Alan Moore introduced us all to John Constantine about a year and a half into his run writing Swamp Thing. I was being facetious back in the Hellboy review: Constantine was much more than exposition-delivery system. Moore’s usual over-writing took care of that, leaving Constantine to become both the wise (ass) sage who guides the hero on a journey of self discovery, and the key-hole through which some of us glimpsed a side of mainstream comic books we’d rarely-if-ever seen before.
Literal armies of heroes stand ready to defend the physical worlds of the multiverse. The spiritual and metaphysical ones are much more sparsely guarded…mostly by beings who have only a tangential connection to, or distant memory of, humanity. John Constantine has the opposite problem. He is, in every sense of the phrase, all too human: a writhing snake-pit of vices and bad conscience, barely constrained by a lifetime’s worth of regrets and the occasional flight of altruism…that he usually has to be dragged into, kicking and screaming.
In 1993, DC Comics editor Karen Berger folded Constantine, Swamp Thing, Morpheus the King of Dreams, Lucifer the Morningstar, and a bunch of others characters whose titles I couldn’t afford to buy at the time under the banner of Vertigo Comics. All Vertigo titles were “Suggested For Mature Readers,” meaning they’ve aged better than a lot of the comics that passed through industry censors, and their success did a lot to eventually destroy the industrial censorship regime that ruled over American comics since the moral panics of the 1950s.
It’s hard to remember now, when every bookstore has a Manga section and Lucifer is a TV series, but the United States of America is a country of pinch-faced, Calvinsit psychopaths who cannot bear the thought of their precious children reading stories about heaven and hell that were written less than 1800 years ago. Before 9/11, this was one of the major issues that capturing my country’s collective attention. Yes, we really were that dumb. Some of us still are – why do you think Donald Trump’s president?
So it’s no wonder Warner Brothers tried and failed to make a Constantine movie several times throughout the 1990s, only, finally, pulled it off by playing it “safe,” and still “failed” according to the only metric that matters to them. They attached a Name Actor to the project, fresh off his own Blockbuster Trilogy. They shot for a PG-13 and wound up with an R anyway, for reasons know only to the MPAA’s industrial censorship regime. And they took Constantine out of the DC Universe, with its ever-expanding, pantheistic, weird-in-a-Weird-Tales-Magazine-sense-of-the-phrase metaphysics. Instead, they plopped him into a universe that’s, at least superficially, Catholic…like so many Hollywood horror movies.
I suspect that’s because of The Exorcist. Yes, LA’s a big ol’ Catholic town still today (largest Archdiocese in the US, for whatever that’s worth), but it’s hometown industry is run by suits who can’t think about anything beyond the most superficial terms:
Evil Me: Oh, our protagonist is an exorcist? Well, we know how to make that movie. Just released one the year before this came out. And we’ve got another one coming up in May! In fact, why don’t we move this silly little comic book movie to the After-Valentines-Day doldrums of late February, just to make sure we aren’t competing with ourselves?
Yeah, that way, neither of them will make enough money.
Evil Me: Well, if they don’t make all the money, why bother in the first place?
Spoken like the video game publisher you wish you were.
And while this movie’s plot revolves around the very Catholic obsession with suicide being a mortal sin, its depiction of demonic and angelic agents walking among us and fucking with our lives as part of some Long Cold War between Heaven and Hell is pure, mainline American Protestantism. As is the theme that “God has a plan for all of us.” There’s not much Jesus in this movie (only a few drops of Him, in fact), and no Mother Mary, outside of some iconography. They’re motifs, while Satan and his son, Mamon, are characters.
Millions of my fellow Americans actually believe this – that their every negative thought or bad impulse is the work of a literal demon, while every good thought or positive impulse is a gift from their personal guardian angel. And it’s supposedly okay, because “God has a plan for all of us,” so don’t sweat the small stuff…like the fact things like personal agency and free will are total illusions under this schema.
Since these same millions of people also believe that Hollywood movies are Of The Devil, they didn’t show up for this when it hit theaters. Neither did comic book fans, really…and I don’t blame us. At the time, most of us were either saving our pennies for what we still thought of as “the Batman prequel,” or recovering from the trauma that was 2004’s Catwoman – a movie from the same company that made all the same compromises to escape Development Hell, with results that were extremely painful. So much so that some still call that movie “Catwoman In Name Only,” because Denial isn’t just one the Mother Rivers that birthed human civilization. It is everywhere, and it’s as corrosive as battery acid.
It always fascinates me how we nerds can build vast catalogs of alternate universes and revel in their minor differences (“that’s the one where everyone’s a vampire,” “that’s the one where everyone’s gender-flipped” “that’s the one where Superman’s ship landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas”), then turn around and label every version of a thing we don’t like as “[the thing we like] in name only.” You don’t see me running around calling Smallville “Superman in Name Only.” I don’t even let myself get off that easily.
