What NBC’s ‘Constantine’ is Getting Completely Wrong About Constantine
We’re three episodes into the first season of NBC’s ‘Constantine‘ and it’s fine. It’s also disposable and a little too straightforward for it’s own good, but it’s fine. It’s no ‘The X-Files’ or ‘Supernatural,’ but as far as genre procedurals go, it gets the job done.
And yet the show leaves a sour taste in my mouth that keeps me from wanting to stick with it and see if it improves. And it’s for a completely unfair reason that’s going to make me sound like a self-entitled fanboy: the main character of this show, the one who goes by John Constantine, is an impostor. I know John Constantine, sir, and you are no John Constantine.
But first, a little history! When John Constantine made his debut in the pages of Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’ run (which is probably the greatest superhero run in the history of the medium), he arrived fully formed. Clad in a trenchcoat with a cigarette always dangling from his lips, he was a charming con man with a knack for the supernatural and a talent for pissing off every single person who crossed his path. He was a magician who avoided all of the usual tropes, a nasty middle finger to characters like Doctor Strange. He was an instant breakout character and was rewarded with his own solo series, ‘Hellblazer,’ in 1988.
‘Hellblazer’ was cancelled in 2013 and by the end of his series, John was a different man. Having aged in real time over the course of 26 years and 300 issues, he transformed from a 30-something punk into a older, wiser and still bitter-as-hell mage; a man seemingly doomed to do battle with the forces of evil whether he wanted to or not. And yet the Constantine of 2013 was still clearly the same man we first met nearly 30 years earlier. A dozen writers and countless artists couldn’t dilute him. And why would they? Why fix a character who was never even close to being broken? This was a character who practically wrote himself. Even with countless storytellers providing their own interpretations, it was awfully hard to screw up John Constantine.
Well, leave it to NBC to change that. Actually, if we’re going to start pointing fingers, we should also point an accusatory digit at director Francis Lawrence and actor Keanu Reeves, whose 2005 film ‘Constantine’ also completely botched the character. What’s fascinating about NBC’s take on the character is how differently they got him wrong. In fact, you could say that they got him wrong in an equal and opposite direction.
While the film adaptation changed Constantine into an American, made him a brunette, ditched his trademark coat and transformed him into a gun-toting, po-faced action hero, the TV series actually gets the surface details right. Matt Ryan‘s John Constantine is blonde, British, quick with a wisecrack and never goes anywhere without his trusty trenchcoat. Ryan’s performance is perfectly fine and he’s a pleasant enough actor to spend 41 minutes a week with...but he’s certainly not the Constantine that comic fans know inside and out. He looks right, at a glance, but the character is completely different in every way that matters.
Because let’s get this right out in the open: John Constantine is a bastard. He’s a bad guy and a nasty piece of work who has a habit of getting all of his friends and allies killed. He’ll charm you for the moment, but spend the rest of the time poisoning you. He’s a self-serving git who will manipulate anyone and anything to achieve his ends. A believer in the big picture, he sacrifices whatever and whomever to achieve his ends. There’s a reason why Swamp Thing still hates his guts decades after they first met – he’s toxic.
Of course, a flawed character is step one to an interesting character and there’s a lot going on with him. He may be rotten (his blood is literally tinged by a forced transfusion with a demon), but he’s a guilt-ridden, reluctant anti-hero. He knows better than anyone else that he’s a ticking time bomb of a human being. When he’s called into action to battle a demon or save the day, he does so with the greatest reluctance. He knows he’s going to hurt people and he knows he’ll damage other people without thinking twice. Some of the best Constantine stories occur because John realizes that if he doesn’t do something, no one will do something and he feels forced to act. Other times, his curiosity in the dark arts simply gets the better of him and he falls into an adventure for his own selfish reasons.
John Constantine is not a superhero and he doesn’t go out looking to fight evil and save the day. He’s one of the most reluctant “heroes” in comic history. That’s good drama.
Yet, the NBC version of the character is literally a righteous crusader who goes out of his way to save the day. In fact, the pilot finds him presented with a map of the United States covered in blood stains, which each stain representing a point of demonic activity that he should go investigate. It’s an excellent springboard for a procedural (“Which blood spot will John tackle this week?!”), but it cuts out the soul of the character. It doesn’t help that this Constantine speak in platitudes, going on and on about the nature of good and evil and speechifying at every villain he encounters. Comic John Constantine once gave Satan the middle finger. NBC John would have read him a biblical riot act.
That leads us to the biggest problem with how the series has chosen to interpret the character and it’s a decision that feels baffling. In an era where ‘Hannibal’ is getting away with surreal, hyper-violent and deeply troubling storytelling on the same network, NBC has felt compelled to make ‘Constantine’ clean and accessible.
In the pages of ‘Hellblazer,’ John Constantine is a character defined by his bad habits and poor decisions. He chain smokes and drinks too much. He’s disheveled and looked like he stunk of piss, booze and nicotine. He acts like a middle-aged man who partied too hard, played in a crummy punk band, tried too many controlled substances and fell into the world of the supernatural because it seemed like the cool thing to do. When faced with a threat, he lights a cigarette and talks his way out of the problem. When the Devil Himself comes to claim his soul, he escapes by conning his way out. Comic book Constantine is as astonishing hero because he knows magic so well that he chooses to use it as little as possible. His greatest weapon is his mouth. His spells are his words.
Compare that to how Matt Ryan plays him (or, to be fair, how he’s directed to play him). His Constantine is squeaky clean and free of vice, his trademark smoking habit is no more. It doesn’t help matters that Ryan always looks like he’s cosplaying. There’s nothing lived-in about his Constantine, who always looks well-composed and whose coat always looks spotless. He doesn’t look like a guy who’s been crashing on couches and battling demons for years – he looks like a guy whose Constantine costume would look pretty good on the Comic-Con show floor.
Most damning about Ryan’s performance is that there is nothing casual about his Constantine. Rather than play him as a cool customer who is jaded by years of battling and supernatural and is kinda of over the whole thing, he treats every encounter as a grand surprise. He’s hyperactive and loud, shouting every line. It’s a performance that feels built to hold the audience’s hand. After all, how are all of the dummies going to realize that something is a big deal if the main character deploys a poker face as his greatest weapon? Everything that makes John complex on the page has been diminished. The scoundrel is now a superhero. A guy who avoided magic to fight magic now uses spells as a deus ex machina to beat the bad guy.
‘Constantine’ has already shown a willingness to change. After a pilot episode that simply did not work, the show ditched the second lead and quasi-rebooted with episode two and things instantly got better. Episode three started delving deeper into ‘Hellblazer’s gallery of allies and enemies (even bringing up Mucus Membrane, John’s terrible punk band from back in the day) and the storytelling became more assured. It still has a long way to go before it’s must-see-TV, but things are improving. This could be a really good show.
But it seems unlikely that they’ll de-bland Constantine himself. Right now, he’s the perfectly adequate lead character of a potentially adequate procedural. Like the show, Matt Ryan is fine. NBC John Constantine is fine. However, ‘Hellblazer’ fans know what they had. We know what they deliberately changed and avoided to create this cleaner, safer version of a great character. John Constantine could have been Don Draper. Instead, he’s that guy from ‘Burn Notice.’ And no one deserves to be that guy from ‘Burn Notice.’