The end of the 2010s and the beginning of the 2020s marks a few important turning points in cinema that would seem out of the question in the burgeoning 21st century mindset of the 2000s. Keanu Reeves’s star has once again risen (I would argue we are in the third Keanu-ssance, the “Bronze Age” of his career if you will) after spending the better part of 10 years slumming it in underwhelming films that wrongly utilized his very specific brand of physicality and stillness and people misjudging him as man of sleight talent. The John Wick franchise and his own seemingly sincere brand of wholehearted dedication to his craft and being a decent person has made him a champion amongst generations of filmgoers who have been quietly rooting for him at the lowest ebbs of his personal life and career.
We’ve also seen the refinement of comic book adaptation from a “seeing what sticks” mentality to a well-oiled machine of production oversight and Domino’s pizza-like consistency. What we’ve gained with comic book movies clearing the baseline of not being X-Men Origins: Wolverine or the first Ghost Rider film, we have kind of lost in the ability to both adapt slightly more off-kilter forms of the medium but also play around and extrapolate cinematic pathos from these page-laden characters. This is why 2005’s Constantine is a prime example of a time capsule from when these adaptations could be something that filmmakers and performers could bring their own spin to and make something that was a piece of standalone cinema.
In the late ’90s and ’00s, comic book adaptations entered a new era of proliferation. 1998’s Blade, 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man had set the stage and revamped interest in the genre after the burnout felt from films like 1997’s Steel and Batman and Robin (though, an underrated camp classic in my humble opinion) in the same year. Leading up until that burnout point, studios had thought the success of Tim Burton’s watershed Batman film in 1989 was owed to its tangential relationship as a detective comic (which led to the amusing era of pulp comic heroes being transplanted to the big screen, such as Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Phantom and Sam Raimi’s original character Darkman). The late ’90s and ’00s saw a shift in audience and the people who greenlit these movies. Gen Xers who had been brought up on the Silver and Bronze Age of comic books had reached that sweet spot of being the dominant moviegoing force along with Millennial children who grew up watching the Saturday morning cartoon translations, Those same Xers and Baby Boomers on the younger end of the spectrum had reached a level of influence to greenlight these movies as more faithful productions of the source material, instead of flattening them out for a less “in the know” audience.
This not only led to big budget adaptations of beloved Silver Age comic book characters (this is when pre-Disneyfied Marvel characters really take off) but an interest in the alt-comics, standalone stories and mature comics which pointedly subverted the form from the prior two decades. Books like Men in Black (a sort of precursor to this boom), Ghost World, V for Vendetta, A History of Violence, 300, Sin City and Road to Perdition all received films from directors and producers who had an attachment and unique vision for the stories to fit within the confines of a 90- to 120-minute narrative. This confluence of interest in mature stories focusing more on the psychology of the characters and sociological implications more than their power set led to writers and directors taking serialized characters and injecting them with their own version of pathos.
The gold standard for this treatment will always be Ang Lee’s 2003 misunderstood masterpiece Hulk. It’s an adaptation that dared to experiment with the visual pop art element of sequential storytelling, evoke the expressionism of a Universal monster movie, and to be a psychological, soulful exploration of the traumas that fathers can leave forever etched upon their progeny. Instead of, I don’t know, a guy turning into a rage monster after being pushed down a mountainside by a Bigfoot impersonator and smashing stuff (though he does smash stuff — Ang Lee’s not crazy).
While audiences didn’t grok to this interpretation of a character they just wanted to see speak in broken English and punch a few things (the film had a huge dropoff financially in its second week), it represented a moment when a studio gave a team carte blanche to adapt a comic for a mature audience. This would open the door for Vertigo Comics’ chain-smoking working-class magician John Constantine to get a similar treatment.
One can only assume that director Francis Lawrence’s idea for Constantine was to take a Raymond Chandler story and have angels and demons be the stand-ins for the seedier parts of the underworld. While that’s not too far away from Constantine’s original comic book roots, it certainly isn’t the focus. In the comic, John Constantine is a blonde Brit (who was designed to look like the singer Sting) who operates more like a working-class magic user and supernatural investigator who tends to get tied up in investigations in a more “shenanigan”-like way than the fatalistic way our morose, dark-haired, and LA-based John Constantine does. Think more Phillip Marlowe or Jake Gittes than Buffy Summers.
And fatalistic is 100% this movie’s M.O. As Leah Schnebach points out in her article “Constantine is a Terrible Hellblazer Adaptation, But a Damned Good Modern Noir,”
“…the film unspools under a cloud of fatalism. This Constantine is not charming, or charismatic. He doesn’t use his wit or his wits to get himself out of trouble. He just bulls his way through exorcisms and demon encounters, waiting for death to come, until a detective named Angela presents him with a job and a chance at redemption. The plot is classic noir, expanded as far as you can take it: woman in trouble comes to gruff anti-hero for help, sings him a song of a woman in even more trouble (Angela’s sister, Isabel, who has been damned after a successful suicide of her own), together they head after a MacGuffin (The Spear of Destiny), discover Corruption that Goes all the Way to the Top (Lucifer’s son is in league with other demons to get the Spear and end the world), and encounter an army of heavies who pummel the anti-hero (demons led by Gavin Rossdale), and a mysterious turncoat…”
What this creates is a film that’s more interested in the ennui of a man living his doomed life, stuck between a rock and a hard place rather than a power fantasy of a magical, mystical problem solver. It’s not exactly a Jacques Tourneur film but for a 100-million-dollar film meant to appease four quadrants, it was a bold choice to make at a time when American audiences where probably looking for something a little more escapist to put their minds at ease (we were — well, still are — in the middle of two wars at this point). It was also poor timing that its star had reached the point where audiences had tired of his specific brand of acting and what he represented in cinema at that moment.
