2. Hellboy (2004)
When Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was given the opportunity to make a Hellboy movie, he jumped at the chance because he loved the comics. And it shows. While del Toro had made big Hollywood movies before, like Mimic, and joined pre-existing comic book movie franchises like Blade II, Hellboy was something far more in tune with his increasingly iconic sensibilities.
Roger Ebert put it best when he described Hellboy as "one of those rare movies that's not only based on a comic book, but also feels like a comic book." The 2004 movie is vibrant and almost giddy with itself over how lavish and ridiculous its own concept is. What else could it be when you're combining demons, Nazis, Rasputin and a love triangle featuring a woman who can set things on fire? Del Toro has never gotten to make the Lovecraft movie he's wanted to for decades but Hellboy is chock full of those sensibilities on fine form.
The true star of Hellboy is, of course, the man himself, played to perfection by Ron Perlman. A regular collaborator of del Toro’s (the actor appeared in his directorial debut Cronos), Perlman as Red may be one of the best pieces of casting in all of superhero cinema. On top of just nailing the physicality of the character, looking more at home in red skin and sanded down horns than he does in his own body, Perlman also keenly understands the balance between Red’s otherworldly nature and his petulant schoolboy side. His relationship with his father remains especially touching in its mixture of antagonism and genuine affection.
Crucially, Perlman gets how ridiculous Red is and has an absolute ball with it while never diluting the emotional pull of his plight. Del Toro juggles multiple tones alongside its endless array of cultural references, and the end result is something that remains fresh and entertaining 15 years later. It’s only let down by its need to adhere to some of those more tired tropes, such as having a boring human protagonist tag along to act as an audience avatar. Thankfully, when it came time for the sequel, del Toro got to make something even better.
1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo del Toro has famously bounced from commercially friendly English language titles to more esoteric stories in his native Spanish throughout his career. While Pan's Labyrinth was the film that first captured the attention of the Academy and The Shape of Water was the one that got him his long-awaited Oscar, it's Hellboy II: The Golden Army that is arguably the most del-Toro-esque film in his career as well as his secret masterpiece. He even told Twitch Film in 2013 that "Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan's Labyrinth."
That’s at its most evident in The Golden Army, a film that blends all of del Toro’s most beloved styles and ideas into a frenetic and visually astounding narrative that sees the filmmaker at his best. It’s debatable whether 2008’s The Golden Army is the strongest film in terms of being a Hellboy adaptation. The first film has more direct connections to the source material whereas this one is all del Toro. Think of it as his version of Batman Returns, wherein Tim Burton went wild with his oft-imitated Burton-ness while using the structures of the Batman stories in the vaguest way possible.
That’s not to knock the film, which is still the best Hellboy film ever made, but it is one whose strengths and pure visceral thrills come from seeing a director at the height of his powers with the freedom to do whatever he wants. The film is much goofier than its predecessor, offering some of the best laugh-out-loud moments of any Hellboy movie (including a scene where Red and Abe Sapien get drunk, complain about their love lives, then sing along to Barry Manilow).
One of the reasons del Toro was the perfect director to take on Hellboy is that he, as is evident throughout his entire filmography, adores monsters, often liking them way more than the humans. The Golden Army lets his id run rampant, doing away with the stock human audience avatar from the first film (sorry, Rupert Evans) and blending the monstrous with the mundane. New additions to the crew of monsters include Johann Krauss, a psychic whose body was destroyed by a botched séance, leaving him as an ectoplasmic cloud contained within a mechanical suit (Seth MacFarlane voices him to hammy German perfection), and the elven siblings Nuada and Nuala, bound together by their spirits but forced apart by their opposing views on the human world. In what may be one of the true highlights of del Toro’s career, the team visit the troll market and interact with a dazzling plethora of beautiful and grotesque creatures.
Ultimately, what makes The Golden Army the best Hellboy movie is its overwhelming heart. Del Toro blends domestic drama with otherworldly stakes to highlight how Red simply wants a life vaguely resembling normalcy. The film embraces soap opera elements and fits them comfortably in-between the grandeur of epic fantasy. It’s a story of such propulsive energy and genuine emotion that you can’t help but think this may be the best thing del Toro has made, and competition in that field is tough.