Constantine: The Missing Element Is In The Imagery

The Trio

Courtesy of NBC and Warner Bros studios

Warning: Spoiler Alert

(For both television series and the 2005 Theatrical release)

Here at NJATVS we strive to bring our viewers entertaining content that pertains to television programs of a certain quality. Before each new television season we carefully take a look at the upcoming shows, both new and returning. Then we decide on what we will cover based on what we deem to satisfactorily meet our quality standards. We are not critics. We are not going to cover a show for the duration of its run just so that we can rip a show weekly. It is not our intention to come across smug and superior to those creating the television shows.

On occasion we will start a show and eventually decided that it’s execution does not meet our standards. Instead of using our time to rip the show, we will politely and share our reasons and walk away. I’m sure there are plenty of sites out there more than happy to be a festival of negativity at a particular show’s expense. That is not our intention, so let me share with you the rationale for our less than good reaction to the debut of NBC’s Constantine.

First off, we need to set some guidelines and perspectives. Constantine is a television adaptation of the DC comic book “Hellblazer”. In 2005, there was a theatrical version starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz that has a remarkable following called Constantine. So this gives us three distinct perspectives. You are either a devoted fan of the comic book series Hellblazer, a fan of the movie Constantine, or a new viewer with a context of either.

One of the worst social experiences with television and movies is when you hear someone say, “the book was better”. The one acceptable exception is when dealing with comic books. Comic books tend to reveal a very specific type of story. Within which are endless details. Details that the comic book community are big sticklers for.

The cinematic realm is more visual. Even if the story is incredible, but the visual is unimpressive, the story will ultimately be considered just adequate. Sure, romance movies and comedies are a little different. On screen, movie or television, the imagery needs to convey a certain look and texture. If Game of Thrones didn’t work really diligently to create the world their characters live in, it would not be remotely as popular.

Lastly, those who are interested in the concept of a show. I personally, really enjoyed the concept of the show Intelligence. The execution however, was significantly lacking and after the first few weeks, began to lose viewers at a steady rate. The concept of Constantine is impressive. If this is new to you, by all means, Google it. It would take entirely too long to break that down for you here and now. The very short version is that Constantine is a mortal man who (depending on which previous version you’re coming from) has the ability to return demons back to hell despite the fact that his own soul is destined to end up in hell. John Constantine feels compelled to do enough good (by sending said demons back to hell) that he hopes he can earn his way back into heaven.

While I know that NBC’s Constantine is more likely to lean towards the Hellblazer comic version than the movie, you cannot have this discussion without bringing up the movie at every turn. The movie was a real departure from the comic books. Which is not always a bad thing. My biggest complaint stems from the idea that no matter where you fall on the story, the movie was better visually. And if we are comparing the movie directly to the pilot episode, it will feel like a college grad taking third grade spelling. At least visually. There is a tone, a texture, even a feeling when watching the movie. It has a grit that the television series apparently ignored. And before you think it, no the look of the television series is not better. Maybe cheaper, but not better.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Studios

When we speak of the ‘look’ or the imagery, it is not limited to set designs and wardrobe. The color schemes are a wonderful contrast. For starters, the movie John wears the black and white suit (tie loosened) without fail. The TV John wears more of a variation of that with the trench coat. Nothing against trench coats, but it adds a third color into a monochromatic arrangement. And while that seems petty, consider the back drop. Everything else is in bold, dark or at least complimentary colors. The black and white creates a dramatic contrast.

Let me preface this part by saying that I understand we have not seen the characters yet to be unveiled in the television show. The primary characters are all very cool (for lack of a better term), except Gabriel in the movie version. John Constantine is a smug loner, whose soul is damned, has terminal cancer and is, dare I say, a tad emo about it. In the show, John is witty, snide, and almost matter of fact about his plight. While I enjoy Matt Ryan’s version of John, it lacks a depth and tone that worked very well for Keanu in the movie. Things like: ” Yeah, what kind of mental patient kills herself? That’s just crazy.” Are the sort of deadpan, snotty lines that people loved from the movie that this new John Constantine would never say.

Chas, Chas, Chas. In the show Chas is ‘an entity’. I cannot go much further than that with any certainty. The prevailing theory is that Chas didn’t die in the first episode because Chas wasn’t technically alive to begin with. Which is fine. If Chas is a supernatural in his own right and uses that to John’s advantage, then maybe that will be a cool dynamic. Going back to the film again, there was something great about the condescending, experienced, condemned to hell John Constantine mentoring (or using Chas to drive him around) a young, enthusiastic, apprentice who will get his first shot at the action no time soon. I see that the new Chas may prove to be a pivotal character, but does he have to be in his mid 30’s and viewed by John as a relative partner?

Courtesy of NBC and Warner Bros Studios

Manny over Gabriel every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Some people, especially critics who don’t know their head from their –, believe that Tilda Swinson’s portrayal of Gabriel was the best part of the movie. I believe the opposite. Anyone, male or female, could have done a better job with Gabriel. I’m not head over heels for Manny, but without a doubt, the Manny character demolishes the Gabriel character. Put one in the win column for NBC’s Constantine.

