Opening with a nifty stop-motion sequence depicting the triumph of humanity over the mythical world and the banishment of its inhabitants, Hellboy II pits the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense against the elfin Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who is after a mythical MacGuffin that will allow him to resurrect the golden army - a legion of hulking mechanical soldiers - and revolt against the humans. One of the improvements over the first Hellboy is that the plot here is secondary to the characters; the distinctively eccentric world created in the comics by Mike Mignola isn't suited to the typical superhero movie structure, and del Toro smartly allows his characters more breathing room this time around. Boring audience surrogate Agent Myers is dropped in favor of a Hellboy-centric movie focusing on Red's stormy relationship with firestarter Liz (Selma Blair), their uneasy attempt at "normal" life made difficult by the freakish reception from the humans they protect once Hellboy blows their cover. The standard good vs. evil arc of superhero movies is subverted here by Del Toro's preference for his monstrous characters; this time around, Del Toro explores the idea of a monster fighting his own kind in greater depth. A scene involving an enormous plant elemental that threatens to destroy a city works because Del Toro is less interested in working to an explosive payoff than in having his audience consider the creature's strange beauty; there are plenty of effects wizards helming comic book movies, but few that could find such a moment of grace amidst the explosive spectacle.
Hellboy II is a visual marvel as well, relying more than the average contemporary monster movie on makeup and practical effects. The comparison to the Star Wars Cantina scene also underlines something Del Toro has in common with young George Lucas, his ability to balance the astounding with the mundane. It's relatively easy at this point to make towering fantastic landscapes, but it takes real imagination to make them feel lived-in. Perhaps this is why the CGI sequences are less successful - the climactic battle with the golden army, for instance, was a little too familiar to be totally engaging (perhaps seeing it after The Dark Knight was a mistake, as it couldn't help but feel a little square by comparison). For me, the emotional climax is Liz's visit with a wonderfully realized angel of death (again with the eyes, Guillermo), a scene that, for all the true geeks in the audience, speaks poignantly to our need to connect and gang up against the normals - if the monster is, as Bruno Bettelheim and others have suggested, a manifestation of our inescurities, than Hellboy II is a call to let one's freak flag fly.
However, the best moments of Hellboy II are the in-between ones - the scene where effete ectoplasmic BPRD agent Johann Krauss (voiced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane) calmly tells Hellboy "I think I can take you," or the brilliant scene where Hellboy and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, also the angel of death) get drunk on Tecate and bond over Barry Manilow. In loosening up, Del Toro has made a film that feels less like we're on an epic mission with Hellboy and more like we're just hanging out with him, which is much more fun and interesting. I love the world Del Toro has established here, and I hope we get to see everything he's set up pay off in a Hellboy III, even if that means a smaller budget. Even without the large scale Del Toro was afforded here, it's the characters that make this world worth returning to. And I'm particularly dying to see the payoff on that final freeze-frame - let's just say I know exactly how Hellboy feels.