During his recent Planet Comicon panel, Ron Perlman told a lovely story about how exactly he came to be Hellboy.
Who cares? He’s old news! We’re going to have a new Hellboy soon. An R-Rated reboot is in the works from director Neil Marshall (The Descent) and Millennium Films (Expendables, Conan the Barbarian, London Has Fallen). Down with Perlman, in with David Harbour, aka, that guy from Stranger Things, aka, that guy whose angry anti-Trump SAG speech sent Winona Ryder on an emotional (and highly gif-able) rollercoaster.
Could you just not, please? We are literally years away from that reboot becoming a reality, if, indeed, it ever does. Let me tell my story. So, where was I? Right. Planet Comicon.
Wooo! R-Rated reboot! Hellboy! Hellboy! Hellboy! Hellboy!
[Harrison Ford finger point] You are on the thinnest of ice! Back to the story. Perlman only ever came to be Hellboy because of Guillermo del Toro’s determination and loyalty. The two first met when the former starred in the latter’s first film, 1993’s Chronos. Perlman looked at del Toro and saw a short, fat Mexican who loved to eat and talk about movies, and his energy and enthusiasm was infectious. A friendship was born.
Around that same time, Mike Mignola debuted a new comic book character named Hellboy, a well-meaning demon summoned to Earth during WWII by Nazis but discovered and raised by the Allies. Not that Perlman was aware of this new character because by his own admission he’s not a comic book guy. However, del Toro is, and he would soon get it in his head that he was going to make a Hellboy movie and Perlman would be in it as Hellboy, a choice also championed by Mignola. Perlman, a career character actor, was flattered, but pragmatic. Guys like him don’t get to play the leads in big movies. At best, he might get to play the villain. The smart move would be to give up on such a dream, and make Hellboy with whichever studio would front the money and cast someone more marketable for the lead.
Perlman repeatedly told del Toro as much, and each time del Toro nodded and said things like, “You’re right. I know, you’re right.” However, then he’d take another meeting with some studio interested in Hellboy and again insist on casting Perlman. The Beauty and the Beast guy? Yeah, not happening.
It went on like this for 7 years. 7, I repeat for dramatic effect, years. Then del Toro landed the gig to direct 2002’s Blade 2, and had the stroke of genius to cast Perlman in a major supporting role as a test case, aiming to prove that Perlman could handle more than was usually asked of him. When Blade 2 turned into a hit, grossing $155m worldwide, over $20m more than its predecessor, del Toro suddenly had some heat and sway in town. In one of those glorious post-success studio meetings, he was asked what he wanted to make next, and his answer was simple: A Hellboy movie starring Ron Perlman. Two years later, the movie was in theaters.
And they all lived happily ever.
Eh, not quite. If that were true there’s no way we’d be talking about a Hellboy reboot right now. The truth is neither Hellboy nor its 2008 sequel Hellboy 2: The Golden Army can be considered box office hits. The former grossed just $99m against a $60m production budget, making it surprising that it even got a sequel. However, del Toro’s persistence, the success of the two straight-to-video animated Hellboy movies released in 2006 and 2007, as well as Universal’s need to have another action film to plug into the summer of 2008 willed The Golden Army into existence. And for a moment it seemed as if the gamble might actually work out, that Hellboy’s status as a new cult classic might have created a large enough audience to turn its sequel into a hit. The Golden Army debuted to $34m, a 49% improvement over Hellboy’s opening. Well, pop the champagne, folks.
Then The Dark Knight came out one week later.
Ah, crap. We just wasted all of that champagne, didn’t we?
I don’t know why Universal deemed it prudent to release Golden Army one week before The Dark Knight, but they did. Both Hellboy and Batman Begins were movies which found their biggest audiences on home video, and were looking to leverage that into higher-grossing sequels. However, even before Heath Ledger died there was a legend building about his performance as the Joker which was turning The Dark Knight into a must-see. After his death, all bets were off as to how much money the movie would make. It opened to a then-record $158m, greatly contributing to The Golden Army’s -70% second weekend plunge.
In the end, Golden Army legged it to $75m domestic, $160m worldwide, both improvements on Hellboy but still short of the break-even point considering its $85m budget. The optimist could say that at least the box office figures were trending upward for the Hellboy franchise, and if the pattern continued a third film would definitely be a hit. A pessimist could say that the franchise had been given two chances to break through and failed both times. The latter viewpoint ultimately won out, forcing a planned Hellboy III: Dark Worlds to languish in development hell until both del Toro and Perlman eventually deemed it to be completely dead. As Perlman told Planet Comicon, they tried, but it’s just not happening.
That’s not good enough for Mignola, though, who announced the R-Rated reboot on his Facebook page, and has since indicated the holdup on Hellboy III was due to del Toro’s unwillingness to make it for a significantly reduced budget. Now, another career character actor, Harbour, will get the chance to be the lead in a comic book movie, and fans are left in a similar position as to how Buffy fans felt when there was briefly talk of a Joss Whedon-less reboot. You can’t do Buffy without Whedon, and surely you also can’t do Hellboy without Perlman and del Toro. The difference is Whedon created Buffy; Perlman and del Toro didn’t create Hellboy. The man who did, Mignola, is actually the driving force behind this new movie, and the guys who produced the other two Hellboy movies are also involved.
Perhaps it will now be Harbour appearing at cons years from now telling the story of how exactly this life-changing project fell into his lap. Perhaps the movie will never actually get made, or it gets made and dies a quiet creative and financial death. Who knows. However, as we transition to a new phase of this franchise’s existence it’s nice to pause, look back and applaud the immense loyalty and stubbornness which gave us two Hellboy movies written and directed by del Toro and starring Ron Perlman. Conventional wisdom said it should never have happened, and the financials somewhat bear that out. But, dangit, del Toro made it happen, and Perlman had a helluva ride.
Sources: Forbes, Ron Perlman’s Panel at Planet Comicon Kansas City 2017