There’s a lot to love in the new adaptation of The Sandman on Netflix: the practically perfect casting of Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death and Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer. The gorgeous, dreamlike visuals. Baby gargoyle “Girving.” (Protect him at all costs.) But nothing captured my imagination like Johanna Constantine, played by Jenna Coleman.
Polished and unflappable, with a spotless cream-colored trench coat and not a hair out of place, Johanna Constantine instantly makes an impression—one that’s purposely the opposite of John Constantine. Naturally, as Constantines, they do share some traits. They both harbor predilections for the occult and getting in over their heads, for example. But it would be a disservice to simply deem Johanna a “gender-swapped John” and leave it at that. Johanna Constantine is her own character, one that’s begging for more stories to be told about her.
Johanna is the focus of the third episode of The Sandman, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” As Dream searches for his stolen implements, his quest takes him to the last person known to have his mystical sand: Johanna Constantine. The episode begins with a flashback in the form of her nightmare, about a demon summoning gone awry at a club. (Did you spot that “Muchas Membrane” concert poster on the wall, a wink to John Constantine’s punk band?) Johanna approaches an eerily glowing door without fear, without trembling, but with maybe a tiny bit of annoyance. That cemented it—I was instantly enamored.
She wakes up, shakes off the memory and gets ready for the next nightmare—a waking one that involves a demon and a princess. All in a day’s work for a modern occultist. As Johanna strides toward her destination, her wry smile doesn’t waver, not even when she comes face to face with Dream of the Endless. And walks right on past him.
Johanna is doing a job for a clergywoman named Erica, AKA “Ric the Vic,” another coolheaded character I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Ric the Vic knows a demon possession when she sees one and hires Johanna for the exorcism. The creative cussing that these two drop in the middle of a church is exquisite and Ric doesn’t blink an eye, from either the curse words or the possession. Yep, another instant new fave.
So, long story short, Johanna finishes the exorcism despite Dream’s commands to stop so he can get information from the demon. She doesn’t listen. Whether she’s confronting a demon or one of the Endless, the woman is unshakeable. And, most of all, she wants to get paid. Johanna Constantine is shrewd to the point of seeming coldhearted, but that devil-may-care attitude belies her compassion. Her mask slips later as she wakes after the end of her memory-turned-nightmare of the Casanova Club, the shock and regret plainly showing in her eyes.
Dream promises to take the nightmare from her if she helps him retrieve his sand. She searches her disheveled office—perhaps Johanna does share a messy trait or two with John after all—and a photo jogs her memory of where the missing sand is. It’s in the possession of her ex-girlfriend, whom she abruptly left without a word.
“Why?” Dream asks.
“It never ends well, does it,” Johanna responds.
She prefers to be alone. The people around her often get hurt, whether by Johanna’s work or Johanna herself, and she’s learned to keep her distance from those she cares for. It’s not a common characteristic for women in pop culture, and it adds another layer of complexity to the seemingly reckless occultist.
Johanna’s standoffish and cynical nature makes her a Constantine, absolutely, but it also makes her a refreshing female character. While elements of their past are similar, this is her history, not John’s, and her decisions waiting to be made. She’s walking her own path in this Sandman universe. Who knows how else it might diverge from his?
Simply calling Johanna a “gender-swapped John” or a “female version of John” too easily dismisses one of The Sandman’s standout characters. She’s Johanna Constantine, and she’s fascinating. She’s crass. She’s pragmatic. She’s Constantine. And we need more of her.
The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, is now streaming on Netflix. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.
Kelly Knox writes about all-ages comics and animation for DCComics.com and her writing can also be seen on IGN, Nerdist and more. Follow her on Twitter at @kelly_knox to talk superheroes, comics and pop culture.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Kelly Knox and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.