Batman. The Flash. Even Green Arrow. These DC Comics heroes are household names, and though some may be more well-known than others, they’ve all got just a bit more recognition in common circles than the antihero exorcist John Constantine. So it was that NBC took on the challenge of bringing this conjurer and spellcaster into living rooms with its new series, Constantine. The blessing and the curse of such a project is that the network can draw on the series’ rich mythology while putting their own spin on the character, though it walks the line of confusing new audiences while possibly alienating fans. However, if the pilot is any indication, then this series may be the surprise supernatural hit of the season. Hit the jump for my Constantine recap.
I’ll be up front about this from the get-go: I’m not very familiar with the Hellblazer comics, at least much less familiar than I am with other superhero fare currently on TV. (I hesitate to say that everything I know about him is from the Constantine movie with Keanu Reeves.) Having said that, I’ll be approaching these reviews from a newbie’s point of view, so it’s up to NBC to both educate and entertain me. So far, so good on both counts.
Our intro to John Constantine (Matt Ryan) comes via a self-imposed visit to an asylum where he’s undergoing shock therapy in an attempt to forget the brutal murder of a young girl who was torn apart by a demon in front of his eyes. At this point, the audience isn’t sure if we’ve dropped in on a crazy person or an honest-to-goodness dabbler in the diabolic. That question is soon put to rest as Constantine follows a bunch of roaches to a find woman drawing letters on the wall in blood. He performs his exorcism and the demon resists, shattering the stained glass windows before finally succumbing to the spells and relenting. As the air clears, the message reads: “LIV DIE” which tells Constantine that he’s been wasting his time there.
Before long, we’re introduced to the show’s Everyman, who happens to be the mild-mannered Rental Car worker Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths). Griffiths does a great job playing a wide-eyed young woman who becomes exposed to the truth about her not-so-dead father Jasper Winters, her latent abilities to see the souls trapped on Earth, and the increasing violence in the war between Heaven and Hell. She accompanies Constantine and his hard-to-kill partner Chas Chandler (Charles Halford) as they attempt to track down the demon that’s out to possess and kill her.
While the demon is very clearly a nefarious force in this world (and likely just one of many Villains of the Week in the future of this series), Constantine doesn’t exactly have the blessing of the angels on his side. One particular herald (or in this case, Harold, as in Harold Perrineau) named Manny is just a real jerk as far as angels go. He occasionally shows up to badger Constantine, remind him that he’s damned to Hell, and attempts to convince him that he should use his remaining time on Earth to do good in the name of Heaven. Constantine is not so easily played by either side.
I enjoy Ryan’s character work as the title character, and though I don’t know how close he hits to the mark of the comic’s version, he’s certainly made the antihero his own. He’s got snappy one-liners that aren’t too forced, a drunken swagger that might best be described as surly, and an air of familiarity with the occult that makes his interactions with the otherworldly play out like a particularly unpleasant day job instead of something fantastic to be explained away in awe. It might draw some comparison’s to the network’s lead-in show, Grimm, due to its mythology, secret lairs full of archaic objects, magic spellbooks, and helpful MacGuffins, but each show is unique enough to stand on its own. On Constantine’s side is the ability to share Easter eggs, like the helmet of Doctor Fate (and innumerable others I probably missed).
There’s plenty of mysticism and magic going on in the show, from demonic possessions, to angelic interference, summonings, talismans, symbolic protective spells, and the like. The writers certainly have fun with it, like when Social Distortion’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” plays louder and louder on a radio just before Constantine’s taxi cab is attacked by a demonic power cable. But there’s heart to the tale as well, all of it piled onto the story of the little girl whose death Constantine was responsible for. It not only sets up his quest for the remainder of the series (or at least the season), ie to save her soul from damnation, but sets up a possible redemptive arc, ie his own sacrifice. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Constantine, who seems to be able to teleport wherever he’s needed in the plot at any given moment, soon figures out that a demon named Furcifer is after Liv; he’s from the inner circle and couldn’t have made his way to Earth on his own. Constantine needs some help and so recruits/blackmails his old pal Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies) into helping him.
Constantine’s plan to save Liv is this: pays off a guard to let them up on the rooftop; gives the a lightbulb that, if it glows, will tip him off to a demon’s presence (if the guard pays attention to it, anyway); lure the demon using Liv as bait; and then send it back to Hell via a symbol dawn on the rooftop. Constantine takes this time to share some personal history: his mom died giving birth to him, while his father blamed him and was abusive to him, calling him, “Killer”. For those who didn’t know by this point, he also reveals that he’s a self-taught conjurer and practicioner of the dark arts.
Meanwhile, the demon-possessed guard arrives on the rooftop and comes after Liv, but stops short of the symbol, them steps inside so Constantine can banish him. Furcifer changes into the form of Dark Constantine to provoke him, saying that Hell relies on him to provide him with a steady supply of souls, since everyone who stands at his side dies. He was drawn to the power of “a city at night,” but Constantine fires a flare, which alerts Ritchie to shut down the power in the city. Constantine fires up his lighter and lights the symbol on fire; Liv gets free just before the demon conjures the soul of the little girl and taunts John, saying he’ll release her soul if John frees him. Constantine almost gives in, but Liv uses her pendant to see through the ruse and tells John that it’s not actually the girl. Constantine banishes the both of them in a fiery tornado.
After the banishment Ritchie, who happens to have a pretty bad drug addiction thanks to his time with Constantine, drives Liv home and reveals that John tried to summon Nergal, a powerful demon, in order to defeat a lesser demon and back to Hell. Obviously things did not go according to plan. In related violence, Liv then sees a brutal murder scene on Edgewood Ave. (not surprising), a location which she saw on her map.
At a local pub, John at first appears disappointed to see that Liv won’t be coming with them, though she returns the amulet, plus a map covered in blood spots where demons are causing havoc. (Guess Griffiths won’t be back for future episodes). Manny arrives to harass John again, revealing that John arranged to scare Liv away from him and his life. Manny’s disappointed because they wanted her power on their side. In the closing moments, John walks a strange tunnel lined with bloody animal heads, and scares off a gang of heavily armed thugs by setting his hands on fire, cementing his status as one crazy, batshit nutter. The scene cuts to an artist frantically drawing picture after picture of Constantine.
I have to say, this was certainly a strong premiere that set out to introduce a character to an audience who may not be quite so familiar with him, while paying homage to long time fans of the Hellblazer series. It certainly succeeded on the former, but I’ll leave it up to you fans to let us know if they delivered on the latter. I appreciate that they told a complete story that gave a sense of closure for the immediate conflict while also setting the stage for future battles to come. Constantine has a strong personality going for it right now, so hopefully it embraces that fact and allows it to shine in episodes to come as it hopefully develops a following. I worry a bit about the timeslot (hopefully Grimm can help with that somewhat) and the glut of comic shows currently on the air, but thankfully Constantine is a devil of a different sort.
Odd & Ends:
- Constantine: “It says Master, does it? I should really change that to Petty Dabbler. I hate to put on airs.”
- Constantine: “I’m okay! So flap off!”
- Great shots of Atlanta in this premiere. For the locals, there’s a great scene that highlights Krog St. Tunnel, which is now unfortunately whitewashed of all its fantastic artwork. (The fact that it stars Matt Ryan is certainly a weird bit of Atlanta-based irony.)
- Fortune cookie: “Trust Him” [in Bed]
- Constantine: “Put that helmet down love before it puts you down!”
- Liv: “You died!” Chas: “Not exactly. It’s complicated.”