbuster property. He directed two underwhelming “Spider-Man” movies and lost a good amount of career momentum in the process. Now, the studio’s rebooting “Spider-Man” again with another young director, Jon Watts, whose “Cop Car” was a wonderful comedic thriller that suggested the director could make wacky, surprising genre movies using minimal resources. Instead, he’s doing the opposite — and the memory of Raimi’s own measured approach to the “Spider-Man” franchise continues to recede into pop culture history.
For filmmakers who could care less about the prospects of making massive blockbuster tentpoles, there is a much bigger universe of cinema available to them. They’re probably the torchbearers for the future of the art form more than anyone keen on tackling Hollywood product. But directors who have the opportunity to play around in the studio sandbox also have a responsibility to consider how they shape that sandbox with their decisions. If every talented director passed on a “Hellboy” reboot, the studio might find some low-level hack director to take it on anyway, but then it’s our collective duty to look the other way. And that’s much easier to do.