Nowadays, audiences usually know what to expect when they walk into a comic book movie. The genre has become so pervasive that both Marvel and DC have made non-comic book readers familiar with even the most obscure superheroes and villains. For better or worse, the films Marvel and DC released throughout the 2010s also greatly informed what most people now expect from the genre.
However, there was a time when comic book adaptations weren’t quite as formulaic or straightforward. In the early 2000s, audiences occasionally got to see adaptations that played by their own rules, experimenting with characters and subgenres in ways neither Marvel nor DC seem particularly interested in doing anymore.
That makes going back and re-watching old comic book movies a unique experience. Even the most flawed films from 15 to 20 years ago eras now seem interesting in their own surprising ways.
That’s certainly the case for 2005’s Constantine, which is only available to stream on HBO Max until February 28th.
Based on DC’s Hellblazer comic series, Constantine takes place in an alternate version of Los Angeles, one secretly inhabited by angels and demons who constantly influence the city’s human residents as part of an ongoing battle between good and evil.
At the center of the conflict is John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a human detective and expert in the occult who’s made a name for himself as a man capable of “deporting” demons back to Hell. The only problem for John is that, despite trying to “buy” his way into Heaven by performing exorcisms and deportations, he himself is cursed to go to Hell after he dies.
When he’s told near the start of the film that he’s going to die soon, John realizes that the fate he’s long sought to avoid may be just around the corner. However, he’s given one last chance to help humanity when a policewoman named Angela (Rachel Weisz) asks him to prove her twin sister’s death wasn’t the result of a voluntary suicide, but something far more nefarious.
Directed by Red Sparrow director Francis Lawrence, Constantine is one of the most atmospheric and unique comic book movies ever made. Anchored by Keanu Reeves’ pitch-perfect, endlessly sardonic performance, the film is a strange cross between a ‘70s detective movie, a supernatural thriller in the same vein as The Conjuring, and a superhero action flick. On top of all that, the film also works as a deep dive into a fascinating fictional society of demons, angels, and occult-obsessed human beings.
It doesn’t always nail the delicate tonal balance it’s going for, and some of its CGI looks bad even by 2005’s standards. However, Constantine is far more engaging a film than its initial reviews would have you believe. Part of that is thanks to Reeves’ strong performance as the Philip Marlowe-esque Constantine, as well as the scene-stealing supporting turns given by Rachel Weisz, Peter Stormare, and Tilda Swinton.
But more than anything, what works about Constantine is Lawrence’s direction. The film wears its genre influences on its sleeves, looking in some moments like a spiritual successor to David Fincher’s Se7en and like a comic book come to life in others. Lawrence never fails to find interesting ways to shoot and block scenes, whether he’s introducing a villain by having the character’s bare, tar-covered feet float into frame or choosing to focus on Constantine’s still-burning cigarette while the man himself performs an exorcism just a few feet away.
For years, Constantine was seen as an utter failure by both critics and comic book fans alike, many of whom criticized the film for failing to stay true to its source material. While some of those criticisms still stand, the film is receiving a surprising wave of reappreciation from viewers. Maybe that’s because Keanu Reeves recently said he wishes he could play the character again, or because of its streaming availability.
Regardless of the reason, it’s easy to see why people are starting to think more highly of Constantine than they did 17 years ago. For all its faults, it’s a film that still manages to be more compelling, stylish, and daring than 99% of the comic book movies and TV shows being produced today.
The film is worth checking out just for its undeniably great third act, which sends Constantine out on a high and cements Reeves’ occult detective as one of the most interesting leading men in comic book movie history.
Constantine is streaming on HBO Max until February 28, 2022.