“Whoever you are, I’m a nasty piece of work – ask anybody.”
John Constantine is my favourite comic book character. In a world of idealistic, spandex-clad superheroes fighting for truth, justice and the American way, he stands apart as a voice of realistic cynicism, puncturing all that pomposity with a smile, a smoke, and an unapologetically British sense of snark. In his trademark rumpled trenchcoat, he’s a self-aware poseur whose mask of grey morality hides a very real sense of idealism and justice. Devious, manipulative and rubbish in a fight, he’s a realistic believable human being in fantastic world that sits side by side with a very recognisable United Kingdom (and, sometimes, other countries). A man who uses brain, not brawn to solve problems – and isn’t above getting his hands very, very dirty in the process.
Despite decades of comic-book sourced superhero epics, Hollywood has never really known what to do with John Constantine. Their one previous attempt, Francis Lawrence’s 2005 movie Constantine, was an execrable mess which immediately betrayed the character by turning him from a shifty blond Liverpudlian into Keanu Reeves, then sticking him into a garbled plot made up of memorable set pieces from the comic glued together with no regard for logic.
While the big screen succeeds in exploring the Marvel universe of superheroes (and the small screen, with Agents of SHIELD, has rather less success) the DC universe of which John is a part has been far better served on television. Smallville set the trend, using its faithful depiction of Superman’s early years to bring in an ever-wider interpretation of the DC universe as a whole. Its success has been followed by Arrow, Gotham, and soon The Flash, all of which offer interesting but faithful takes on their source mythologies.
So the time is clearly ripe for someone to have a go at giving John Constantine his own ongoing series, and NBC have seized the nettle (and the financial opportunity) to do so. The result, entitled Constantine again rather than using the comic title of Hellblazer, is something of a mixed bag. Compared to the 2005 movie, there’s a lot it gets very, very right. But compared to the faithful treatment of the DC universe elsewhere on TV, it’s lacking a lot too.
To take the good stuff first, Matt Ryan certainly looks the part as John, far more so than Keanu Reeves. He’s got the trenchcoat, the attitude, and the blond locks (though the latter look like a rather obvious dye job). More importantly, he’s British, though his Scouse accent is varyingly successful – he is, in fact, Welsh. The script gives him the requisite snark, especially at himself – snorting in derision at his business card’s description of him as “Master of the Dark Arts”, he tells therapist Dr Huntoon he’ll have it changed to “petty dabbler”, and later embarrassedly tells a recipient of the card, “I’m having new ones made”.
In keeping with the likes of Smallville, the series faithfully imports a great deal of the comics’ mythology. We first meet John at the Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility in the north of England, where he’s checked himself in in an attempt to forget the trauma of the well-remembered ‘Newcastle Incident’. As in the comics, this was a bungled attempt at exorcism which resulted in a little girl called Astra being dragged to Hell by the demon Nergal. While the comics took many issues to establish the crucial matter of Nergal’s identity, here we know it from the start, setting Nergal up as (presumably) an ongoing adversary.
We also get a backstory, bitterly imparted by John himself, of his troubled childhood. Faced with constant abuse from his father about ‘killing’ his mother in childbirth (just as in the comics), John took up magic as a means to find forgiveness from his mother’s spirit. As another ongoing thread for the character, that too has potential.
So far, so good. Where the wheels come off a bit, though, is when the story moves to Atlanta, and it becomes clear that, even while John is British, the show’s main setting will be the United States. All right, given that it’s produced by NBC, that’s not altogether surprising. But it loses, for me, an essential part of the character’s mythology. He globetrots a great deal in the comics – we first encounter him in the US in Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer’s first story is largely set in New York – but his home base is always the UK, and that’s where the majority of his stories take place. It’s one of the things that, in a DC universe whose mythology is understandably US-centric, sets him apart as a character and makes him interesting. Having him recast as a US-based expat has potential, but misses an opportunity; I’d always hoped that any TV adaptation of the character would be based mainly in the UK.
