Constantine – The Anti-Comic Book Adaptation

I don’t know what it is about Keanu Reeves but I love revisiting his movies. Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, and absolutely Bill & Ted. (There will be no Bill & Ted slander on this site, thank you very much.) These films are all revered and adored in their own right, but if there’s one amongst his filmography that remains sorely underrated, it’s Constantine. Last weekend Reeves and director Francis Lawrence headed a Comic-Con home panel to celebrate the cult film’s 15-YEAR ANNIVERSARY. Take it from me, Constantine is one of the best superhero movies you’ve never seen, and it’s past time the film has gotten its due.

Constantine is very broadly a superhero movie, but it excels by operating as the lower-case version of one, leaning more on the biblical, the gothic, and the supernatural like a cross between the R-rated Blade and the PG-13 Hellboy. Believe it or not, this was director Francis Lawrence’s debut feature. (I Am Legend, Catching Fire, and both Mockingjay films.) He and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot were inspired by the moody aesthetic of the Hellblazer graphic novels, emphasizing the colors of this dark but equally expressionistic world. (A lesser film would’ve gone for a gray & washed-out palette in favor of “grittiness.”) The comics are otherwise used as a jumping off point to dive into full noir iconography.

If characters can be shot in tight close-ups, they will. Everyone in this world is isolated. Constantine, Angela, even Shia LaBeouf’s Chaz Kramer are starkly rendered in their lonesome. Angela is alone in her belief that her twin sister didn’t kill herself, just as the impressionable young Chaz is stuck being Constantine’s chauffeur.

Hennessy and Beeman are both introverted perhaps as a result of their knowledge and clairvoyance, and Papa Midnite is alone in his “neutrality” while Heaven and Hell wage war. (Midnite runs a watering hole that is absolutely John Wick’s Continental during after-hours; you half-expect to see Ian McShane.) All of these characters are doomed in some way; most will not survive by the movie’s end. The world-weary Constantine, meanwhile, is stuck in a hell of his own, a character who’s literally haunted and most certainly damned.

Reeves has had no shortage of action roles and savior-of-the-world types, but John Constantine is easily the coolest in his repertoire on top of being the bleakest. Constantine was born with the psychic ability to perceive the supernatural, and it drove him mad to the point of suicide, a mortal sin. He survived the attempt like a chance miracle – or divine intervention – and has been dutifully (or futilely) deporting demon “half-breeds” to save his soul come Judgement Day.

Constantine is the perfect noir archetype, and a victory lap for Reeves post-Matrix as the movie is molded around him as a starring vehicle. John Constantine of the Hellblazer comics is naturally blonde, an English warlock who opts for a brown peacoat and red tie. Everything about Reeves’ version is the opposite of that: slick black raincoat, slacks, ruffled hairdo, sporting a sullen demeanor like a disillusioned P.I. — or an undertaker who’s had it up to here.

He chain-smokes every chance he gets and coats his throat in whiskey while waiting for the next case to give him something of a purpose. (Admittedly smoking has never looked cooler than when Keanu takes a drag. But don’t worry, anti-tobacco stans, Constantine is a slick anti-smoking PSA.) He’s good at what he does but hopeless when we meet him. Like the tortured WWII soldier tasked with re-assimilating into society, he’s forever changed and forever bitter because he knows where he’s headed when his time is up. The film’s literal Hell is envisioned as a post-nuclear bomb site— or the inside of Constantine’s chest cavity. There is no “score” to be had in John’s case, just biding his time before the devil comes to drag him home.

Constantine’s downtrodden silhouette (just missing a fedora) would fit right at home in 1940s Los Angeles, his gruff edges and sandpaper cynicism like an eternally damned Sam Spade. He speaks with such a dreary mutter that everything he says sounds like an insult. Constantine has more in common with the hardboiled likes of Spade and Philip Marlowe than any virtuous superhero at that time; more of the anti-hero breed that the early 2000s were obsessed with i.e. Blade, Wolverine, Hellboy, The Punisher.

Angela presents our anti-hero with a shot at redemption to save her twin sister’s soul from damnation, unknowingly redeeming his own. Both Constantine and Angela chase a classic noir MacGuffin (the Spear of Destiny), uncovering the corruption festered in those from on high. The androgynous Gabriel is this fable’s duplicitous double-crosser. Envious of God’s favoritism toward humans, she concocts a behind-the-scenes scheme with Mammon – son of Satan – to usurp Earthly dominion and make all of humankind repent.

Papa Midnite, in a way, is the stern captain at odds with the brash and disobeying subordinate in Constantine, while God himself is our femme fatale. If God has a plan, then it was He who gave Constantine “the sight,” setting in motion John’s chaotic downward path that eventually find way toward the light. Constantine has endless replay value when you identify the sly noir tropes in each character’s arc.