Courtesy of NBC and Warner Bros Studios

Papa Midnight. Sometimes a person comes along and lends themselves to a role that is what it is and it will not be topped. Papa Midnight was written and meant to be played for Djimon Hounsou. I don’t think it will be even close. No disrespect to Michael James Shaw, but those are massive shoes to fill. If they had gotten Idris Elba to play Midnight, maybe but even that is not a lock. There is a certain smoothness paired with a sense of power that is required. Midnight can be neutral because no one is going to challenge it. Midnight is an ally when it is convenient for him and the character must be played a certain way.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Studios

Influencers, these are the demons or high-ranking soldiers for Satan that use influence, or in some cases direct contact to push human toward the wrong decision. In the movie the primary influencer was Balthazar (deliciously played by Gavin Rossdale, front man for Bush. Or so my wife tells me). A well put together demon in a meat suit. As we have not been introduced to any influencers as of yet, I will table any sort of verdict.

Demons in general. In the movie there are influencers who are demons but don’t get their hands messy, literally. Both when they are exposed through holy water and anything else during an exorcism, we see the true demon within. And even in the case of John taking a spirit walk through hell as part of the plot, we see an alternate version of the world as we know it populated by hunched over, trudging demons with the top of their skulls missing.

In the show what did the soldier demon look like? A bald man with no color in his eyes. Even Granny early in the episode was really no more imaginative than something you’d see in Sleepy Hollow or American Horror Story.

Courtesy of NBC and Warner Bros Studios

Female leads. So let me get this straight. In the movie the female lead is a police detective (don’t undervalue that role) whose twin sister allegedly commits suicide, is the focus of a demonic possession, and will be the primary chip in John’s negotiation with the devil. In the show she is a rental car customer service rep? Seriously? In the movie the female lead brings previously gained skills and benefits to the team. In the show, the only benefit is that she’s someone’s daughter who may prove to be more valuable later. It should be noted that Angela Dobson and Liv Aberdine are in no way the same character.

It goes without saying that the movie tells a story while the TV show aims to tell a series of stories leading up to one big story. As far as the respective stories go, I’m good with either version. I think the TV show’s writing doesn’t touch the movie. Which isn’t really saying much as the movie isn’t winning any Screen Writers Guild awards. There are three specific factors to any endeavor such as this. The story, and I have confidence that writers will find their voice just fine. Character development, again, not a problem. I have to believe that there is more going on with the characters than what we’ve already seen. And lastly is imagery. I really don’t want to sound too harsh, but in the category of imagery, the TV series fails miserably. It’s almost as bad as if a major movie studio decided to do a big budget cinematic version of Phantom of the Opera, leaving out all of the music, put the character is business casual attire, and put it in present day New Jersey. Maybe that would appeal to some people, but to most it would be bad.

All of this comes back to imagery. Influencers that look exactly like humans until their iris changes to a slight red. Dark people wearing light colors (in lighting not race). Using similar tones in the actors appearance and their respective backdrops to give the illusion that they blend into their surroundings. Even the manner in which the ‘Johns’ execute their exorcism. Matt Ryan’s John gets loud and has a grasp of the skill, but still seems like he’s this close to losing control. Control is not an issue for Keanu Reeves’ John. Everything is deliberate. That John knows their moves before they make them. He has a grasp on everything even down to his own fate. He may still believe he can save his soul, but he’s mistaken about exactly how he can do that.

Courtesy of NBC and Warner Bros Studios

John: Haven’t I served him enough. What does he want from me?
Gabriel: Just the usual. Self sacrifice, belief…
John: Oh I believe for Christ sake.
Gabriel: No. No. You know. There’s a difference

Here’s the rub. The movie version of Constantine has grit, subtle details that really add to the story, lighting and color, varying degrees of emotion that play into most details, it is textured and compelling. The television series that debuted this week feels like a ‘monster of the week’ detective show for demons vs angels. One is epic and one has some intriguing features. Maybe, had they named the series “Hellblazer” there would be less comparing the TV series to the movie.  And for my money, I have seen nothing from the first episode that leads me to believe they will ever produce anything as visually dramatic, humorous, and compelling as the praying scene outside Midnight’s place.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Studios

All is not lost. Normally when we are significantly disappointed, that is the sign that we will be gracefully bowing out. And understand the thought did cross our minds. However, there have been real indications that NBC and the show runners are planning to shake things up a bit. A sense that while some enjoyed the pilot, more has to be done to retain viewers if not grow them. So we at NJATVS are going to watch and see what happens. I have some real issues with where it feels like this show is going. However, the show, series, and concept are too interesting to walk away from. We will do our due diligence to ensure that the right decision is applied to Constantine. In the meantime, I strongly suggest you look into the theatrical release if you have not already done so. If for no other reason than contrast. The 2005 release is available through Warner Brothers video and anywhere Blu-Ray and DVDs are sold.

Courtesy of NBC

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