John Constantine is British. He’s also a self-proclaimed Master of the Dark Arts and Exorcist. He’s also the star of Constantine, the NBC TV-series that starts airing in October. We’ve already seen it and even though it’s a good show, it won’t be easy for the British Warlock to enthrall audiences.
This year, DC Comics is trying to establish itself as a TV ratings giant. After the years-long success of Smallville and the ongoing success of Arrow, the publisher whose most famous characters are Superman and Batman tries to expand aggressively into TV territory. Today, we’ll have a look at the publisher’s latest production for the small screen: Constantine.
The series shows a tweaked-for-TV version of John Constantine, Master of the Dark Arts and Exorcist. In the world of comic books, Constantine is one of the most popular characters who are best described as anti-heroes.
John Constantine was never a good guy. Or a good guy who happens to be a bit of an ass. John Constantine was – in the pages of Hellblazer – a man who has no quarrel of going behind everyone’s back should even the tiniest of profit of whatever kind be in for him. That’s what made reading Constantine’s adventures so good. Readers never knew what side he was on or what insane scheme he’s cooked up now to come out on top. Because he had a knack for that. John Constantine always won. Even when he was losing. Somehow he came up on top in the end, even if the whole world got betrayed.
Cynical observers of the publishers’ recent successes and failures claim that it’s probably because DC’s recent movies haven’t been too good. Man of Steel underwhelmed on every front but its trailer and the Justice League-movie is in seemingly endless development hell. And even the third part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight-trilogy failed to wow audiences. It was good, no doubt, but it was no The Dark Knight, a movie that is widely regarded to be the best comic book movie there can be.
On the other hand, there’s Arrow. After the first few episodes of struggle, the series has been nothing but well-received. Last week’s review of the new Flash-series proved that DC has got another winner on its hands. Later this year both Gotham and Constantine start airing. The latter we’ve already seen so we can tell you what’s going on in the world of John Constantine before October rolls around.
John Constantine, played by Matt Ryan, is in a mental institution. The British exorcist and warlock is being locked up and the staff there are trying to fry his brain with electroshock therapy. Constantine is pretty happy about this, claiming that sometimes, he just needs to forget, implying that this is about some mysterious bad thing that has happened to him in the past.
However, his peace of mind doesn’t last long. Because soon, there’s a white-eyed woman who attracts all cockroaches in the building and draws on walls in blood. One quick exorcism later, Constantine sees what she wrote. A name and an announcement of sorts: Liv Die.
Cut. Constantine is now in the United States. Atlanta, to be precise. This is the city where Liv Aberdeen (Lucy Griffiths) lives and works. She is an employee at a rental car agency who wonders if there’s more out there for her. She doesn’t wonder about the mystical or the supernatural, but more if her work at the rental car agency is all there is to her life.
She meets Constantine and he shows her that he not only knew her father but also sees things that aren’t real and with the help of an old family heirloom, an amulet, so can Liv. And even worse: There’s a giant demon out to get her.
Over the course of the 45 minutes of the pilot episode, it is also revealed that John Constantine is a somewhat tragic figure himself. He damned a young child to hell. And he himself is going to hell as well. So, if nothing else, Constantine is out to get himself saved.
The Reluctant Hero
The character of John Contantine is based on a comic book titled Hellblazer. Well, that was what it was called, because after 300 issues, the series got cancelled in a marketing maneuver that sought to integrate John Contantine into the mainstream DC Universe. Previously, a meeting between Batman and Constantine was impossible because Constantine was in a different universe than Batman even though both characters were published by the same comic book company. The reboot of the book, nowadays titled Constantine has not been too well-received, even though the stories aren’t exactly bad. They’re just not Hellblazer anymore. That willingness to betray everyone at a moment’s notice is apparently gone and has been replaced by doing the right thing with slightly unorthodox methods that are a result of sub-par people skills.
The Hellblazer-Constantine is a snarky British person who never openly displays affection as it would be him admitting to actually caring. Or to him maybe having to budge from his position that enables him to walk out of even the worst of situations where everyone around him is being disintegrated in a maelstrom of blood and guts, where souls are being dragged to hell just so that the titular hero of the book can go to the pub and have another pint. Even the best of the friends hate John Constantine.
In Constantine, the TV series, the titular lead is still cynical, but he cares. He cares about Liv Aberdeen. He even enables her to embrace her destiny as an investigator of the paranormal and his sidekick as well as supporting character. Constantine does the right thing, if only for some plot where he wants to save his soul and find redemption by saving a little girl and making up for a past transgression. He states his motivation at the end of the episode, while his hands are on fire: «I walk alone. Because, let’s face it … Who would be crazy enough to ride with me?»
