The show Constantine, in keeping with the titular character’s contrarian disposition, suffers from the DC Comics uniform corporate treatment of their licenses, but for the opposite reason as every other character that’s been left in awkward tone-limbo: this bloke isn’t dark enough, and, while it indisputably improves on the Keanu Reeves 2005 film, neither is his show.
It isn’t that Constantine couldn’t be a great televised character; he could be a fantastic one. But he won’t, because a company so large that it is known as one of ‘The Big 2’ is never going to take the risk of putting him on-air without toning him down.
John Constantine began his existence in the DC Universe itself, helping the Swamp Thing deal with the pressures of…being a Swamp Thing, in 1984. Being an Alan Moore creation, he pushed the grim-and-gritty thing to the max, and DC relocated him to their more experimental branch, Vertigo Comics, where he cheerily (well, cynically) hung out in his own timeline, aging in sync with the real world in the terrific series Hellblazer.
In 2011, the series was ended and the character was consolidated into the main DC New 52 Universe, presumably because he was the only thing grittier than Batman they could find lying around. But therein lies the problem.
John Constantine, as written until that point, was an upstart, unrepentant jerk who drank, did drugs, frequented prostitutes, was in and out of institutions, hung out tripping acid with a hippie commune now and then, and spent six months drinking himself to death homeless in a condemned building because he got dumped. He reflected the cynic’s view of the world, and particularly England, as it transitioned from eighties, to nineties, to the new century.
His experiences showed the perspective of a man who lived through the 70s as a naive youth, then watched the world, already losing the sheen of ‘pure optimism’ that characterized the youth of the sixties, grow ever more cynical and commercialized, and faced the consequences of their actions. As a youth he joined a terrible band, which achieved success through magic that equated to personal magnetism, then broke up tragically in an abuse of power similar to the inevitable drug-fueled spiral that claims so many young bands. He spent time, while with the aforementioned past-its-prime hippie camp, fighting police brutality and the powerful men who swept such incidents under the rug, then ultimately sided with the entitled aristocratic government when the alternative turned out to be siding with true demons. Even his experiments with hallucinogens, rather than being transcendent spiritual affairs, led to life-threatening confrontations with prior iterations of magicians-in-over-their-heads.
He also retained his touches of humanity, the moments that made him a compelling character despite the rough edges and murder-y tendencies. He didn’t hesitate to let a guy who sold his soul get sucked into hell by an angry demon, but he will feel guilty for assuming that a little girl’s spirit is a disguised demonic entity, and pause in his quest to save himself to help her reach peace.
Among his most classic moments was a surprise birthday his then-girlfriend threw him because he felt glum about actually getting old (a legitimate thing to feel grumpy about, when all the other comic characters out there seem to be immune from that particular issue), and invites a range of his friends, including an ancient wintertime party diety the Lord of the Hunt and the Swamp Thing. Naturally, at this point Constantine hit on sending the Lord of the Hunt off with another friend to retrieve a fledgling pot plant, and using Swamp Thing to insta-grow it into a flourishing state as a party trick.
This guy was, to put it shortly, a little too realistic for the mainstream DC Universe. His periodic misery fits right in, but his close ties to the changing times, and the coping techniques he employs to deal with them, do not. Nor does his occasional bout of optimism about the world, or his contempt for everyday people, who live their lives oblivious to cultural shifts.
Constantine in The New 52: Surprisingly Non-Disastrous
When Hellblazer concluded in 2011, many prognosticated doom for the character, for the simple reason that DC’s New 52 is grim-dark, but not in the same way. Batman may be an unrelenting fountain of misery and pain, infecting anything that shares the universe with him; marriage may be forbidden because it will make the characters too happy (obligitory cliche joke – who are these guys married to? *ba dum tish*), but you don’t see anyone in the DC Universe lighting up a joint to make the pain go away. You also don’t see them aging realistically, paying for sex, or spending an entire paperback’s worth of issues mourning a lost relationship, while offhandedly leaving government officials to die.
Despite this, fan predictions of an intolerably watered-down character were somewhat overdramatic. Despite losing the obvious indicators of a life of sin, this is not a cuddly guy, or one you actually want to share a pint with (even if it seems like it would probably be fun to do just that, at least until the other shoe drops). He remains as much of a hard-bitten cynical realist as he can, even though the only things he is permitted to be cynical about are directly related to superheroes or super-heroing (Suicide Squad and A.R.G.U.S. seem to be the only titles that are permitted to consider real-world political implications of the superhero status quo in the DC Universe, and even they barely touch on it; no ‘normal human’ perspective of any significance is offered up for any length of time.
Constantine kills as necessary in the New 52, turning an assassin into smoke early in his run, then promising to free a soul…monster….thing trapped by a Sorcerer, with the full knowledge that as soon as he does so said sorcerer’s daughter will eviscerate it. The best outcome one of his friends experiences after helping him is losing a minivan in a labyrinthine magical trap; within the first issue he is already walking off and leaving a friend to be crushed to death so he can hang on to a magical artifact…which he hands over to the murderer an issue later, somewhat undercutting his argument that it was necessary for the greater good.
