Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. Today Nick Hanover makes the case that Constantine is the best film DC has made this century, regardless of how hard they now try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Here in 2017, you’ve probably got a firm handle on the aesthetic of DC superhero movies even if you’ve never seen one: every location is lit like a derelict hospital, sickly green and flickering, everyone is either traumatized and gruff or jittery and unhinged, and the default expression on the hero’s face is a tightly clenched jaw. 2005 was essentially ground zero for this DC film aesthetic, with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins establishing that house style. But 2005 also offered up a brighter, more intriguing path DC could have gone down. I am, of course, speaking about Francis Lawrence’s woefully underappreciated blockbuster Constantine.
Despite having every reason to be the more dour of DC’s two 2005 films (it’s about a hardened cynic mage detective trying to impress heaven enough to let him off the hook for briefly managing to kill himself as a teenager), Constantine has a crackling energy, dark wit and quirky style that has yet to be seen in any DC film made since. Like the later Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it even managed to overcome a poor critical reception and made back more than twice its budget, making it just as financially successful, ratio-wise, as Batman Begins and Superman Returns. And yet it remains unsequelized, now viewed as a flop, seemingly damning any hope for further efforts at fun from the DC film universe. What the fuck happened?
Looking back on Constantine, it’s clear the chief culprit for its lack of remembrance is the ascent of Nolan and Zack Snyder as the aesthetic gatekeepers of DC’s cinematic universe. While in 2005, Batman Begins had established the template the DC films would soon adopt, it wasn’t until the back-to-back successes of Nolan’s follow-up The Dark Knight and Snyder’s DC debut Watchmen in 2008 and 2009 that DC would dedicate itself to that style (the 2006 success of the similarly styled V for Vendetta likely also contributed). And like a religious movement erasing the cultures of those it converts, the Nolan and Snyder DC Extended Universe immediately set out rewriting recent DC history so that works that didn’t fit this mold, namely Constantine and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, were retconned to be “flops” despite their actual success.
This is especially a shame in the case of Constantine, because it holds up as one of the most consistent and visually inventive works to come out of the DC film universe; in short, it actually works as a fucking movie. The plot is barebones simple: heaven and hell have a ceasefire of sorts, agreeing to not directly interfere with humanity, but someone is breaking the rules and Constantine is trying to get to the root of the mystery before he succumbs to cancer, hoping that this act will spare him eternal damnation and get him enough forgiveness to go to heaven. It’s a supernatural noir rather than a superpowered action film, and the film blessedly lacks any scenes featuring a villain purposefully getting captured by the heroes in order to launch their true plan or a lightshow attacking a city. It’s just Constantine, trying to convince himself that if he does this one last job he’ll be able to go out in peace, hunting down rogue demons and magical operatives before they kill him and his team off.
Fans at the time may have rankled at the decision to cast Keanu Reeves as the historically blonde and British Constantine, and to set the film in Los Angeles rather than London, but both of these decisions enable Constantine to function as something fresh and different rather than a cookie cutter superhero flick set in an anonymous modern Gotham and/or Metropolis. Lawrence’s depiction of LA is hot and hellish even in the moments the characters aren’t actually suffering visions of LA as an actual hell (something that seemingly inspired This is the End), but it’s also full of oddball characters and Terry Gilliam-esque hoarder environments, like a rundown bowling alley that also functions as Constantine and crew’s headquarters.
As lush and interesting as the visuals are, it’s this character work that really makes the film so memorable, starting with Reeves’ interpretation of Constantine himself. Constantine of the comics is a grim if witty fellow, but outside of the pages of Hellblazer he’s too frequently presented as a wet blanket deus ex machina (here’s looking at you, Injustice); Reeves obviously doesn’t have that British dryness to him but he nonetheless manages to nail the balance of dickish and charming the comic’s best writers strive for with the character. Reeves’ performance serves as a premonition of his John Wick performance, effortlessly cool but also rakish, as fun to watch suffering as succeeding. And Rachel Weisz as a psychic LAPD detective is a perfect foil for that, able to deflect both his obstinate asshole qualities and his sly weaselly charm while showing off her own cleverness and abilities.
Still, it’s the freaks of the Constantine universe that really take the spotlight, and every actor Lawrence assembles to fill that menagerie could easily carry their own film. Sure, people might remember Shia LaBeouf’s cutesy turn as the motormouthed driver and apprentice Chas Kramer, but Lawrence also brings out a delightfully twisted performance from Gavin fucking Rossdale of all people as the financial demon Balthazar and has Tilda Swinton recalling her Velvet Goldmine days as the androgynous archangel Gabriel. But it’s Peter Stormare who steals the show with his climactic performance as Lucifer, his feet dripping black oil as he slinks in from the shadows to consume Constantine’s soul, all while decked out in a white suit, licking his chops and speaking like a Mark Twain character.
Though this type of approach to character work is en vogue in pulpy tv right now via works like Hannibal and Fargo and American Gods (the last two notably also featuring Stormare), you can’t really even argue that Constantine would have fared better today. If anything, superhero films have only become more assembly lined in their approach, with everything functioning as set-up for untold numbers of sequels and spin offs. Constantine might have a post-credits sequence that teases at the possibility of a single, but it never feels like a franchise film, a crime that is unforgivable in today’s DC Extended Universe. In an ideal world, Constantine could have functioned like a supernatural Die Hard trilogy, with a series of standalone films that connect but aren’t constructed simply for set-up. But all it takes is one look at what happened with the actual Die Hard franchise in the superhero era to see how far away we are from an ideal world.
It’s better that Constantine exists as a lone oddity, a work that can be enjoyed without the baggage of franchise expectations or even any kind of connectivity to works from the same company. Had DC embraced this approach and had more fun with its properties (as Lawrence has been allowed to do with the Hunger Games franchise), there’s a strong chance they would have quickly fucked it up anyway, stretching concepts that were only meant to be enjoyed a few times out far beyond their capacity to still entertain, ultimately ruining what made them so invigorating in the first place. You know, just like superhero comics have done for decades.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover