TV’s Constantine Does Its Comic Book and Real World Homework
After Keanu Reeves’ horrific Constantine movie, I think pretty much everyone cringed at the idea of a TV version.
They needn’t have worried. Both myself, with my academic occult knowledge, and my husband, a huge comic book aficionado, came away from the pilot episode unconditionally pleased.
The general premise is similar to CW’s long-running Supernatural: a man who fights demonic forces imperceptible to most people. It’s a more sophisticated approach, however. Supernatural (which I enjoy, don’t get me wrong) is about guns and knives. When Dean and Sam Winchester turn to magic, it’s about precisely drawn symbols and correctly pronounced incantation, each with one singular purpose, without ambiguity.
So far, Constantine hasn’t produced a weapon at all, and my sense is such things will commonly not be helpful in defeating these forces of darkness. And while he does scrawl sigils and chant in Latin, there’s the sense that, ultimately, what he does is an expression of willpower, which is very much in line with a lot of modern magical theory.
And the sigils actually make sense. Many shows simply Google “occult symbols” and throw them around a room to look suitably esoteric. CSI was guilty of it last week, and Supernatural is hit and miss on the subject.
Constantine did its homework. The first sigil was a protective symbol carved on a girl’s door to shield her from a pursuing demon. The image combined three historical symbols: a cross, the Eye of Horus (they’re even smart enough to not call it the Eye of Ra, which can refer to a couple different symbols), and the algiz Futhark rune. All three are, indeed, commonly associated with protection; they weren’t just randomly slapped together . The Eye is within a triangle, which is a common depiction of it today, although not historically. To me, that makes sense: Constantine is a person of the present day, not ancient Egypt.
The second sigil is placed on a rooftop to trap the pursuing demon. Constantine describes it as one of his one design, which again is a common practice today and one that is in line with the focus on willpower rather than the symbol itself: the sigil is ultimately a psychological focus, not a force in and of itself. It includes a Goetic-like central symbol, although not one I’m familiar with, which makes sense because Goetic symbols represent the names of demons, and the show appears to be inventing one for the episode. He mentions there’s some Enochian mixed in, and more Futhark runes prominently circle the central symbol. The runes don’t seem to spell anything out, but I’ll forgive them for that.
What’s particularly nice is, for all their homework, they don’t lecture us on what it all means. What’s Enochian? Doesn’t really matter. Either you catch it or you don’t. It makes no difference to understanding the plot, and it saves Constantine from discussing very complex ideas with characters (and the audience) who have no idea what he’s talking about. It avoids the appearance of Occultism for Dummies.
Likewise, my husband assures me there’s a pile of comic book references included. I only caught one: Dr. Fate’s helmet. That’s fine. I wouldn’t appreciate the references, and if they were obvious references, I’d just be frustrated in not getting it.
Finally, Constantine is a character with personality. He doesn’t fight demons simply because he can. He’s pursued by his own personal demons, metaphorically speaking, from tragedies so terrible he periodically checks into a mental hospital in an attempt to escape them. He’s both powerful and flawed, which is a nice start for a pilot episode.