As a result, other characters transferred from the comic have been altered somewhat, with varying degrees of success. I don’t really have an issue with techno-mage Ritchie Simpson becoming American, and Lost’s Jeremy Davies has the perfect look for the character. But I suspect I’m not the only one who’ll have a problem with the reinterpretation of John’s best mate, Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), here transplanted from his origin as a perfectly ordinary London cab driver to a supernaturally empowered American, er, cab driver.
In the comics, Chas is John’s anchor to the real world, a genuine everyman infrequently and unwillingly caught up in John’s supernatural scheming and never shy about bringing him down to earth, sometimes with a punch to the mouth. The TV Chas has echoes of that, but seems every bit a partner in John’s activities; there are even hints that he used to be part of John’s ‘team’, which makes his role as John’s conscience a little less believable. Oh, and apparently he can survive being impaled by a high voltage live power line.
Other changes have attracted more attention, and more fuss. There was a very vocal outcry to the producer’s statement that the show wouldn’t include John’s bisexuality. I don’t have the same problem there; while present in the comics, John’s occasional attraction to men was never a huge part of the narrative. And in this pilot episode, we don’t see him have any sexual attraction to anyone of either gender. Besides, the showrunner hasn’t ruled out the possibility of showing it in the future (if the show gets one).
The change I have a problem with is, ironically, out of the producers’ control – TV’s John Constantine doesn’t smoke. Unhealthy and unfashionable though smoking may be, John’s chain smoking in the comics is an essential part of the character, leading to one of the best-remembered storylines in which he has to con the Devil into curing his lung cancer (this being John, the first thing he does after this is light up). Unfortunately, on network television, smoking is one thing the hero absolutely cannot do, however much the writers might want him to. Don Draper’s just lucky his show is on cable.
Still, non comic purists may have less trouble with the changes. But what of the pilot ep itself? Directed by Neil Marshall, the man responsible for Game of Thrones’ most thrilling instalments, it’s serviceable enough given its burden of setting up the characters and concepts while also telling a story of its own. The tale of mysterious demon Fersifer, who thrives on electricity, and is stalking innocent Liv Aberdine (Robin Hood and True Blood’s Lucy Griffiths) would make an unexceptional story in the comic, but works to set the formula. Unfortunately, Liv’s sudden unexpected departure when she was obviously being shaped up as an ongoing heroine, smacks of executive meddling already – and that’s never a good sign for a show’s longevity.
In her place, we’re obviously going to get comics favourite Zed, an artist with a mysterious dark past who becomes romantically involved with John. Well, in the comics anyway. In the TV show, all we see is a young woman frantically drawing picture after picture of John (in a nice touch, most of them are original comic covers), with the signature ‘Zed’. Her involvement could be interesting, but a change of direction five minutes from the end of the pilot doesn’t inspire confidence.
Overall, despite the undoubted impact of Matt Ryan as John himself, this pilot left me with a troubling feeling that I’d seen all this before. The shot of Liv’s scrying map, with soon-to-be-troublespots highlighted across the US, made me realise where. While Hollywood may not have known what to do with John Constantine, another network show took the comic’s basic premise – a blue collar hero travelling around combatting magical, world-threatening events – and ran with it. Hellblazer trappings aside, this pilot is, in essence, an episode of Supernatural.
Supernatural, now in its tenth season (and arguably past its best) was the creation of Eric Kripke, a self-confessed Hellblazer fan. Kripke was even keen, at one point, to bring the actual character of John Constantine into his show. Faced with insurmountable rights issues, he introduced fan favourite character, the angel Castiel, instead – who has, since the beginning, been dressed as John Constantine. That John’s show proper has given him a ‘guardian angel’ in the haughty form of Manny (Lost’s Harold Perrineau) only serves to underline the similarity.
Now, pilot episodes rarely serve to demonstrate a show at its best; the formula has yet to be properly set, as has the show’s ongoing direction. And I fully acknowledge that, as a passionate fan of the comics, no adaptation was likely to ever fully satisfy me – I’m not even keen with what DC have done with the comic character in their New 52 reboot. So, while I found this unexceptional without being too objectionable, I do think it has the potential to become something interesting in the way that Smallville did. But that will depend on it lasting more than one season – and in the cutthroat world of network television. On this evidence, I’m sceptical it will get that far.