Comic Books on the Big Screen
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Making a comic book movie is always a gamble. Change aspects of the story too dramatically and purists condemn the film before it even hits theaters. ("Gamma Guy didn’t gain his super powers from a sabotaged microwave meltdown; it clearly shows in his origin issue it’s a malfunctioning x-ray machine that triggers his mutations. Gawd, those Hollywood hacks don’t know nuttin'!") On the flipside, if the film is done well, mainstreamers will become instant fans overnight, forcing their hardcore counterparts to take extreme measures to prove their loyalty goes beyond the fad of the moment—the tragic incident involving a Magnetic Man fanboy harnessed with a full-body magnet that was chased for blocks by an industrial fridge from his local convenience store is but one example.

And though not directly comic book related, who can forget the Mall Wars of 2002? Jedi vs. wizard, Ewok vs. hobbit, and Storm Trooper vs. orc, fighting for one film franchise to rule them all. There are security guards still haunted by these senseless acts of geek-on-geek violence.

As one local mall cop put it: “I still remember the day they (the films) opened—there was fur and pointed ears flying everywhere. They had a Viking burial in the fountain by the food court, and a lot of people lost their lunch. Storm Troopers took over the Gap, and those poor Harry Potter kids, man, they just got caught in the crossfire.”

Two new comic book films slated for upcoming release, Constantine and Sin City, have me covering the gamut of these fanboy responses. This month, I’ll take a look at this month’s release, Constantine, which was based on the comic book Hellblazer (which was initially titled Hellraiser but changed it to avoid confusion and conflict with the Clive Barker franchise by the same name). Here, the title is changed again—this time to provide confusion and conflict, making it seem like yet another Roman emperor epic. The original comic book is a British-based, noir-ish themed, horror-esque story centered on ex-punk, blue-collar mage, working class quasi-magician and con artist (though more the latter, letting him bluff the former) John Constantine. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking, ghost-seeing, trench coat clad, Sting look-alike who fought demons, vampires, fundamentalist Christians, racist skinheads, businessmen, and other forces of darkness. The comic’s otherworldly plots were always charged with a political flavor, while Constantine’s real powers seemed to be a supernatural coolness.

Constantine first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing after the title landed in the lap of writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and was subsequently reborn. Moore introduced Constantine to help Swamp Thing (and readers) recognize that he was actually something of a veggie god. In reality, Moore created the character to fulfill his artist colleague’s desire for a character that looked like Sting.

Swamp Thing’s story first appeared in a 1971 issue House of Secrets (think Tales From the Crypt style horror vignettes) as a little piece about a body, dumped in a Louisiana swamp, that evolves into a muck monster. It spun off into its own title, the body that became the muck monster belonging to scientist Alec Holland who had to avenge the death of his wife. [This is not to be confused with Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing, which was released at the same time, involving scientist Ted Sallis, who took the super soldier serum that made Captain America a super soldier—but it turned Sallis into a muck monster in a swamp in Florida. This appeared in an issue of Savage Tales (think Tales From the Crypt style horror vignettes) and eventually led to the introduction of Howard the Duck.]

Moore’s story took origins into a tripped-out, myth-heavy, surreal-a-scape (running from the early eighties onward) leading to an entire DC line, Vertigo, which published Hellblazer and later Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the only comic to win the World Fantasy Award.

I was a Vertigo junkie from the moment the line emerged, even drawing fashion tips from its pages—nothing says monster fighter like a stylish full-length trench coat, and Constantine had the look.

All of this brings us to the film and my first experience as a purist.

Casting Keanu Reeves (a Sting look-alike if ever there was one) as Constantine and relocating him to Los Angeles—most likely to keep the actor from butchering a British accent again (see Dracula for examples)—is not a good start. In spite of Reeves’ familiarity with trench coat clad superheroes navigating between worlds, fighting villains beyond human perception, well… let me put it in Keanu language, “Whoa, pop quiz hot shot, playing both Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan and Evil Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan in the same movie demonstrates my most excellent acting range.”

Actually, I’ve liked Reeves in a number of his performances, but—still jaded by two deplorable Matrix sequels and being so familiar with the character—I feel he’s a bad choice here. (A really bad choice, I mean, a really, really bad choice.)

Worst of all, the film also seems to whittle its story down to a generic quasi good vs. evil theme, with Constantine straddling the fence between the two. This Constantine (Let’s just call him Neo Constantine, shall we?) wields a crucifix-barreled gun that looks like it was hijacked from the armory of last year’s cartoonish Van Heilsing. A James Bond working for the Vatican pit against CGI styled Jacob’s Ladder baddies.

In short, this film looks like bad news.

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