Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Hellboy II: Our old myths must kill us or be killed by us.

In Hollywood, there is something called a “log line,” a one or two sentence summary of the plot of a film or television show, and it is impossible for me to imagine the log line for Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.” I suppose it may have been something like: A secret government organization made up of various monsters battles Irish elves who plan to reawaken a massive army, but that feels reductive to the point of idiocy.

For those unfamiliar with Hellboy, the character is a creation of comics author and illustrator Mike Mignola, who has an omnivore’s taste for myth, monsters, and horror. He has created a world in which the ancient legends are still very much alive, living underground and quietly pursuing their own agenda. When these plans are nefarious, they are addressed by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a shadowy government agency whose secret weapon is Hellboy, a gruff, working class, cigar chomping smart aleck who also happens to be a red-skinned demon with a stone hand who may bring about the end of the world.

The character, played by Ron Perlman, was introduced onscreen in “Hellboy,” del Toro’s 2004 film, in which he battled an immortal Rasputin and a semi-mechanical Nazi assassin who wanted to trigger an apocalypse by waking a monster right out of the writing of H.P Lovecraft. The film was moderately successful, enough to justify if not demand a sequel, and “Hellboy II” turned its attention away from Lovecraft, Russia, and Nazi occultism and instead to the ancient myths of Ireland. They aren’t exactly as we know them, but they’re close: He tells of Prince Nuada, the son of King Balor and twin of Princess Nuala, the last of a once-great tribe of elves. In prehistory, these creatures battled humanity to near-extinction by having trolls build a massive army of mechanical soldiers, but Balor forced a truce: the cities would belong to men and the forest to the fairyfolk. Now the truce is long forgotten, the last of the elves live in the sewers beneath New York, and Nuada has decided to reawaken the army and wipe humans from the earth.

To those familiar with Irish mythology, some of this will be familiar. There was a Balor, a one-eyed giant whose gaze caused death. There was a Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of the gods that inhabited Ireland before the men came. In the stories, Nuada lost his arm in battle, and replaced it with one made of silver. Here, it is Balor that has the silver arm, and he and Nuada were not kin in the legends, but enemies; in fact, Balor’s eye kills Nuada. But these are the legends of men, and, in Hellboy’s world, they have come down to us misremembered.

The real legends came to America at some time, along with all that represents them — demonstrated at an early auction scene, in which items of pagan antiquity, including a massive Venus of Willendorf and a statue of Janus, are offered up for sale in a Manhattan auction hall. del Toror suggests that our legends did not migrant to America with us, but were brought here forcibly and remain here clandestinely. One of the film’s most finely detailed set pieces is a Troll Market, hidden at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, where a dazzling assortment of mythical creatures engage in street business, much of it black market. del Toro’s America is a land of many diasporas, including the scattered population of the world’s monsters.

Nuada is played by Luke Goss, formerly of the pop boy band Bros., and he plays his Elven prince as an anguished martial artist. He engages in genuinely dazzling action with a spear, which he twirls with breathtaking skill, but he seems like he might be crying the entire time. A lot of del Toro’s sympathies are with him. He sees the world of the supernatural as not merely driven underground by humans, but driven to the point of extinction, and as he sets himself to war with the human, he knows it will mean the end for many of his kind. At one point, he unleashes a forest elemental on Hellboy and his crew, a massive plant creature, and he taunts Hellboy with the knowledge that this is the last. “If you destroy it, the world will never see its kind again.” he warns.

Nuada has cause for sympathy with this plant creature — he appears to bleed sap, like a tree, as it is shown to be golden in color and sweet enough that its flavor subdues dogs. But Nuada isn’t entirely of the world of Elves — he has a long confrontation with his father, who speaks entirely in ancient Irish, while Nuada responds in English. He’s had enough contact with humans to become more like them than he realizes, not just absorbing the language of men, but also their martial spirit, their willingness to commit genocide, and to see their own die in the process.

The climax takes place in Ireland, on the Giants’ Cauaseway in  County Antrim, which is, as it happens, just a few miles from the Scottish island where Hellboy is supposed to have been born. The immigrants have returned home, and each claim the mechanical army as their own birthright. We have seen two themes emerge in Irish-American horror. In the first, Irish-Americans discover their monsters crossed to America with them, and in the second Irish-Americans return to Ireland to discover horrors there they had forgotten in America. “Hellboy II’ manages to tell both stories, and, more than that, it makes the monsters the main characters.

Yhey are battling to choose between one genocide or another: Either humans will destroy monsters or vice versa. In this world, our ancient myths live on, unknown by us, choosing our fate for us, and more powerful than we could possibly imagine. We live on simply because some among them feel compassion for us, a compassion we rarely return, and so their compassion becomes an act of sacrifice. In the world of Hellboy, we only live because they allow themselves to die.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.