Movies 2 October 2018 | 13:49

Hellboy and the death of swearwords

02 October 2018 13:49

When it was first announced that Ron Perlman would be playing the title character in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), people could really see it. Perlman is as chunkily-featured and broad-shouldered as the character is in the comic-books. Just slap a bit of red paint on him, and you’re good to go.

But when it was first announced that David Harbour would be occupying the role for Neil Marshall’s reboot, due next year, people had a bit more trouble with the seeing part. After years as one of those now-why-does-he-look-familiar? sorts of actors, Harbour almost quit Hollywood, before finding fame as the rather paunchy Chief Hopper in Stranger Things. If only there were such things as exercise regimes and prosthetics that could make him look different.

It turns out that there were. A single promotional shot, tweeted last year, suggested that Harbour wears the character well. And now the first poster for Marshall’s film, released yesterday, seems to have set the nerdier corners of the Internet alight. There is Harbour-as-Hellboy, a flaming sword over his shoulder, and, in place of the usual filed-down stumps, a pair of goatish horns rising from his skull. It’s a poster that operates as an imperative: doubt no more.

Except the poster also has a flaw. At its bottom right-hand corner, above the movie’s logo, is a small tagline: ‘Legendary AF’. The intent behind those two words is clear: the copywriters are trying to capture the mix of high-flown fantasy and backstreet demotic that makes Mike Mignola’s original comics so great. But that ‘AF’ – which, for those who can’t work it out, is explained by the Urban Dictionary – is too glib for purpose. Or at least that’s the consensus on Twitter.

It is also fast becoming a cliché. Another recent promotional image, for Season 2 of Preacher (which was also based, incidentally, on comics that mixed demons with the demotic), pulled the same trick:

And a Google search reveals a thousand t-shirts in the AF line. You can now be ‘Feminist AF’, ‘Married AF’, ‘Woke AF’ or even ‘Polite AF’. Hahaha.

This isn’t a prudish point; quite the opposite. ‘AF’ has joined ‘WTF’ as a popular acronym that pretends to be sweary, when it’s actually just the f-word for people – or, indeed, movie campaigns – who don’t want to use the f-word. Worse, it also dilutes the original, four-letter version. How are swearwords still to shock when they’re implied on billboards and on nice normal folks’ clothing? Do they have any meaning left?

I’m with John Myers, Hellboy’s handler in the first movie. When he’s asked whether there’s a ‘good, solid word’ that means ‘need’, he replies: ‘Well, “need” is a good, solid word’. Some words are just right for particular situations – and it would be fine to keep them that way.