Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hellboy and Nazis

I saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army over the weekend, and rather than put up a full review, I'll summarize it thusly:

Like its eponymous hero, it is big, dumb, violent, cartoony, and ultimately pretty entertaining.

More than one person I talked to after complained about the villains in the sequel. The first Hellboy movie pitted our, ahem, colorful crusaders against Rasputin and a clockwork Nazi, with some undercurrents of Satan and K'thulu. Jeez, it's a wonder there was anyone left for them to fight in the sequel. I actually found the villain in Hellboy II to be fairly engaging--he was a sympathetic character. You didn't like him or his methods, but you could at least understand his motives. He fights for his homeland when his kinsmen choose to wane and vanish. It provided a touch of realism in a film that was brimming-over with the incredible and unbelievable.

On the whole, I like a villain that isn't a villain. There's plenty of human drama to be found amongst the conflicting goals and moralities of everyday people without making them arbitrarily evil or giving them unconscionable greed or avarice without cause. And it's quite another thing to make someone truly, terrifyingly villainous without any explanation whatsoever. The classic example is Hannibal Lecter, one of the most fearsome monsters in cinematic history who was completely castrated by an origin story in Hannibal Rising. He stops being scary when you find out that he was made into a horrible creature at the hands of... Nazis...

Gag a maggot.

If there is one thing I resent above all else, it is the improper use of Nazi's as villains in cinema. It's not because I'm overly sympathetic to the German National Socialist Party. Nor do I have anything against Jews. I just find the practice of employing the Third Reich as a go-to bad-guy unpalatable... no... lazy. We could make an exception for films that take place during or before World War II, but even then it's occasionally a stretch (Raiders of the Lost Ark, in my mind, pushes the envelope for Nazis-as-bad-guys about as far as it will go).

Moreover, the fact that we've demonized them in our understanding of history has prevented us from ever truly understanding their history. Posit: The Nazi's were ordinary people who found themselves in a situation that compelled them to do horrible things. To me, that is frightening. Utterly terrifying. But rather than explore that, we regard them as simply evil people who made Hannibal into a cannibal.

You're starting to see the same thing with terrorists, specifically militant Muslim jihadists. It's easy to take a cheap shot using something that people already fear. To me, it's far more compelling to not think of a terrorist as purely evil, but as a normal work-a-day person who was compelled by... something... to do vicious and horrible things.

Frankly, I was glad to see the Hellboy franchise take a step away from that nonsense, even if it is only a step towards other nonsense. At least this new nonsense was, well, new.

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