Sympathy for a devil

Culture | Culture

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

A story that deals with spiritual issues can go about it in several ways: (1) Show the spiritual realm as all good, as in sentimental ecumenism and New Age spirituality. (2) Show the spiritual realm as all evil, as in most horror films and evocations of the occult. (3) Show the good in conflict with the evil, as in much popular fiction.

This third possibility is not quite the full Christian worldview. Some renditions of the conflict actually are pro-evil, but even the more usual scheme of rooting for the good guys who win at the end stops just short of Christianity. The Bible teaches that even the "good guys" are fallen, that sin inheres in their nature, so that they are pulled toward their enemy's side-at least until they too are rescued, going through some death and rebirth that is emblematic of Christ.

Hellboy (rated PG-13) embodies this Christian view of a spiritual warfare that is both external and internal. The hero is the spawn of a devil who has been raised in a good Christian home. To be specific, in terms of the fantasy, when Nazi occultists tried to open a portal to hell, they were thwarted by American GIs and the rosary-toting, Catholic Professor Broom. When the portal was closed, a little red baby with a tail and horns was left behind. The professor raised him as his son, and when he grew up, Red (aka Hellboy) worked with his adopted father in a secret subdivision of the FBI, designed, as they say, to "bump back" at "things that go bump in the night."

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This team battles the evil side, and the film draws on the symbolic resources of Catholicism (reflecting the theology of director/writer Guillermo del Toro), with the good guys using the cross on the rosary, relics, and holy water.

Hellboy was originally a comic book, and like other superheroes from the Marvel school of comics, he is both wise-cracking and angst-ridden. He sands down his horns in an effort to fit in. Along with other freaks-the fish-man Abe Sapiens and his love Liz the Fire-starter-he tries to protect normal people who are horrified by his appearance.

At the end, he is seduced back to his true nature, but he is rescued by remembering his father and by having a cross thrown out to him, which burns its imprint into the palm of his hand. He makes a wrenching "choice" and finds redemption.

Hellboy is a rarity: a shoot-'em-up action thriller fantasy with both complicated characters and thematic meaning. It is funny, too, and fun for those who are not bothered by multiplying tentacled monsters, reanimated corpses, and the comic book aesthetic. The movie can be enjoyed as mindless entertainment, but it is not quite mindless, and it is certainly not soul-less.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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