John Constantine is returning to the in-motion visual medium this fall. NBC has announced that Constantine will be one of their new shows for the season, as they try to capitalize on the recent surge in horror/sci-fi/fantasy audiences (they were always walking among us...) i09 was recently raving about this trailer:
I'm, um... mixed. While I appreciate the fact that, unlike the abhorrent Keanu Reeves film, it appears they actually, you know, read Hellblazer before making the series, it still strikes me as questionable.
First off, Constantine isn't an exorcist. While his story is steeped in Judeo-Christian mythology and lore and some of the best story arcs have revolved around his relationship with Lucifer and other entities of that ilk, presenting him in this fashion leads very quickly to the assignation of black hats and white hats. The demons are the black hats and their exorcist must, of course, be the white hat... which is exactly the wrong way to approach the character AND the wrong way to present this material, in general. Despite trying to attach themselves to the coattails of shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood, I get the feeling that NBC still hasn't quite grasped the idea of shades of gray (yes, even more than 50...) If you draw a clear line between good and evil, not only do you confine your stories to boilerplate Hollywood/Joseph Campbell stuff, you also do the Keanu Reeves thing by utterly missing the point of the character.
John Constantine is generally an asshole. He has friends who range from hating themselves for letting him into their lives to barely tolerating him. Part of the reason is his essentially anti-social attitude. The other part of the reason is that many of them know what he's done to other people who considered themselves his friends. Constantine sees the big picture. The big picture, as we know, often overlooks the little guy. Those little guys are often friends of his and if he needs to sacrifice them in order to accomplish a greater good (like freeing an entire town from the death cult that has infected it) well, that might just have to happen. And does. Repeatedly. Constantine is not without a conscience in that all of these sacrifices that he's made tend to stay with him (some of them quite literally) and so he spends a fair amount of time inside a bottle. Is NBC going to be willing to show him screwing over the people that love him, drinking himself to death, and spitting in the eye of whichever demon he's scripted to deal with this episode? Or is it just going to be a canned retelling of The Exorcist every week? I think the former is a bit much for their main channel. If it was showing up on one of their subsidiaries like FX (home base for the brilliant and way-too-risqué for NBC Archer), I'd feel a lot more secure that they weren't going to sanitize it into idiocy or, even worse, a slightly scruffier version of Highway to Heaven.
Secondly, Hellblazer was rarely confined to just Christianity. There are a lot of other religions and forms of magic in the world and Constantine had experience in most of them. That was what made him what he was; jack-of-all-trades, master of none. That's part of why other entities considered him so dangerous because they were focused on one area of the netherworld and he was comfortable everywhere. If you're going to confine him to a strictly Westernized and Americanized approach, again, you've limited the range of motion of the character before he even hits the screen or are reducing him to taking the occasional excursion to New Orleans ("The Brady Bunch goes to Hawaii!!" "The Simpsons go to Africa!!") to deal with the eerie voudoun before getting back on the anti-Satan train the following week.
Finally, Constantine is a cynic. That's what made him interesting when Alan Moore first created him. That's how he excelled when Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis took him to the greatest heights that the series hit during its run. He's bitter about society (he's the former front man for a hardcore punk band, Mucous Membrane; what else would I be listening to while writing this other than Minor Threat?); he's contemptuous of almost everyone because he can see what makes them tick; he despises his own knowledge, the ambition that led him to acquire it, and the horrible things that it has led him to experience and to do. Matt Ryan, at least in the clips I've seen, is not that guy. He's way too glib and not nearly suspicious enough of those around him to be John Constantine. Yes, he's blond, and raggedy, and English (Keanu Reeves? Seriously? You needed a casting director and found some guy gutting fish, right?) but he doesn't display that unfathomably canny attitude that makes the character what he is.
Despite my praise of Ennis, Delano, and Moore, I have to say that the best encapsulation of the character I ever read was done by Neil Gaiman in a limited series called The Books of Magic. The premise was that a young boy was the Earth's new sorcerer supreme (ahem) and he needed to be taught just what that meant and how to deal with it (a decade before Harry Potter.) In one of those issues, his guide is the inimitable John Constantine, who proceeds to give the lad the streetwise angle on how to deal with his newfound power and all of the danger that it will present. At one point, they stumble into a meeting of DC's magical community (Zatanna, the Spectre, various demons, etc.), all of whom are trying to influence the young Tim and Constantine stops them all cold. The room comes to a standstill as he tells them: "You know me. You know my reputation. Does anyone really want to start something?" Silence. When Tim asks him how to tell the good guys from the bad guys, Constantine tells him that there aren't any. They're all just people, trying to get by. I don't get that kind of real world acumen from the limited bits that I've seen of this show and it's the kind of mercenary and realistic attitude that's not generally going to appear in a show that NBC likely thinks is mostly about the horned guys on fire.
And, yes, confessed cynic here, especially on topics like this. I've seen too many bad attempts at this sort of thing to the point where I doubt that any network that is as concerned about the censors as NBC is will ever be able to get it done. At this point, it's cable or nothing and preferably pay cable... which also means it's HBO or nothing, since a Constantine written with the acumen of a Black Sails is a series waiting to be put out of its misery before the first episode.