Hellboy is the only comic-book movie I've seen to date that actually improves on the source material. That's not to say that the comic, created by Mike Mignola, isn't enjoyable in its own right. On the page, Hellboy possesses a dry wit and a flair for the macabre that recalls the classic EC horror titles of the early '50s. Unfortunately, Mignola's characters aren't always as compelling as the world they inhabit. The best part about Guillermo del Toro's spirited big-screen translation is the way he humanizes the titular demon hunter and his fellow crime-solving freaks. Hellboy (embodied to perfection by Ron Perlman) may be a bright red colossus with a tail and a right hand made of stone, but at heart he's just a regular guy who'd rather kick back and drink an entire keg of beer than fight the forces of darkness. The film follows his wiseacre example. Where numerous superhero movies have faltered by taking themselves too seriously (such as Daredevil and del Toro's own Blade II), Hellboy is light on its feet, careening from elaborate action sequences to comic bits to tender dramatic moments without missing a step or descending into incoherence. In other words, it would make a great comic book.

The film starts with a bang--literally--during the closing days of World War II. To turn the tide of the war, the Nazis have enlisted the aid of legendary Russian magician Rasputin (Karel Roden), who plans to open an interdimensional portal that will bring forth creatures of great power. In the middle of the ritual, Allied troops attack the Nazi camp and force the gateway closed, but not before something crosses over: a wide-eyed baby demon whom the soldiers creatively name Hellboy. Adopted by kindly scientist Professor Broom (John Hurt), Hellboy grows up to be a top agent at the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development), a task force that combats all the mystical creatures that the general public isn't supposed to know about. He's aided on his missions by part-man, part-amphibian Abe Sapien (voiced by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic afraid of her own powers. Into this tight-knit circle comes fresh-faced FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), who was handpicked by the now elderly Broom to look after his "son" once he passes on. The two get off to an awkward start, particularly when John puts the moves on Liz, Hellboy's longtime crush. But when Rasputin and his minions resurface, the B.P.R.D. crew put aside their squabbles and suit up to defend a world that doesn't even know they exist.

The biggest challenge facing Hellboy at the box office is the fact that no one, apart from a niche group of comic geeks, has any idea who these characters are. But that unfamiliarity is also an enormous creative boon for the filmmakers. Unlike Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi, del Toro doesn't have to worry about placating legions of devoted fanboys or casual readers of the comic. He's free to introduce audiences to the Hellboy universe entirely on his own terms (although fans of Mignola's work shouldn't worry; del Toro is careful to follow the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the printed Hellboy). The director's most significant deviation from the comic is to raise the emotional stakes for all of the characters, inventing the romance between Liz and H.B. (as she calls him) and underlining the father/son bond Broom and Hellboy share. This kind of melodrama would be deadly, though, if del Toro didn't also keep the characters' tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. Their sense of humor about themselves not only draws us into this universe, it transforms them into fully rounded human beings. When Hellboy tails Liz and John on a coffee date, we laugh at the sight of this big red demon playing the jealous boyfriend, but also feel for the guy as well.

Of course, Hellboy isn't a romantic comedy; there's plenty of mayhem to satisfy action-hungry viewers. Del Toro wrings every last cent out of his $60 million budget, and while some of the CGI was clearly done on the cheap, it doesn't appear overly cartoonish. In the midst of the rock 'em, sock 'em fight sequences and Perlman's star-making performance, it's easy to overlook how well-plotted the film is. Like the best comic-book writers, del Toro crafts a three-act story that's both preposterous and strangely believable. There are a number of blockbusters coming out this summer with bigger budgets than Hellboy, but they'll have to work hard to be this much fun.

-Ethan Alter