Since his first appearance in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing thirty years ago, John Constantine has become one of comics’ most popular antiheroes. That his solo title Hellblazer was the longest-running comic on DC’s Vertigo imprint (1988-2013) speaks volumes about the character’s enduring appeal, but up until now there’s only been one attempt to adapt the misadventures of this chain-smoking, Liverpudlian con-man/sorceror for the screen, namely the 2005 Keanu Reeves-starring feature film which, despite having its share of merits, was met with mixed reviews and a (relatively) modest box office. That all changed with NBC’s announcement last year that they would be producing a TV series based on the character, and as we’re now 4 episodes into Constantine (out of the network’s initial order of 9), it seems like a good time to offer a verdict of John Constantine’s latest onscreen incarnation.
Probably the biggest criticism of the 2005 film was the casting of Reeves in the title role, and it’s clear from the choice of Matt Ryan as leading man that the TV show’s version of the Constantine will – superficially, at least – strive to be closer to its comic book source material. Ryan’s Constantine is charming, witty, manipulative, angry and (most importantly for many fans) speaks with an English accent, albeit with generous helpings of Ryan’s natural Welsh brogue. Based on 4 episodes’ worth of evidence, it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s nailed the character, warts ‘n’ all, and his performance is without a doubt the main reason to tune in every week. Unfortunately, the rest of the show hasn’t, for the most part, lived up to Ryan’s promise.
Although elements of Constantine’s classic backstory are present and correct, particularly his difficult childhood and the life-changing trauma of Newcastle, thus far only one episode of the show (last week’s Feast of Friends) has been based directly on a storyline from the Hellblazer comics. This seems a misguided approach from showrunners Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer, given the three decades’ worth of great material at their disposal. In fairness, a good deal of this material could be considered too graphic and/or controversial for network television (Garth Ennis’ gut-churning early ’90s run springs to mind), but the success of shows like American Horror Story and Hannibal suggests that TV audiences have stronger stomachs than they’ve hitherto been given credit for. Constantine‘s penchant for gore is actually another of the show’s strengths, hewing closer to the spirit of its comic book origins while simultaneously standing out a little from the televisual crowd, but simply throwing buckets of blood at the screen won’t be enough; Constantine‘s first three episodes were hampered by the hackneyed character beats (John aside) and plot structure of generic network television, and an easy way to tackle this weakness is for the writers to start adapting more unconventional Hellblazer storylines. A risk, certainly, but a calculated and worthwhile one. Fortunately, Matt Ryan recently hinted that episodes 8 and 9 of the first season will again be based on a story from the comics, and hopefully they can repeat the gruesome, compelling success of Feast of Friends.
Another stumbling block for the show thus far has been its supporting characters. A version of Chas Chandler radically different from his comics counterpart is acted well enough by Charles Halford, but aside from some early hints about his possibly supernatural abilities, there’s been very little development (or even screen time) for the character. Zed Martin (Angelica Celaya), a clairvoyant artist who becomes Constantine’s protégé, comes straight out of the pages of Hellblazer, and promises some interesting directions for the show’s core character dynamic. But Celaya’s acting has been decidedly uneven over the course of the three episodes she’s appeared in (she replaced Lucy Griffiths, who played a different character in the pilot episode), and for the relationship (platonic or otherwise) between Zed and Constantine to spark onscreen she will have to prove herself a match for Ryan in the episodes ahead.
That unique Hellblazer atmosphere and the development of fully-realised supporting characters are the two elements that will distinguish Constantine from its televisual competitors, particularly The CW’s Supernatural, to whose “possession of the week” format it currently feels uncomfortably close. The show already has Matt Ryan’s Constantine in its assets column, and at the moment it’s his performance that’s largely carrying the show, although not entirely. Constantine has proved it can be creepy, exciting and visually stunning, and as such shows some encouraging potential. But the showrunners (and also the network) need to take more risks, and draw more regularly on the treasure trove of inspiration that is the Hellblazer back catalogue if Constantine is to flourish. They’d be foolish not to.
Constantine is currently airing in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video.