Keanu Reeves had essentially revived his career by starring in the incredibly risky The Matrix. After building up a considerable amount of goodwill with the two Bill and Ted movies, and career-defining performances in Point Break and My Own Private Idaho in the same year, Keanu hit a rough patch. Spending most of the ’90s turning out underutilized work in lackluster films like A Walk in the Clouds and Chain Reaction (with a brief respite in the form of Speed and The Devil’s Advocate depending on who you ask), The Matrix and the Wachowski Sisters would be the first project and people in years to tap into Keanu’s specific brand of vulnerability and physicality. Angelica Jade Bastien talks about this in her piece “The Grace of Keanu Reeves” where she muses that “Keanu has immense screen presence and keen understanding of communicating story through physicality, albeit with a modern inflection” and that he carries masculine and feminine dualism within his being: “He’s both intense and vulnerable, kind and tough, honest and mysterious.”
This persona would go on to color how the Wachowskis used Keanu in their entire Matrix trilogy, coloring Keanu’s character Neo as a person with the unique capacity and inherent ability to walk between the worlds of man and machine and be a blank slate for humanity to rest its hopes and future. He became a savior for a post-modern audience looking for someone they could easily slot themselves into. Yet, the audience wasn’t as taken with the latter two Matrix films and one of the unfortunate side effects was a backlash to Keanu as this savior character, essentially lampooning him down to a “kung-fu Jesus” of sorts to go with his Ted Logan affectation.
But before The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were released, Keanu was offered the role of John Constantine. You can see why. While Lawrence wasn’t the first director attached to take the reigns of the property (music video director Paul Hunter and the visionary filmmaker of The Fall, Tarsem Singh, were previously attached), you can see Keanu’s lonely-man energy being simpatico with a film focused on a man whose path leads to a single fate. Fans of the book were skeptical of such a change in both the character’s physical look and temperament. Producer Michael Uslan comments on how casting a character’s physical accuracy is not the same as being the right casting for the film:
“Tim Burton said something to me early on, which directly applies to Constantine. At the time of the first Batman movie, when I had been dedicating my life to doing a serious dark version of Batman, I get a call one day asking what I thought of Michael Keaton playing Batman. So I laughed, because I thought it was a joke. ‘Great. Mr. Mom as Batman.’ It took him 20 minutes to convince me he was serious…physically, he doesn’t look anything like Batman. He’s my height, he doesn’t have the musculature and he doesn’t have the square jaw. And Tim Burton said to me, ‘Michael, a square jaw does not a Batman make. In cinema, it’s about the character and about creating a portrayal of an obsessed, driven-to-the-point-of-nearly-being-psychotic Bruce Wayne, who I can get audiences to suspend their disbelief about, to buy into the fact that this is a guy who would get dressed up as a bat and fight crime in Gotham City.’ He said, ‘You want to do it seriously? That’s the only way I know we can do it without getting unintentional laughs from the audience.’ The same thing’s true with Constantine. A British accent does not a John Constantine make. Blonde hair does not a John Constantine make. It is about the essence of that character and his personality, which is nailed in that movie, and I’m very proud of it.”
That mindset of casting an actor who can embody the essence of a character as they appear in the world being constructed for the screen rather than the pulp page serves Constantine well. It gives the film heft and a distinct texture than if the producers had decided to just cast someone like Paul Bettnay in the role (though, I’d like to see that movie as well). Reeves’s performance stands alongside the great off-kilter comic book performances such as Keaton’s “man on the verge” Bruce Wayne, and Tobey Maguire’s emotionally stunted and awkwardly isolated Peter Parker. To quote Ms. Bastien again:
“Constantine taps into a lot of what makes Keanu sincerely watchable and an actor of surprising depth. An emotional truthfulness? Check. Strong physicality? Just watch the way he plays with a pack of cigarettes or curls his body when he has a coughing fit. Interesting handling of modern masculinity? It’s all there, even if the film isn’t always aware of it.”
I don’t think Constantine is a perfect film, but I certainly think it’s an interesting and well-made one. Between its fascination with noir, its choice to go for a distinctive look instead of a homogenized action film, and its lead performance (not to mention its supporting performances — Tilda Swinton as Gabriel and Peter Stormare as Lucifer have to be some of the most inspired casting choices of the century. Stormore has like five minutes of screen time and completely steals the show), it makes a great case as to why comic book films aren’t in themselves a problem, but rather the system producing them. In the risk of being the old man who yells at a cloud, it’s safe to say that there’s no need for these to be assembly line pieces of vaguely fascist power fantasy. They can be solidly crafted films with personal touches and a distinct point of view. 15 years ago Constantine was met with putters and murmurs from critics and audiences, but now I think if people take the time to revisit this popcorn pleasantry, they’ll find something refreshing. Something that feels like a true marriage of all the best aspects and comics books and cinema alike.
Constantine will be screened at the IU Cinema on January 23. Producer and IU Alumnus Michael Uslan is scheduled to be present for a pre-screening book signing as well as a post-screening discussion.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.