He retains the half-demon blood he acquired in Hellblazer, and the trinity of demons fighting over his pre-damned soul, and after meeting The Spectre he lives up to his reputation for being able to talk his way out of hell with the classic ‘lesser of two evils’/‘if not me, then who?’ argument. He also exhibits occasional touches of remorse for the way he treats his friends, though they are typically feeble in comparison to the suffering he caused.
DC also took the portrayal of the character as skating by on lesser magical deeds, sticking to the basics and cleaning up after the foolish people who try to master powerful magic, and used it to great effect in the New 52; at one point he escapes captivity by telling a ‘guy walks into a bar’ joke, and it may be the most impressive magical act he engages in in the first volume of New 52 issues. Several characters call him a ‘gutter magician’, and the name is apt; this is Loki-style trickster magic, not earth-shattering Dr. Fate-style magic.
Constantine: The Show
All indications suggested that Constantine as a TV series had the potential to succeed in the same vein as the New 52 Constantine series. Unlike the 2005 film, which pretty much counts as an entertaining travesty, with the sole exception of the brilliant casting for the angel Gabriel and Papa Midnite, the show actually managed to find an actor with a British accent to play a British character.
Constantine begins with John self-committed to an asylum following the disastrous final concert of his band, which concluded with an overreach of magic on his part, multiple deaths and a cute kid-of-a-friend trapped in hell. He doesn’t doubt demons are real, he just wants to believe they aren’t, which actor Matt Ryan portrays excellently. He leaves because a friend’s soul possesses another patient to warn him of the impending death of a girl he promised to protect. Exorcising the girl, he walks out of a ruined in-patient art studio with a casual ‘she did it’.
So far, so good.
Standards, and Standards
But the problem with television is that it isn’t the wild west of content standards that comic books are. Even in the toned-down, PC’ed up world of the Big 2, comic books came out of the age of the Comic Code Authority’s outright censorship of content years ago, and entered a brave new world with no restrictions whatsoever. There are age standards set for each title by each publisher, but there is no uniform set of rules governing those standards, and what DC rates as the equivalent to an R-rated movie can have content that might actually merit the rare application of a NC-17 for violence rating in a theater. Scott Snyder’s Death of the Family run on Batman has imagery and a psychological impact I routinely describe to customers as too mature for me, and it is doubtful even HBO would reproduce it intact (especially since there is no gratuitous sex to go with the eyeball-melting nastiness).
Both of the DC non-animated series produced to date, Arrow and The Flash, were aired on the CW, with content tone-downs to match; The Flash, one of the lighter DC titles (for a given quality of lighter; more charcoal-grey than pitch black), is a particularly good fit for the network, and Arrow does surprisingly well with what it has to work with, permissible content-wise. DC seems to be billing Constantine as its gritty title, with the move to a major network, while seeming cheerily oblivious to the fact that the major networks are, much like the CW, massively restrictive content-wise.
It is a spectacular irony that it is Marvel who signed deals with Netflix to air their upcoming shows, when it is the freedom of just such a service that DC’s dark tone and darker characters requires, while Marvel itself is almost certain to stick to the kiddie end of the tone pool; it is ultimately Disney’s property, besides which, who would want to be in DC’s position right now, when light-and-cheery is clearly where the money is?
Constantine would be great as a streaming show a la House of Cards, an edgy show with a network to match, Game of Thrones-style, or even as a lead-in to an FX show like Breaking Bad. Instead, it is on NBC, with all the limits on language, content, and tone that implies.
Constantine tries, it really does. Starting from Newcastle’s disastrous fallout is a great idea; it lets the character rebuild himself from scratch, with plenty of throwback references like the business cards cockily branding him ‘Master of the occult’ from his younger days leaving him muttering about getting them replaced, and plenty of angst over getting in over his head and condemning Aster to hell by mistake.
But from there we start to see a downhill slide towards ‘processed for tv-standards’ content.
Crispy on the Outside, Gooey on the Inside
In addition to toning down the smoking and drinking (he does both, but the cigarettes are only present in one shot of a stub being extinguished, and the beer comes with an intervention-style lecture from a guy named Chas (who bears no real resemblance to the comic version of Chas), apparently TV audiences demand a little hope for their heroes’ spiritual destinies. Just as the Constantine film put a bucket of stress on the ‘you are going to hell when you die’ thing, then offered him salvation at the the last second, the show feels the need to dangle a chance at redemption in the distance.
Personally, I prefer the Constantine who killed his father with a wasting-away spell that wouldn’t let him pass over when he died, then forgot about it completely and only felt bad when he found out his niece was haunted by her dead grandfather. Both Hellblazer and the New 52 Constantine were irreparably damned, and Constantine never really got on well with the angelic host, what with stealing Gabriel’s soul and driving him to sin, while hiding a demon and the angel who knocked her up from both heaven and hell.
Instead, the powers that be seem to think we aren’t interested in seeing a doomed soul doing good because he (mostly) wants to, to extend his lifespan, or to generally annoy the demons that will one day own him, because here we have a random guardian angel sitting on Constantine’s shoulder, inciting him to help in what is apparently now heaven’s battle against demons.