This isn’t quite the Constantine long-time fans are used to. But it’s not a bad incarnation. Matt Ryan plays a good and snarky, also somewhat disaffected, Constantine. The redemption-plot, thus, seems a bit unnecessary, seeing as Matt Ryan would be perfect for the more merciless and more egotistical Constantine. He pulls off the not-caring character really well. So the plot with the soul-saving seems to be tacked on in parts and serves solely as a vehicle to convey to viewers that there’s now a series with John Constantine, Liv Aberdeen and other characters.
Awesomely Disturbing but not Unique
The series is visually impressive. The demons are creatively done and not giant CGI-looking creatures. For the most part, Constantine relies on slightly exaggerated features of people. Jaws that open too wide, impossibly pale people crying black tears, heads that turn just that bit too far or in angles that would break a regular person’s neck. This is very effective. Constantine is, if nothing else, wonderfully creepy.
The show does well by showing the variety of demons with all their grisly actions and creepy voices and their turning heads. What suffers from this is story coherence. And quickly, the show’s biggest future obstacle presents itself: it’s not unique.
The Flash has the fastest man alive. Nobody else is that fast. Arrow has a man without superpowers but with insane archery skills and rage. Nobody else has that. Gotham has a rich orphan who will one day change the world. Nobody else has that. Smallville showed viewers the early years of a hero we all thought we knew.
Constantine has none of that. There’s nothing that makes that show unique. It seems to be a collage of all sorts of other TV shows.
- Hunting demons? Supernatural.
- Curmudgeonly titular hero? House.
- Disturbing imagery? American Horror Story.
- Looking for redemption? Brimstone.
- Reluctant hero? Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
So there’s nothing that makes Constantine distinctively unique, as much as a pleonasm this might be. Every element of the story has been seen somewhere before.
There are glimpses at Constantine’s ruthless and opportunistic nature, but they get swallowed up in the massive amount of exposition that this show needs in order to function. Said exposition is handled well and only very rarely does the show seem to be rushed, even though there’s so much stuff to process in just 45 minutes.
Does that mean that Constantine is bad? No, not at all. It’s a very clever blend of all these elements viewers have seen before at least in parts in every show ever. Besides, the acting is good, the special effects are really good and very effectively creepy and, hey, Constantine is a good character regardless.
All in all, Constantine is a good show. It just won’t have it very easy to be able to stand out and thus find renewal. It’s up to the fans to make this show into something great. John Constantine will need the support of every viewer out there to persist and maybe grow into its own.
Teene and not Tyne
Fans will be delighted to have the definitive answer to the one of the most debated questions that isn’t really a question: How do you pronounce the lead character’s name? Is it Con-Stan-Teene or Con-Stan-Tyne? Everyone who ever had to utter the name in any kind of official capacity agrees on it being Con-Stan-Teene. Yet a lot of very vocal fans insist on Con-Stan-Tyne. Even the terrible 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves that brought us the first live action glimpse at Hellblazer got that right.
The main problem with that movie, however, was one that they got right in the TV series. You see, Constantine has always had a very distinct look. It is best described as Sting. Yes, the singer. Because since the beginning of his comic book series, John Constantine bore an uncanny resemblance to pop singer Sting. When original author of the book, Alan Moore, was asked about the resemblance, he gave the following statement:
Basically, when I take over something as a writer, I always try to work as closely as I can with the artists on the book, so I immediately did my best to strike up a friendship with Steve Bissette and John Totleben. I asked them what they would like to do in Swamp Thing . They both sent me reams of material. Things that they had always wanted to do in Swamp Thing, but never thought they would get away with. I incorporated this into my scheme of things, and tried to pin it all together.
One of those early notes was they both wanted to do a character that looked like Sting. I think DC is terrified that Sting will sue them, although Sting has seen the character and commented in Rolling Stone that he thought it was great. He was very flattered to have a comic character who looked like him, but DC gets nervous about these things. They started to eradicate all traces of references in the introduction of the early Swamp Thing books to John Constantine’s resemblance to Sting .
Later on during the 300-issue run of Hellblazer the powers-that-be gave up on eradicating said traces, because artists like Tim Bradstreet just openly drew Sting when depicting Constantine.
Keanu Reeves very obviously looks nothing like Sting, but Matt Ryan does have the general face to pass as somewhat of a Sting-like person. It’s probably as good as it will get if Sting himself is not involved.
To finish this off. Here’s a trailer. Enjoy!
Update: The first version of this article listed the writing on the wall as Liv Aberdeen, whereas in reality it says Liv Die. Kudos go to Darthspud of Reddit.com.