Today, we have certain expectations of superhero movies. In the era of shared cinematic universes, we want mid- and post-credit scenes, connections to existing movies, and set-ups for future intellectual properties. But in 2005, Sam Raimi was one year removed from Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins was just hitting theaters, and we were a year away from X-Men: Last Stand. No shared universes. No Arrowverse. Comic book culture was just making its way into mainstream. Outside of rabid readers, filmgoers hadn’t heard of John Constantine. This created two problems for Warner Bros’ Constantine movie. Average audiences likely had little interest in a supernatural action movie about an occult detective. And Hellblazer fans were up in arms about the studio’s creative liberties with the source material. However, fifteen years later, amidst a ‘Keanaissance‘, it’s time to re-visit and re-evaluate Constantine.
Keanu Reeves and the Casting Controversy
Needless to say, Hellblazer and John Constantine lacked the brand recognition of a Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. To make matters worse, Warner Bros tampered with the DC Comics’ source material. Specifically, John Constantine was British and blonde in comics. Originally, illustrators patterned the character after musician, Sting. As such, the decision to cast Keanu Reeves sparked a backlash among comic book fans. For starters, Reeves obviously looked nothing like the character. Much of the goodwill from The Matrix series had also worn off after the disappointment of The Matrix Revolutions. At the time of Constantine’s release, Reeves was hitting a career downturn. And John Wick was nearly a decade away. At least Reeves didn’t try a British accent.
… the decision to cast Keanu Reeves sparked a backlash among comic book fans.
To be honest, however, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Reeves’ performance. Reeves channels the character’s cynicism and anti-hero qualities admirably. He ditches his ‘woah’ persona for a believable world-weariness. If there’s a problem, it’s simply that Keanu Reeves is, well, Keanu Reeves. Like other big celebrities, Keanu’s public persona often overtakes his roles. Bottom line – he’s just not John Constantine. Nevertheless, comic book movies were still building momentum at the time. Today, Marvel and DC can turn obscure characters into box office gold. But in 2005, Constantine needed a recognizable, and still bankable, star at the helm. For any one other than comic book purists, Reeve’s role neither makes nor breaks the movie.
Constantine’s Emphasis on Action and Spotty CGI Detracts from Its Potential
Though Constantine weaves in much of the source material’s mythology, it struggles to balance competing tones. Stephen Sommers’ earlier, The Mummy, re-imagined the Universal Monsters classic as an ‘Indiana Jones-inspired’ spectacle. Conversely, Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy blended the action and horror elements of Mike Mignola’s graphic novel into his trademark dark fantasy style. First-time director Francis Lawrence aptly stages the movie’s action with its frenetic CGI demons Not surprisingly, Lawrence went on to helm I Am Legend and The Hunger Games sequels. He shows clear skill in his debut. Some spotty CGI undermines much of Constantine’s bigger moments, not Lawrence’s direction.
Constantine is at its best when it slows down and submerges itself in the source material’s mythology.
And even the occasionally weak CGI doesn’t completely undercut some of the movie’s imagery. Constantine, for instance, boasts one of the most conceptually interesting depictions of Hell. Ultimately, however, Constantine never fully embraces the character’s horror-oriented roots. Yes, the movie’s imagery feels like an exquisitely rendered horror painting. Nevertheless, the movie often focuses on generic action. Constantine is at its best when it slows down and submerges itself in the source material’s mythology. Some of the best moments are in John’s dealings with Archangel Gabriel. And Peter Stormare’s brief appearance as Lucifer is chilling, offering a glimpse into the direction the movie could have adopted.
Constantine Casts a Spellbinding Mythology
With several series from which to poach a story, Constantine conjures up a wonderful mythology for its character and movie. In fact, the major mystery driving the action is less interesting than all the background details. Whether it’s the trip to Papa Midnite’s nightclub or John Constantine’s relationships with the Archangel Gabriel and Balthazar, Constantine is rich with potential directions. In fact, it’s not at all surprising that the later success of the Arrowverse prompted a brief series. Like Constantine’s driver, Chas, you’re fascinated by the movie’s ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of demonology and the occult. One could easily imagine how well a Constantine television series could fare outside of network television’s restrictions.
Constantine Better Than Its Reputation Suggests
Much of the scorn heaped on Constantine revolved around the studio’s casting of Keanu Reeves. Additionally, the move took some other liberties with the source material. Today, major studios are much more willing to gamble with lesser-known properties. Box office dynamics have also shifted significantly in the last 15 years. As compared to the past, ‘big-name’ stars don’t guarantee ticket sales these days. But in 2005, as comic book movies were still gaining credibility and Reeves’ presence in Constantine likely didn’t hurt its box office among most moviegoers. Neither awful nor spectacular, Constantine falls short of other early horror comic adaptations like Blade and Hellboy. But it’s much better than its reputation suggests. And it’s head and shoulders above Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider movies.