“You hear that? I’m OK!”
We also get unnecessary-personal-exposition! Constantine. I kid you not, he goes from answering Liv’s question of “where did you come from?” with “the sordid passions of my parents” to delivering a primer on his backstory and motivations based on her brilliant argument of ‘I’m trusting you, so you should stop deflecting’. I’m pretty sure Hellblazer Constantine would cut off his hands before going on a ramble about his feelings like that while sober.
“Whoever you are, I’m a nasty piece of work, ask anybody!”
But let’s be honest, we’re all here mostly for the magic. How is Constantine the magician?
It is difficult to tell how a series like this will progress over time, given that the pilot always comes with its own distinct budget and an overactive desire to impress, but Constantine puts its best foot forward with some high-quality effects, including the overused trailer image of burning hands, some distinctly awesome angel wings, evil snaky power lines, and a scene with water frozen in midair. (There was zero logical reason for that last one, other than showing off.) Tragically, it appears the budget went to heaven before it went to hell, however, because the only shot of the demon that killed Astra is fake-hair-wierd-makeup-tastic.
At the moment, Constantine hasn’t had a chance to do anything besides exorcise, so it remains to be seen if any element of the ‘gutter mage’ magic will persist, or if Constantine will be facing big foes and dramatic possessions all the way. Hopefully, this is just a case of premiere drama, and we will see him tricking more and big-time spell-casting less in future.
Racial Diversity: You’re Doing it Wrong
First off, DC, let’s talk diversity. You are trying. I can tell. You cast, like, four black people in your last two premieres, which is roughly the number of non-white characters in the entire DC Universe. I applaud you for trying, really I do. But you know how Marvel did that so successfully it retroactively changed comics Nick Fury from bland white guy #5000 into Samuel L. Jackson? That’s because the character whose race they changed was not A) the instant victim of a horrible crime (Aster), B) the horribly whiny pseudo-love interest (Miss West from The Flash), C) the worst surrogate parent anyone could dream of (seriously, Mr. West, what is your problem?) or D) a non-human entity with freaky contact lenses.
Pick a recurring character. That doesn’t die on contact. Or constantly make you want to punch them.
Hey, you know who would have been a good choice for diversity? Annoying Point-of-View girl, Liv. Constantine left the hospital to save his friend’s daughter, who he never met before. She needed saving, but she was pretty intelligent about the whole thing. Ground falls in, own car almost kills you, lights go out, guy hops dramatically out of cab in darkened parking lot; mace is the correct choice. (I am not optimistic enough to believe anyone working for DC will ever believe a woman is smart enough to point a can of mace the right way, so I’ll take what I can get.)
But why, OH GOD WHY, did she have to be one of those white-enough-to-bleach-teeth, eerily-large-blue-eyes, impossibly-shiny-and-perfectly-curled-brown-hair types? I don’t need more Deschanel sisters, there are already two, and they freak me out enough as is.
The good news: Liv got written out because someone somewhere was smart enough to realize Zed, an actual character from the books who knows actual magic, is a better sidekick than a girl who knows absolutely nothing paired with a guy who never explains anything. Even better news: Angélica Celaya, who will be playing Zed, is of Mexican heritage, and doesn’t look completely white on the show, so they appear to be learning from their mistakes. Slightly.
Hey, What Happened to England?
Of course, Zed was British in the books, like Chas and everyone else from Hellblazer (bar occasional visits to New York), and hey, maybe you could pick someone British for Matt Ryan to talk to?
The show starts in England, at the mental hospital, so at least they didn’t try to suggest Constantine killed someone in England, then hopped the pond for treatment, but once he checks out, Bam! straight to the USA.
My real question, actually: is that British actors are so expensive, or is it the fake moss and rain that would have killed the budget? If nothing else, you would think that the incredibly unsubtle ad for the expensive car with the back-up camera and collision detection would have paid for that. (Though perhaps they dock your endorsement deal if you show all the positive features of the car failing at once and then trying to run over the heroine…)
Noooooooo! Oh…actually no? Okay then…
I was very impressed with Constantine for bold plot moves…for about 5 minutes, at the half way mark. Then I was mostly annoyed. In a show about a magician, particularly one who mostly thinks/talks his way out of trouble, ‘things aren’t always what they appear’ is not a good enough explanation for backing off from the midpoint shocker right away. That is called plot laziness, and hopefully we won’t be seeing any more of it.
All in all, however, the show was interesting, if a bit frustrating, and has promise to grow. Matt Ryan is carrying off the character as well as, if not better than, could be expected given what he has to go on here (though there are a few instances of hilariously obvious pouty!face); hopefully Chas will one day resemble himself, and the fact that Zed will be replacing Liv is a big step in the right direction.
Additionally, there are the little breadcrumbs scattered in our path when Liv is in her father’s old home; any of these could be developed further in the series, or all could be discarded due to heroine reboot.
Only time will tell, but I considered them a touch spoilery, so they are grouped together below!