The beginning of the end for the Arrowverse kicked off with the debut of the final season of The Flash. Even if the TV landscape wasn’t changing for The CW, the new direction for the DC Universe made it inevitable. Yet, one of the many lessons James Gunn and Peter Safran could learn from DC’s most successful live-action universe so far is how to make mid-budget features for “lower tier” heroes.
There is nothing “low tier” about Keanu Reeves, who is as eager as the fans to learn the fate of Constantine 2. Yet, the new direction at Warner Bros. means that his “Elseworlds” sequel may not move beyond the development stage. The first movie was expensive for the time, especially for a comic book character without name recognition like Superman, Batman or even Swamp Thing, whose title introduced the British mage. On a $100 million budget, it brought in $232 million at the box office. It also debuted during a time of robust DVD sales and significantly lower marketing costs. In the mid-2000s, the digital visual effects revolution was in full swing, and high-concept movies with big-name stars were a recipe for success. Today, it’s all about franchises. And with marketing costs today sometimes equal to a film’s production budget, Constantine 2 would have to double its previous take just to break even. But if Warner Bros. TV can make 20-plus episodes for an estimated $50-$60 million per season, why not make a two-hour film for that much?
A mid-budget feature is a film with a budget ranging from as “little” as $4 million all the way up to $75 million. Joker was, technically, a mid-budget feature with an estimated budget of $70 million before marketing. It worked because the Joker is one of the most recognizable comic book villains. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption or Good Will Hunting were mid-budget features that hoped they’d turn profits when DVD receipts came in. Instead, they broke out and became profitable, lauded cinema classics. For each one of those, however, there are those that fail to earn a profit. Studios would rather bet on franchises where each installment breaks even than something like A Man Called Otto.
The estimated budget and marketing costs for Black Adam meant that even shoulders as broad as The Rock’s couldn’t carry it to profitability. That may be because the movie had a natural, powerful ending moment, and then the big, CGI-effects-laden third act began. Studios believe audiences will only turn up for huge “event” films, at least if they’re trying to hit that billon-dollar box office number. Those that don’t face a far less profitable home video and streaming market. That’s a lot of pressure to put on Blue Beetle or some other deep-cut character casual audiences aren’t already eager to see. Yet, if the Constantine 2 budget were $40 or $50 million, the Hellblazer wouldn’t just break even. It’d probably pay off the rest of Black Adam, too.
If The Flash only allowed Barry to use his powers in a single act in each episode, producers could throw money and time into making those effects look movie-worthy. Yet, Barry is zip-zapping all over the place, and at least three other weird powers are on display per episode. The result is “TV effects,” but a show where the magic people act like magic people. Legends of Tomorrow even did a version of Constantine, and the Reeves movie does not need to go that far to get a quality horror film in the can.
Take Joker out of New York City, and that probably saves most of that movie’s budget. Set it in modern times instead of the late 1970s, and it’s even less costly. While both are integral to the story those filmmakers were trying to tell, Constantine doesn’t need all that. All he needs is a church, bar and houses that are dark and creepy. John Constantine seems to be like Ted, where Reeves’ characters are concerned. It’s a character he will probably play for far less than the John Wick star could demand. If the storytellers approached the film like Werewolf By Night, it would print Warner Bros. money.
That is not to say that Constantine 2 should be a practical effects love letter to the Universal Horror era of cinema. Instead of throwing $100 million at it, Marvel Studios took a risk, and it paid off. The first Constantine was intended to be Rated R, but in 2004 that all but guaranteed the film would lose money. If the storytellers turn to the classic Vertigo Hellblazer comics, they will find plenty of adventures they could film on the cheap. That would make Warner Bros. Discovery (especially after Joker’s success) more amenable to that R-rating. Constantine’s stories are always celestial in stakes, but Lucifer doesn’t show up and wreck a city.
Beyond just making business sense, it’s what fans of the character want. Those taken with Reeves’ version, and even those who prefer Matt Ryan, would appreciate a small-in-scale story about magic, horror and what a nasty piece of work Constantine can be. A dark, moody film about a man who goes up against gods and devils with only his wits doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, a lower budget could help deliver the film Hellblazer fans have been asking for since he showed up and asked if Swamp Thing minded if he smoked.