If The Dark Knight is the summer's most anticipated (and heaviest) movie, then Hellboy II: The Golden Army deserves to be its lighthearted counterpoint: an angst-free superhero fantasy that seems to have taken the Joker's "Why so serious?" mantra to heart.
Of course Hellboy II is more than a counterpoint. As the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, one of the most visually inventive directors working today, it stands firmly on its own. Case in point: Del Toro has a huge affection for monsters, and he seems to have emptied his hundreds of sketchbooks to populate the film with twisted, scary and weirdly empathy-inducing creatures, many of which appear in a scene in which Hellboy and his cohorts visit an underground troll market: there's a giant beanstalk that has the power to destroy and create, cute but bone-crunching tooth fairies, a baby who turns out to be, well, something else entirely, and a barely sentient hunk of leathery skin who is a killing machine and serves as Hellboy's twisted mirror image.
That troll market scene, with its parade of creatures of every stripe, will remind you a little of Star Wars' famous cantina scene, just as the movie's story not-too-subtly recalls The Lord of the Rings: In the first scene, set during Hellboy's childhood, the hero's guardian (John Hurt) reads him a bedtime story about how a long time ago, elves and men fought against each other for dominion of the earth, with the elf king creating an army of invincible robots controlled by his crown. Just as he's about to use them to smoke the humans, he changes his mind, breaks the crown into three pieces and distributes them so that no one race has too much power. His power-hungry son (Luke Goss) disagrees and goes into exile. The bedtime story becomes real when the elf prince returns in search of the crown pieces and a grown up Hellboy (Ron Perlman), along with his Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense team—fire-starting girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) and fish-human Abe Sapien (Doug Jones)—as well as the prince's twin sister (Anna Walton) and a gas bag bureaucrat named Johann Krauss (voiced by Family Guy creator Seth McFarland), must keep him from activating the golden army by uniting the crown.
All this is, of course, a huge excuse to let Hellboy loose to kick some ass, crack some jokes, get seriously stupid on six packs of Tecate in one of the funniest scenes in the movie—and grow up a little (his girlfriend is pregnant with a mini hellspawn). Hellboy may not be the most dignified of superheroes, but he's the most fun—though, coming from the director of the heartbreaking Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II does have a touch of the tragic.
The movie may named after the unapologetically brawny, beer-drinking heap of testosterone, but one of the loveliest aspects of Del Toro's films is their deep respect for women. The strongest characters in Pan's Labyrinth were a little girl and a maid, both of whom used nothing but their wits, big hearts and bigger guts (and the occasional butter knife) to triumph. In Hellboy, Del Toro acknowledges that, never mind guns, women have the ultimate power—the power to create life and create the future—in their grasp. That's hinted at in an early antiques auction scene, where one of the items up for grabs is a giant statue of a fertility goddess. But Del Toro makes the point crystal clear through the two main female characters in the film. Princess Nuada holds the key piece of the crown on her belt (a symbolic womb) and ultimately has the power to stop her greedy brother; pregnant Liz literally has Hellboy's future in her womb and later holds his very life in her hands. In a movie genre where women often have to be rescued by the superhero, those are powerful statements.