Oooh, where to start? Okay — first, let me introduce John Constantine. He’s a DC character (the same imprint which stables Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman and a bunch of other underpants-wearing types) created originally by Alan Moore as a support figure during Moore’s critically-acclaimed run on the Swamp Thing title. Constantine is a blond English occultist with limited power but tremendous cunning and confidence, and a real problem with authority.
Constantine is also my favourite-ever DC character, for a variety of reasons. I really got to like him when Garth Ennis was writing the series (Constantine got spun off from Swamp Thing into the Vertigo Comics title “Hellblazer”) but other writers including Warren Ellis also turned in some excellent work on the book.
There was always a lot to appreciate about the Constantine/Hellblazer comics. Ennis did a lot of his work in the latter days of the late, not-so-fucking-lamented Maggie Thatcher, and there’s a great deal of sharp, vicious social commentary in the stories. Constantine’s fuck-you attitude towards Heaven and Hell alike also spilled over into his approach to merely mortal authorities. Constantine also occasionally embodied Ennis’ famously disrespectful attitude to conventional superheroes — those buffoons in spandex.
Above and beyond such things, however, I appreciated a beautifully depicted character. Constantine isn’t super-powerful, but he’s a confident, cunning son-of-a-bitch and in the hands of a good writer you could never be sure if the character was bluffing or whether he really did have the power to take down whatever Dread Occult Forces he happened to be confronting at the time. Constantine is also a deeply flawed character: arrogant, angry, bitter, with a nasty habit of using up his friends in a thoroughly fatal way. But of course, you could only like a character of such type if he came with other qualities: courage, loyalty, fierce intelligence, a wonderfully bleak sense of humour, and a deep streak of compassion and empathy.
Some years ago, a very badly informed US film company made a hideous attempt to bring Constantine to the screen. The movie was called “Constantine”, and it featured Keanu Reeves in the lead role. So – not a blond, emotionally-scarred, anti-authoritarian Brit, but a dark-haired American reknowned for his kindness and fundamental decency as a person.
It did not go well. I don’t want to discuss the movie, except to say that my son noted one very telling line. As Reeves is introducing himself to someone nasty in the movie, he says that he is “…John Constantine, asshole.” Unfortunately, the way Reeves delivers the line it doesn’t sound like he’s calling the nasty person an asshole. He actually sounds like “asshole” is a title or a job-description. In other words, Reeves says something much more like “John Constantine: asshole.” Not a bad review of the movie…
Anyway, somebody has decided that Constantine wasn’t completely dead after that effort, and in the wake of DC’s success with Arrow, they’re trying for a Constantine TV series. The pilot, recently made, has been duly leaked and the other day a masked man with a very piratical accent met me in a dark alleyway and gave me a thumb drive with the leaked pilot on it in MP4 format.
I have now seen it. And I am… well, disappointed. Hopeful, but disappointed.
In one sense they’ve learned from their errors. This Constantine is blond, and appropriately Mancunian. The actor who got the job isn’t bad, either. He works with his material, and carries it well. I can believe in his Constantine, and I suspect that in time he might even get closer to the Constantine of the books.
Unfortunately, there are ways in which they have NOT learned. The pilot spends about ten minutes at Ravenscar Asylum in England, then abruptly ports itself to the USA. And then we spend another half hour to forty minutes or so on a Nasty Invading Demon plot which exists purely so that Constantine can a) meet and save the girl who is going to be his second-sighted sidekick through the unfolding series, and b) be railroaded into a situation which demands he must now travel about the USA like a kind of breastless Buffy, hunting down demon incursions and exorcising them.
Oh, sure: there’s an angel, and the angel has explained that ‘something big’ is coming. So no doubt there will be the obligatory over-arching plotline. But in essence, they makers of the show have lined us up for something that falls into the same territory as Buffy and Supernatural, except with a cynical British occultist in the lead instead of a couple of stalwart, manly-chinned American lads, or a high-school teenager and her retinue of misfit buddies.
Sorry, folks. That’s not the Constantine I wanted to see.
Now for sure, it’s a pilot. Maybe they’ll see sense. Maybe they’ll give us some depth, some subtlety, some social commentary, some character work. I did say I was hopeful, right? Well, at the very end there’s a sequence where Constantine is walking through a dark tunnel, monologuing, and he’s playing with his lighter — pouring lighter fluid on his hands, rubbing it in. Then the bad guys jump out and surround him, but Constantine lights up his hands and holds them out like flaming barriers… except the viewers know it’s lighter fluid.
That there is pretty cool. That’s the real John Constantine: showmanship and trickery in a tight spot, making lighter fluid look like napalm and hellfire. I can get behind that piece of characterisation. It suggests that at least one of the writers on the show has read the books and actually developed an understanding of the essential character.
But will there be more of this?
I find it hard to believe. They’ve taken away from Constantine two things which are essential to the character as written. First, because this is a network show, Constantine isn’t allowed to smoke. We see him fiddling with his lighter. We see him stubbing out cigarettes. But network rules are network rules, and this version of John Constantine will never appear from the shadows, his face eerily illumined as he lights up a cigarette and nonchalantly scares the shit out of his opposition.
That may not seem like much, but the better writers knew how to use the imagery. More importantly, they also knew how to show that Constantine himself knew how to use his own imagery. Those cigarette moments were conscious manifestations of Constantine’s dangerous mix of bluff, confidence, and genuine, secret power. It will be difficult for the TV writers to find a similarly iconic means of conveying those things.
The second thing missing is, of course, London. In the comics, Constantine does travel, yes. But he keeps coming back to London, and London is almost as much the heart of the Hellblazer series as John Constantine himself. London is one of the world’s great cities. It is a historic touchstone, a place whose provenance stretches back to the Roman empire and beyond. London is Constantine’s backdrop — but it is also his ally, and sometimes even his enemy.
Constantine travelling across the USA hunting down demons at the behest of a cute American psychic chick?
I am not sanguine. I remind myself: this is a pilot. There’s always the chance that things will get better. Unfortunately, try as I might I cannot forget that they can also stay the same, or even get worse…