You can call this “Constantine in Name Only” and I can’t stop you, but there’s a simple way to square this circle. The bloke in the comics is “Con-stan-tine” – like the thing on the end of your fork. This guy in this movie is clearly “Con-stan-teen,” like the audience demographic the movie’s obviously aimed at – why do you think Chaz is played by Future Hollywood Superstar Shia LaBeouf? And instead of looking like Young Sting, Constantine is clearly Keanu Reeves, muttering his way through this role without attempting an English accent…earning the eternal gratitude of those of us us who saw Much Ado About Nothing and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It’s not just him muttering, either – turn the subtitles on, or you’ll miss half the damn dialogue. If I didn’t read other critics I’d think it was just me and my copy, but there’s an American football team’s worth of people in these credits with some version of “sound editor” next to their name, and one or more of them fumbled a Fourth and Goal with less than a minute on the clock. I seem to remember it sounding better in a theater-grade surround sound system, but how many of us can afford that in our homes? Fewer than could in 2005, that’s for sure.
At the same time (that being 2005) none of us expected a comic book movie to even try what this one accomplishes: building an entire cosmology from scratch in under two hours, and having it make at least some amount of sense. As much sense as “normal” Christian eschatology, at least. The closest thing we’d had at this point were the Blade films, and even they had trouble decided whether their vampires were the animate undead or sci-fi viruses with legs. By draping itself in the familiar trappings of Exorcist rip-offs, Constantine can come down on the side of the supernatural with a bare minimum of exposition. Oh, sure, John explains the big things to his co-protagonist and our audience surrogate, but there’s no need to bog everything down by explaining all the little things to her, or to us. We don’t really know why peering into a cat’s eyes for long enough will let you visit Hell, or why getting a short, sharp shock while sitting in an electric chair from Sing Sing will let you see through time and space. We don’t need to know, and the fact this movie knows we don’t means its smarter than ninety percent of Exorcist rip-offs that are now rightly lost to time.
All we really need to know is that the supernatural is real and hiding in plain sight, all around us, perched on top of us, and behind every douchebag in a pinstriped suit. Some are born with the gift/curse to see through the fog of Heaven and Hell’s war. Either we repress the knowledge, go insane, or dedicate themselves to fighting the “Good” fight. Begging the question, “What even is the ‘good’ fight when the ‘good’ side of this fight seems obsessed with rules and regulations that the evil side openly breaks without fear of any real consequence?” Not at all like the real world. No. Not one bit.
Speaking of the real world, this is the second-best movie version of Heaven and Hell I’ve seen outside of 1998’s What Dreams May Come, because it takes the opposite route in depicting them. Instead of looking like a watercolor come to life, Heaven looks like LA on an impossibly nice day, full of the big, puffy clouds you get out here in the West when you’re away from the smog and cell-phone radiation generators of the cities. Instead of looking like a Bosch painting come to life, Hell looks like LA caught in the flashpoint of a nuclear explosion, eternally waiting for a pressure wave that will never come to grant the sweet release of obliteration. Except underground – underground Hell does actually look like the right hand side of Garden of Earthly Delights, but to an Artistic Depictions of Hell Nerd like me, that’s Grade-A certified Fan Service.
Speaking of Fan Service, that’s the other thing that immediately endeared me to Keanu’s performance: he may not be British, but he is an enormous, unrepentant asshole to people he doesn’t know or doesn’t like…and he even acts like an asshole to the people he does like in a bid to keep them at minimum safe distance, since his associates have a dangerous habit of dying horrible deaths. That ambient assholery is arguably more important to Constantine’s character than his nationality or hair color. As is his arc in this film, about learning the value of selflessness through the sacrifice of his few actual friends…and through the experience of helping a person who’s basically just like him. When this experience inadvertently helps the forces of Evil bring about a Near-Apocalypse, Constantine tricks the Devil himself into stopping it, earning the one thing he’s spent his life trying to get: redemption in the eyes of a judgmental God.
Speaking of redemption, you know who deserves better notices? Rachel Weisz in her dual role as Angela Dodson, LAPD, and her twin sister, Isabel. We nerds were so busy litigating the Keanu’s presence that most of us overlooked the actual heart of the film – the actor whose roles allow her to emote. Like John, Angela was born with psychic powers. Unlike John, Angela began to repress and deny hers once she saw them buy her twin sister a scenic tour of California’s finer mental health care institutions. Years of maintaining a code of silence and lying to the faces of her loved ones served Angela well in the LAPD…until Isabel commits suicide at the start of the movie. Except Isabel would never commit suicide. Must’ve been brainwashed into it by some kind of cult.
Angela’s right…it’s just that, instead of consisting of humans, this cult’s Mammon, the Son of Satan, and Gabriel, the Strength of God. Gabriel doesn’t actually blow a trumpet to announce the End Times, but she does blast John across a room to keep him from interrupting, so the film gets metaphor points.
