Martin Carr on Constantine: The rise and fall of a Superman…
I never was a comic book fan. Had no affinity for the medium. Watchmen was only purchased for research purposes before the cinematic release. And what’s more I only just made it through the tome. You see, at that tender age I was convinced comic books and graphic novels were not an adult endeavour. Super heroes on the written page, irrespective of gender, powers, political leanings or violence quota failed to connect with me. Instead I spent my childhood watching films including Driller Killer, Re-Animator, Death Race 2000 and Shogun Assassin. Those and other more family friendly fare informed my decisions. Something which was counterbalanced by access to classical literature, including Dickens, Austen and Stoker with the occasional Shelley thrown in. Missing the boat you see is never solely down to the individual, not when family are involved.
Having made it this far you can assume my opinion changed. Shamefully that the epiphany took forty years to kick in, can be attributed to a combination of pig-headedness and elitism. By which I mean the unshakeable belief in my own opinion above all others, even in the face of insurmountable evidence. Arrogance I have learnt can be a dangerous thing.
That this intellectual barricade was breached by a cynical Scouser, perfect casting and deviant source material, is proof that fate can throw even the most isolated elitist a game changing curve ball from time to time. To me Constantine represents an adaptation so in tune with the source material, that it shook up my parochial preconceptions and raised the bar simultaneously. Before this I only had my film knowledge to fall back on. You see eureka moments never happen overnight and moments of resistance are inevitable. I was no different.
This re-education began unsurprisingly through a string of social media sources. Like the mythical sewing circle or classical coven of Macbeth, people had gathered around the campfire to chat. Those within the rumour mill and close to casting choices had the inside track. This Constantine would have a harder edge and cynicism running through it like a malignant tumour. At last the much maligned Keanu Reeves version would be laid to rest. In truth Reeves had done stoic, driven, moody and heroic with his usual aplomb, but to no avail. In retrospect it was painfully clear how much the character was short changed.
Created by Alan Moore and using ‘Englishman In New York’ Sting as his template, Constantine represented a direct reaction to Conservative rule. Based in Newcastle around the time of pit closures, picketing miners and Thatcherite Britain in full swing, Moore went for the jugular with a subtle sledgehammer. At the heart of this thinly veiled manifesto cloaked in speech bubbles sat an agenda. Caustic humour so far ahead of the curve that some say Moore was laying the tracks as he went along. With this ever evolving process which continued with Watchmen and on into From Hell, Moore shaped what many consider to be landmarks in the industry. Something film companies should have considered with a little more reverence before attempting an adaptation.
Unfortunately they only ever saw the money and made their Constantine safe. They allowed him to smoke, but somehow that cigarette just failed to work with Reeves. Such a young looking face combined with boyish features, failed to sell the chain smoking persona effectively. Our hero needed to be ravaged with the right amount of facial degradation. Smoking ages you, so good skin, clear eyes and polished teeth were never on the agenda. If Moore had any creative input then things would surely have been different. At least with Watchmen Snyder came close to achieving the vision Moore had in mind. It was polished and extremely visual but the politics were there. Bastardising a super hero sub-genre which was beginning to gain traction through X-Men and later Iron Man, Watchmen spoke to a generation with eloquence and irony in equal measure. My point is this, there had to be a time when someone would be bold enough to give Constantine the right treatment. That this turned out to be a mainstream American network and not an independent cable company, says more about the marketplace than the audience watching it.
With a sizeable FX budget and no small amount of planning, a rough and ready punk era exorcist was unleashed onto an eager audience. Casting Matt Ryan, an under the radar acting embodiment of Constantine was a coup. Unfortunately initial reactions of consternation and confusion beyond the fan faithful, blinded people to any positives until the damage was done. Showrunner Daniel Cerone had struck the right mood, offering up storylines of depth and challenging audiences in terms of content and televisual taboos. Unfortunately Middle America was not prepared to fully invest. Constantine refused to break itself down into comfortable bite sized chunks. It was not designed for mass consumption by a populous which expected its entertainment to fit into a neat little box. Featuring Charles Halford as Chas, who was already a regular on HBO’s True Detective, Ryan was aided in lifting Constantine straight off the page. Blasé, selfish, offhand and agenda driven, this Constantine was an anti-hero for the ages. It was clear we would get along.
From episode one I understood the eloquence and isolation of this character. In less than a week Moore and Cerone reshaped every preconception I held about the comic book genre. As week after week ticked by and each broadcast offered up more insight, more depth and threw up more questions it was akin to a homecoming. When NBC announced they were not picking up the back nine episodes, on-line campaigns kicked off across every social network and fans came out in force. In a ten minute conversation with Charles Halford it became apparent how passionate they were about the project. This was no normal job. Their investment was unequivocal. Here was a comic book character made flesh. Not until the recent Daredevil had anything come close.
In the end however NBC lacked the courage of their convictions. Financial reasons made them walk away. Warners are still in discussion with Stephen Amell’s Arrow about crossover potential which is something, but NBC will rue the day they threw in the towel on this one. That Constantine gets picked up elsewhere is in little doubt. It just needs a bold cable network with an open cheque book and solid reputation. HBO anyone?