Despite his appearance in a cross-over episode of Arrow, the character of John Constantine has always felt an awkward fit with the rest of the DC Comics television universe. Rather than being part of the usual milieu of masked superheroes with fantastic powers, or cartoonish metahumans or angst-ridden dark vigilantes, Constantine exists in an out-and-out supernatural universe of magic, demons and angels.
Originally co-created by Alan Moore, Constantine first appeared in The Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980s and was subsequently granted his own long-running comic book Hellblazer a few years later. A firm favourite with graphic novel fans for three decades now, the first attempt to make a live action version came in 2005 with a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Unfortunately that strayed too far away from the source material to satisfy fans, such as not honouring Constantine’s famously British (and blond) roots – although having heard Reeves’ attempt at an English accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula I think we should call that a lucky escape.
This short-lived TV series produced in 2014-15 was much more respectful to the comics than the movie, and consequently rather better received. Even so, it only lasted 13 episodes on NBC before being cancelled; in the UK it’s been exclusive to the Amazon Prime streaming service, which is where I happened upon in this month.
Having missed both the comic book series and the ill-fated movie, my first taste of Constantine ended up being the aforementioned guest-appearance by the character in Arrow. Even though that’s the most tonally similar show to Constantine you could still detect how the presence of John Constantine started to pull Arrow out of shape as it delved into the rescue of souls from beyond the veil. To get a true taste of what the character is about – on screen, at least – it’s far better to meet John Constantine on home ground.
The show is stylish and looks like a lot of money was spent on it to get the FX sequences as impressive as this. It’s solidly plotted, and Matt Ryan gives his all in the title role of mage, exorcist and master of the dark arts. He’s the only character to appear in all 13 episodes, with Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford popping in and out as his assistants Zed (a psychic artist) and Chas (who possesses Captain Jack Harkness-type survival skills) – unfortunately the lack of consistency in turn-out doesn’t help the team bond properly in the time available. There’s also an angel called Manny (Harold Perrineau) on hand to dole out gnomic advice, whom only Constantine can see and interact with. Despite the relatively short run there are also a number of additional recurring characters to keep track of including voodoo priest Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw), hacker Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies), and New Orleans police detective Jim Corrigan (Emmett J Scanlan).
All the basic set-up and building blocks are in place, and there’s every reason to expect this show to burst nicely into life, but for some reason it never really manages to do so. Aware that a lot of what it’s doing will be dark, controversial and off-putting to mainstream audiences, Constantine seems to lack confidence. Perhaps it’s because the character has been around so long and has had such an influence over the years on TV shows like Supernatural that its best ideas have already been absorbed into the Zeitgeist, and as a result the show seems strangely staid and uninspired compared to the Preacher and Outcast horror shows similarly sourced from graphic novels. It feels disappointingly safe and ends up going for fairly obvious targets – there’s one episode with a clear Exorcist riff, while another has an Omen-style demon child at its heart – and it does so in a way that brings little new to the TV horror genre that we haven’t seen before to much more creative effect in Buffy, Angel, Grimm and the like. The whole thing feels formulaic, and the impression is that the off-beat comic books have been forced to fit into an unnaturally orderly mould for the purposes of network syndication and overseas sales.
It’s also curiously po-faced and earnest, despite Constantine’s penchant for dead-pan cynical witticisms and its use of colourfully coarse British vernacular. (Ryan himself is authentically British – he’s currently back in the UK starring in the ITV drama The Halcyon – but it’s hard to nail down exactly which regional accent he’s aiming for at times, straying from Liverpool to North East to London and further afield, making it slightly distracting.) Otherwise Constantine takes itself rather too seriously for its own good, which sits uneasily alongside the inherently silly-looking depiction of people standing around in chalk circles chanting spells in ancient and unearthly dialects. That’s no disrespect to the actors who really do throw everything into their performances, but it nonetheless does require an abnormally high suspension of disbelief from the audience to stay with it rather than finding something else a little more down to earth (or perhaps a little more outrageously daring, according to taste) to switch to.
As with a lot of co-creator David S Goyer’s television work (he was also behind the similarly overwrought Da Vinci’s Demons) there’s a general issue with internal coherence and consistency. The limits of Constantine’s abilities are at best ill-defined, and most of the time it seems there is no circumstance when he can’t come up with some invocation to get himself out of a jam; except when the script needs him to be immobilised, in which case a couple of plastic tie-wraps can incapacitate him. Either way, the lack of specifics means that it’s hard to get really worked up about Constantine’s fate at any point.
Even so, I’m surprised that Constantine was cancelled after only 13 episodes. A lot of shows that had much rougher starts got recommissioned and go from strength to strength as a result (for example Grimm which at the time I took a dim view of initially as a torpid Buffy-wannabe, but which improved by leaps and bounds over its first two seasons.) I suspect that Constantine would have similarly found its footing and become more inventive and experimental as befits its daring graphic novel background; indeed, the final two episodes available on Amazon bring some very promising developments to the character of Manny in particular. But just as the show was starting to feel that it was getting into its stride, the network went and knocked its feet out from under it and Constantine was no more. That’s is a shame, and presumably a consequence of the high cost of production.
Actually, there’s a postscript. The cross-over with Arrow seems to have generated some lasting interest in the show and as a result there will be an animated spin-off series with Ryan returning to provide the voice of Constantine. Just like the characters that are brought back from the dead in the show itself, so Constantine refuses to lie down and go peacefully into the night. Who knows whether the renaissance will extend to a full resurrection from the dead in the future? Maybe a streaming service like Amazon could inject it with the new energy it requires to succeed. Stranger things have happened, although to be honest I can’t say that I’m exactly counting the hours in this case.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Constantine is available to stream on Amazon Prime.