Earlier this year, Guillermo del Toro, director of the first two Hellboy movies, sent out a tweet encouraging fans to express their support for the long-awaited third film in the series. While this briefly inspired a furor of excitement over the possibility of a conclusion to one of the superhero genre’s most sinfully underrated series, all dreams were dashed a mere month later, when del Toro announced the film wouldn’t happen, at least not with him:
“Hellboy 3 Sorry to report: Spoke w all parties. Must report that 100% the sequel will not happen. And that is to be the final thing about it… Hellboy may move into a different direction. heartbroken- but, not up to me. I, for one, wish everyone involved the best of luck!”
While del Toro is notorious for announcing or becoming attached to various projects that never come to fruition, this one especially stung for fans of his vibrant, fantastical adaptation of the Mike Mignola comics. Even in a film industry and pop culture environment where superheroes are the billion-dollar foundations of the field, there was always something unique about Hellboy, and much of its potential remained untapped, particularly with one of Hollywood’s most fascinating film-makers at the helm.
All of that made the announcement of a cinematic reboot a mixed bag for fans. Mignola announced on his Facebook page that a new project, titled Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen, was set to go into production, with Neil Marshall directing, and the film having a darker, R-rated tone, a sharp contrast from the del Toro films. The most intriguing part of this announcement was the choice to play Hellboy himself – David Harbour.
For many years, Harbour was a familiar, if not instantly recognizable face in an array of films and TV shows. The chances are you’ve seen him countless times in big properties and wondered where you’d seen him before. He’s made appearances in everything, from award winning indies (Brokeback Mountain, End of Watch) to major blockbusters (Quantum of Solace, The Equalizer), to prestige TV (The Newsroom, Manhattan). Like all good New York based actors, he’s done his time on the long-running Law and Order franchise in no fewer than five separate times as five entirely different characters. He’s also a Broadway favourite, and received a Tony nomination for appearing in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In short, Harbour was the embodiment of “Hey, it’s that guy.”
That changed last year with his lauded performance in the surprise Netflix hit of 2016, Stranger Things. As Chief Jim Hopper, Harbour brought grit with a sarcastic edge to a familiar trope as the town sheriff investigating curious goings on. Add to that a small role in Suicide Squad and 2016 was a great year for Harbour. He finally had a chance to show off his talents in a meaty role with a heartbreaking character arc, and he made an indelible impact, even when performing alongside bona fide legends like Winona Ryder and the scene-stealing child ensemble, led by Millie Bobbie Brown.
Now, he’s an acclaimed actor with real clout to his name, and so, as is the way of things now, a superhero franchise is the next big step. There were rumours earlier this year that he had been screen-tested for the role of Cable in Deadpool 2 (which eventually went to Josh Brolin), but Hellboy offers a more fitting part for his talents. At his best, Harbour expertly balances cynicism with sympathy, as he did with apparent ease in Stranger Things.
Jim Hopper is a prickly presence who easily could have sunk into bitter cop clichés, but Harbour never makes it easy for himself. Jim is haunted by his past but committed to doing the right thing; a beer swilling cynic who nevertheless takes on the mantle of flawed hero when the occasion calls for it. Sure, he’s an undeniable jerk, but one that’s so easy to side with. Harbour himself said in an interview with the Daily Beast that “I’ve really done my job if I’ve humanized a really horrible person.” Hellboy is no terror, but he’s an ill-fit for the traditional hero mould: Gruff and troubled but quick with a joke and more like a noir-style PI than old-school superhero. Harbour has shown his ability with such roles, and it helps that he has the ideal face for Hellboy, with his strong jawline and distinct brows. Even under all the required prosthetics, Harbour’s face is one that will remain distinct.
For fans, David Harbour’s casting probably isn’t an issue, but it will be hard to get over the reality of moving on from the stylized joys of del Toro and the iconic work of Ron Perlman. Many fans fought hard for many years to have the conclusion to the series they so desired, so seeing that door shut so definitively in favour of a fresh start undoubtedly stings. Perlman himself is so giddily enthusiastic about playing Hellboy, and lobbied for years to have a chance to don the make-up once more. He’s even visited children in hospital in character, and remains the films’ biggest champion. His loss will leave the biggest hole for fans, so it’s hard to judge Harbour’s potential in the same role when he has such big shoes to fill.
Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen won’t be here for quite some time, and until then, we’ll have another season of Stranger Things to check out Harbour’s talents. Accepting the end of the Guillermo del Toro Hellboy years will be a tough one for fans to swallow, but with time and anticipation, David Harbour could show himself to be the Hellboy for a new age: Still sardonic and sharp-witted, but revived for a new audience. He’ll never replace the beloved Ron Perlman, but he could make a cracking accompaniment.