Gabriel’s plan is to kick start the Apocalypse now, and her villain motivation is resentment of humanity’s special place in the universe. She plans to make us worthy of God’s love because, as she says to John, “It’s only in the face of horror that you find your noblest selves. And you can be so noble.” She’s not wrong…it’s just, as Constantine notices in one of their early scenes, she’s spent way too much time watching us without every trying to understand us. She’s observed the world instead of experiencing it, always holding herself separate from it, and the grinding, everyday horror of her observations have led her to believe the Tribulation would actually be a good thing. So, while John and Isabel’s suicides were mortal sins (despite their intentions to end the cruel and unusual horror of their own lives) Gabriel plans to suicide the world and has convinced herself it’s for our own good.
This is the “hypocritical bullshit” John criticizes Heaven for par excellence, but Gabriel gets a line at the end to let us know she comes by it honestly. As she stands before a resurrected Constantine and an Angela she almost turned into a Hell portal, Gabriel says, “You could’ve shot me John, but you chose a higher path. Look how well you’re doing!” Yeah, and all it took was an Almost Apocalypse.
Just like in real life, the repeated theme of “God” having “a plan for all of us” severely blunts John’s criticism and brings up more questions than it answers. If God truly does have plan, then all this horror was a part of it, and we’re right back to the ol’ Theodicy Problem. We’re faced with a god who intentionally allowed John to kill himself as a teenager, go to Hell (for two minutes), get revived, and meet the sister of another psychic-power-inspired suicide years later. God then allowed an Archangel to conspire with the Enemy and almost bring about the Apocalypse, just to teach John Constantine a lesson. Making the God of this universe either the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-loving dude who always wins that His followers think He is…or the “kid with an ant-farm” John call Him in this film, who just happened to get real lucky that Satan is too vain to let the world to end in any way he didn’t personally engineer.
Shout-out to Peter Stormare, for playing the third-best Satan I’ve ever seen on film, leaving a massive impression with minimal screentime. If Constantine is an asshole, Satan is a big, slimy dick. Literally – he leaves a trail of burning pitch whenever he walks – an obvious technicality, designed to skirt the so-called “rule” of this universe that true citizens of Hell aren’t allowed to walk on Earth. So-called, because the intrusion of demons into our plane of existence is the Insighting Incident of this film, letting Constantine know shit’s getting fucked up. Of course, if “God has a plan,” then He allowed all these incursions into our world to let Constantine in on it.
But the real truth is, the gods of this universe are the filmmakers, and this isn’t Dogma – an actually very Catholic movie, written and directed by a single person with actual viewpoints about the Divine, and the Divine’s proper place in modern American life. This is a patchwork quilt of Constantine stories – mostly made from bits of the first Jamie Delano-penned issues and the “Dangerous Habits” arc – made by people who trying their best to work within a system as hypocritical and bullshit-laden as the metaphysical one they depict. There’s another repeated line in this – “It’s not like it is in the books” – and since the movie repeats it three times, I want to read that as a Statement of Intent. A palliative sop to we comic book fans who instinctively go, “Hey, hell’s supposed to be ruled by a triumverate!”
But intent is the hardest thing to prove, especially when you’re reading the entrails of Early 21st Century Warner Brothers. The line’s most often spoken to young Chaz – the teenage sidekick who disappears for the whole middle of the film since his role’s absorbed by Angela. And who ignominiously dies at the end, after assisting John’s desperate attempt to exorcise Mammon from Angela’s body. It’s the old Exorcist formula – “an old priest and a young priest” – except this time, instead of throwing himself out of a window, the young priest gets body slammed by an Invisible Tilda Swinton.
I know which one I’d prefer (when I think of heaven, deliver me in a black-winged bird)…but then again, I have a soft spot for this film. Back in ’05, I would’ve called this “the exception that proves the rule,” about Comic Book Movie Adaptations making changes to the source material. But ten years of Marvel movies have taught me there are no rules, except the arbitrary ones we critics forget about whenever it’s convenient.
Nowadays, I consider Constantine an incredibly mixed bag that trends toward the positive on the strength of good performances and a lot of understated style. Wish the side characters got more to do – like Papa Midnite, John’s downstairs neighbor Beeman, and Father Hennessy, the priest who can listen to the aeither. But that’s a complaint I could lob at any number of Constantine comics. The fact that most of them die and leave me wanting more, despite their miniscule screen time, is a testament to the film’s craft. John has a line to Angela after she says she doesn’t believe in the Devil: “Well you should. Because he believes in you.”
We find out that’s true at the end, when Satan gives him “an extension” by curing his cancer in the most painful way possible. Satan believes that, on a long enough time line, Constantine – any Constantine – will prove he belongs in Hell. But John’s friends all believe in him, too…that he can be a force for good, even when he doesn’t believe in the so-called “good”…or himself. For a depressive like me, whose convinced we already live in Hell, that’s as close to the state of grace as we’re liable to get.
And that’s as close as I’m going to get to an uplifting, hopeful end to all this. Arbitrary rating out of five. Check it out if you haven’t, watch it again if you have. I need a cigarette….And goddamnit, they just had to tack on a stupid voice over to the end, assuming we’re all dummies who needed to have the Moral of the Story spelled out for us…even though it’s the same moral the rest of our society spells out for us every goddamn day. It’s the same impulse that added a voice over to the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, and who likes that…? Wait…Guillermo? Is that you?