Hellboy: Can I be bad?

I love the movie Hellboy with a passion. When I saw it in the theater, I did a little dance on my way out. But I don’t want to be a woman in the Hellboy-verse unless I can be evil.

I should want to be good, since the good guys win. If I’m good, I get to be Liz Sherman (played by Selma Blair). Liz could be cool. She’s a firestarter. In a fantasy movie, starting fires can be fun. (In real life, it can lead to the entire state of California going up in flames, which is not fun.) She spends a lot of her time with a team of superheroes who “bump back” at things that go bump in the night, which is way fun.

Unfortunately for us, Liz is unsure about whether she wants to kick ass. She would rather be normal. It’s understandable, since she’s not actually in control of her powers. She starts one accidental fire and one purposeful fire during the movie, excepting a childhood incident we see in memory. The accidental fire is started when the bad guy breaks into her room and puts her under mind control, and she can only start the purposeful fire by asking a man to HIT HER. So it seems that men pretty much run her show. (Would this be different if she embraced her power and learned to use it?)

In fact, given how little relevance she has to the main plot, it could be argued that Liz is actually just The Girlfriend with a quasi-superpower tacked on as an accessory. She gets manipulated by the bad guys, abducted, stripped, held hostage, and finally rescued by the hero. Yawn. Why would I want to be that?

If I’m Liz, I also have to deal with the insult of the DVD cover. In the movie, I would dress like a normal person. On the DVD cover, I would be turned into a vamp. No thanks.

So I would like to be bad instead. If I’m bad, I get to be Ilsa Haupstein (Bridget Hodson), devoted military servant of evil. I’m not saying I want to help Rasputin bring god-monsters into the world to destroy it. I definitely don’t want to be in the position of resurrecting my boyfriend with someone’s blood. I’m just saying I want to be bold, confident, committed, and dish out a pistol-whipping when necessary. Ilsa is also The Girlfriend, but she has taken a side and she is giving it everything she’s got. The good guys don’t give her any quarter because she’s a woman, and she doesn’t let being a woman stop her from kicking their butts.

For a woman in a movie to be a heroine, the viewer should want to be her. In Hellboy, Liz just doesn’t cut it. Ilsa wins.

Despite Ilsa, though, I can’t dredge up more than one star for my beloved Hellboy based on Heroine Content criteria. Ilsa and Liz, the only two women in the film, are attached to men. The only people of color are… wait… hang on… right, I don’t remember any. It breaks my heart to give it one star because I have such love for it, but it’s only fair since this is typical Hollywood fare.

I’m hoping Hellboy II: The Golden Army does a better job. The trailer, which I’m including below, makes me a giddy fangirl. However, we’ll have to wait and see about the gender and race issues.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

6 thoughts on “Hellboy: Can I be bad?

  1. Ben Combee

    Isn’t Hellboy himself a person of color? Well, that color does happen to be red, but it counts, right?

  2. Noah

    It’s hard to argue with. I will say, you might want to try the Hellboy animated movie “Sword of Storms”, which features the actors from the movie (excepting that Abe is voiced by the guy who actually appeared on screen, rather than the one who dubbed over his lines), and has a very strong role for Professor Kate Corrigan (who I think is also supposed to have a role in The Golden Army), as well as a Liz Sherman who’s much more in control of herself and less dependent on others (albeit still with a bit of angsting here and there). Also, it’s in Japan, so you do see some people who are not red, white or blue.

  3. Joel Bryan

    Yeah, I love “Hellboy” almost as much as you do. I think cinematically, it’s a flawed vessel, but they get so much right that I went out and bought it when it came out on DVD. I think as a series “Hellboy” will end up similar to “Spider-Man,” a good first flick followed by an outstanding second… er… then…

    Well, maybe not!

    But I do have some of the same qualms with it as you. However, the comics generally have more independent and capable female protagonists, and the Ilsa there is more disturbed, vulnerable and complex.

    While on the other hand, the comic’s Liz starts out self-loathing as in the movie, but develops more personal power and control. She’s allowed to come into herself and be much less of a literal punching bag.

    And, as Noah points out there’s Prof. Kate Corrigan. She’s as capable and probably a lot more professional than just about anyone else in the Bureau. I’d love to see her in the next film, if they can fit her in with all the wild monsters and creatures and whatnot.

    Then again, the comics have had more than 10 years to develop these characters and so far the film series has had about 2 hours. Counting down until the next “Hellboy” flick!

  4. SunlessNick

    I’m in the same boat as Skye, because I really want to argue with this review, but I can’t. :(

    The only mitigating factor is that while going with the “woman’s power is a burden” trope, they at least DO make a power which is a letimate burden, rather than having Liz be like, say Claire in Heroes. Which is something, but not really enough.

  5. MissKriss


    I’ve been disappointed by the portrayal of the female characters in the Hellboy films, and really enthused by the portrayal of them in the comics.

    Liz is portrayed as the love interest right away in the film, when I don’t think she and HB have that sort of relationship in the comics. HB does have one, maybe 2, relationships with other women (but I haven’t read those comics yet). There are also women who are just around in the comics, field agents, psychics and the like, who aren’t linked to male characters in any way. That’s one of my favourite things about the comics.

    If anything, I think in the comics Liz and Abe at least hold hands and go out for coffee sometimes.

    It’s a drag that, despite the range of female background and speaking characters in the comics, Liz is just “the chick” in the movie.

    I think that is a good way to describe her, because her power in the first film is closely linked to her being emotional, moody and unstable – she needs to be slapped in the face before she can start fires when in Rasputin’s lair, for example – and excess emotion is often portrayed as a female weakness. She was also the prize for the 2 main male characters to fight over.

    It’s a shame, but I have high hopes for the next film. If only some of the other female agents appear, even just in office shots or something!!



Comments are closed.