The film never explains its mythology and is all the better for it. It entrusts us to piece together the occult and rituals that turn Constantine’s exorcisms into righteous fun. Scenes with exposition are almost always in motion, and the way Constantine runs, it’s a fine-oiled locomotive to hell and back. The film, too, is in its own way epic, dealing with angels and demons, gods, monsters and men— the movie that Van Helsing the year before wished it could’ve been. It’s also wickedly funny when it wants to be, Reeves’ deadpan never better. I’m all for revitalized late-stage action Keanu, but moody and sassy Reeves is my favorite.

Now, I might be singing the praise, but I’m well aware Reeves’ interpretation is unpopular among Hellblazer fans. (Whereas Matt Ryans’ take in the NBC adaptation is much closer to the comics.) This assumes you’re only in this superhero craze for literal translation. That, to me, is the greatest trick the devil ever pulled.

You could tell me Peter Stormare is naturally that wicked in real-life, or that Tilda Swinton is actually an angel and I’d 100% believe you.

As Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has shown, fidelity to the source material is not enough. Snyder is as faithful a filmmaker as they come, and his Watchmen is as by-the-book of an adaptation as it gets, going so far as to literally recreate each panel like he did with Frank Miller’s 300. Admittedly, this can make for a momentous first viewing, like someone else turning the pages of the graphic novel for you. But there’s little joy beyond a second viewing, nothing new to unlock or discover.

Then you have something like Damon Lindelof’s superb remix/sequel to Watchmen. The characters and iconography are there, but radically repurposed to tell a new story. I respect that fans often love a comic or novel so much that they want it faithfully recreated, but there has to be a willingness to transform, to be bold enough to embrace the medium you’re in whether it’s TV or film. Or, at the very least, to take a goddamn risk. Literal adaptations are certain death. I don’t care for faithfulness so much as I care about character, genre, and what filmmakers do with concepts as opposed to blindly following the material. Of course, translations can be magical a la Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But they can also be life-draining i.e. the first two Harry Potter movies.

Batman Begins would come out the same year as Constantine, and franchises like X-Men and Spider-Man were beginning their groundswell with audiences. The comic book takeover of Hollywood was still in its nascent stages. Constantine rightfully neglected the hype and instead looked to noir, to gothic entries like Tim Burton’s Batman, Alex Proyas’ The Crow, and especially Guillermo del Toro’s stab at the genre, so much so that Constantine feels like it’s happening in those same dark alleys.

Hell, superhero movies could learn a thing or two from Constantine’s final act, which favors the subversive and dramatic over spectacle— though the film is not without spectacle. (Also, Holy Shotgun) Rather than bend to the “action-packed finale,” the film’s themes of redemption, sacrifice, and belief all collide like holy hell. Think The Dark Knight’s tale of corruption made manifest in Batman’s standoff against Harvey Dent, or Logan’s self-defeating rage coming to fruition in the final minutes. Both movies loosely adapted their respective source comics and looked to genre for inspiration – The Dark Knight leading with city-crime sagas like Heat and The Departed, and Logan taking the form of a drama, a road movie, and literally quoting Westerns.

I’ve seen this movie more times than Constantine smokes cigarettes, yet the film’s final ten minutes always leaves me on the edge of my seat. It treats the viewer to hard-won revelations over bullets and body count— along with a delectable Peter Stormare performance as Lucifer to behold. Constantine’s cynicism is proven true in the end, that this is a manipulative and scheming world where humans are pawns in the eternal chess game. But it’s a realization that produces salvation at the end of the crucible, not hopelessness. Because if the righteous Gabriel can turn, then those damned like Constantine and Isabel can find absolution.

Constantine scores points to me for being the anti-comic book movie and it’s precisely why I love it even more on this side of the superhero spectrum. Post-Endgame, the MCU is entering a new phase with X-Men and Fantastic Four reboots on the horizon, and the DCEU has firmly found its footing. More properties are queuing up for adaptation, and I’m afraid we’re doomed to endure more fan cries for carbon-copy replicas of the comics. It’s a stance that – much like this superhero phase – won’t go away any time soon.

If Snyder’s Watchmen shows the limits of adaptation, then Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen shows the freedom and wonder of transformation— of ascending faithfulness and fidelity just as The Dark Knight, Logan, and very few others have discovered.

But boast and take in victory laps all they want, Constantine’s breed was here first.

2 thoughts on “Constantine – The Anti-Comic Book Adaptation

  1. Owlsuo says:

    I remember being awkstruck by the visuals as a child when this was playing in theatres. Felt like a combination of The Matrix and Hellraiser or something along those lines.

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      Ooooo yeah this movie was gorgeous to behold then and I think it’s still gorgeous today even with some of the dated CG. So much fun to revisit, I’d rank Constantine among Keanu’s best movies imo and by far the most underappreciated. I’m awestruck by Keanu Reeves in general!

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