Last week was interesting for John Constantine in the media. Just as the NBC TV series was placed on hiatus with no further episodes being produced after the initial order of 13, a low-budget fan film was released on the web that created a bit of a buzz.
John Constantine: Hellblazer – The Soul Play is a 12-minute short made by Waking Dream Studios in Manchester, England (not one of the many Manchesters in the US). It’s a simple little ditty about John Constantine playing a high-stakes poker game with a bunch of nasty demons. It accomplishes in 12 minutes what the “official” NBC show fails to do in more than five hours.
Fan films are a dime a dozen, borne of enthusiasm and skirting around copyright law by not making commercial cash. Some of them are slick, many of them are terrible, but you can’t deny they were made out of love. At best, they might serve as calling cards for fledgling actors and filmmakers. What gives The Soul Play an added frisson is the timing of its release when the TV show has been on air and fans have been debating it.
The Soul Play shows up everything wrong with the TV show.
Sure, it doesn’t have the slickness or the budget of the TV show. The actors could have used a bit more rehearsal to settle in and become more natural and the editing could have been pacier to get rid of the dead air between lines of dialogue, but it recaptures the tone and feel of the original pre-Nu52 Hellblazer comic than the TV show does.
What the short has that the TV show lacks is something that made Constantine popular in their first place: not just Constantine the ruthless, grifting bastard but also the undertone of political anger. Hellblazer was a major piece of political protest against the venal nastiness of the Tory regime of the 80s and 90s, with demons, angels and the supernatural used as metaphors for class tension as well as human vices and injustice. John Constantine may be a charismatic protagonist, but it was the stories him fighting political and social injustice that truly made him and comics stand out. Without stories that have the punch of political and social commentary and relevance, you’re just left with pointless fan service out to sell a corporate product, which is what the Nu52 comic has devolved into, and what the TV show is.
It’s too easy to knock how bad a network TV show is, but Constantine the TV show is baffling in the way it bends over backwards to be about nothing in order to be as inoffensive as possible. That kills the entire point of Horror. Horror is about discomfort and dealing with horrible, unpleasant things, not just fake blood and CGI creatures and monster make-up. And without actual themes, Constantine the TV show ends up being about nothing at all. It’s all sound and fury signifying nothing, leaving poor Matt Ryan trying to find something to play. Even the episode that viewers say is the best episode, based on the first two issues of the original Hellblazer comic, watered down the social commentary of the original story. In the comic, the hunger demon that possesses people cause them to hunger for the thing they crave most in their lives, whether it’s meat, lust, or vanity over their own bodies, and causes them to destroy themselves trying to consume it. The TV version just has people try to eat themselves to death. It’s an empty gimmick with some make-up and special effects. John Constantine: The Soul Play brought home to me everything that the TV show was lacking, and reminded me why the original comic was so great.
The biggest irony here is that Constantine the TV series ends up looking like a rip-off of the CW’s Supernatural, which is now in its 11th season. The writers and showrunners of Supernatural and comics readers and have lifted extensively from Hellblazer throughout the course of the show’s run – Castiel’s suit and old raincoat is a look directly influenced by John Constantine. The show’s portrayal of both angels and demons as callous bastards who exploit and use humans as pawns in their war is directly lifted from Hellblazer, which also used that theme as a metaphor for class tension. Constantine the TV show hasn’t even dared go that far with its treatment of angels and demons, preferring to stick to the safe, conservative view of angels and demons. Supernatural has been cheerfully taking from Hellblazer the comic book for over 10 seasons, finding metaphors and symbolism where it could, satire and commentary where it could, to create its identity. It’s practically Vertigo Comics: the TV show in ways that Constantine and even what’s now left of Vertigo Comics don’t seem to have the nerve or will to do.
Right now, Constantine is ‘on the bubble’, which means the show isn’t cancelled yet, and the network is waiting to see how the ratings are for the remaining episodes produced so far. It’s not just the Friday night timeslot that might be the problem, it’s that the show’s scripts haven’t been good enough to sustain viewer interest. The scripts have been an exercise in how TV networks tend to neuter and content for fear of losing advertisers and conservative viewers. If they want Constantine to stay, they’re going to have to decide to actually give the show an identity. Any identity.
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