He’s known by a number of names. The Laughing Magus. The Constant One. You Bastard. But his true name is John Constantine and if you were involved in something dodgy and magical in nature, he was the man to go to when you needed to save your ass or save your soul. He is the madman who dances on the knife’s edge between the light and the dark, ready to face the forces of Hell with a smirk on his lips and a cigarette in his hand. At least, he was.
A battle to save a little girl from a demon robbed John of more than his will to fight the good fight. It also cost him his soul! After that dreadful night John was content to rot in Ravenscar Asylum, riding the high of whatever drugs they’re handing out this week to the delusional sorts who see demons and monsters.
Then an old friend dropped in to call in a favor – an old friend who had been dead for years!
For all his faults, John Constantine is a man who takes his debts seriously. Doubly so when they’re owed to a good friend who saw fit to come back from the dead to demand repayment! Soon John finds himself in Atlanta, trying to track down his friend’s estranged daughter, whose own magical powers are just beginning to awaken. But things are more complicated than John realizes and there is more at stake than the life of just one newbie psychic.
Something big and evil is coming. And the forces of Heaven are completely clueless as to what to expect. At least that’s what John is told by Manny – a guardian angel who has been sent to Earth to figure out what’s going on. Manny adopts John as his canary in the coal mine, knowing John’s habits of pressing buttons that should not be pressed make him Manny’s best chance of solving this mystery. Naturally, John is reluctant to get involved… until he’s told there’s a chance that fighting this battle might give him a chance to reclaim his soul.
Constantine has been perhaps the most eagerly anticipated and most dreaded comic book adaptation to be released this year. John Constantine’s recent assimilation into the DC Comics Universe at large after years of being in the adults-only Vertigo imprint, coupled with the fact that this adaptation was being made for an American broadcast network, has caused many fans to fear that Constantine would be watered-down Hellblazer with none of the charm or grit of the original comics. Well, fear not, fans! Ol’ Conjob Constantine is back and more or less as he should be.
What little we learn of John’s background here matches up with his backstory in the comics, up to and including his mother dying in childbirth and his father being abusive. More importantly, the John Constantine we see here is very much an anti-hero and a bit of a bastard. John is reluctant to get involved in random acts of heroism and is concerned only with seeing his end of a bargain followed through to the absolute minimum when he is forced into doing the right thing. He even commits blackmail to get a colleague to assist him at one point.
Constantine is closer to Arrow than Gotham in how it handles its source material. There are a number of subtle references to the original books in this pilot (particular the stories from the Original Sins collection) as well as the magic side of the DC Universe, with the Helm of Nabu getting a quick cameo. There is also a flashback depicting the defining moment of John’s life – his battle with the demon Negral to save a girl named Astra.
Some changes have been made but these changes are minute and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Yes, John is not allowed to smoke like a chimney but the show finds creative ways around this – and other – limitations. For instance, the rules say nothing about depicting cigarettes being put out on camera and one scene in a pub opens with John grinding out a smoking stub into a nearly-full ashtray before downing what is clearly not his first pint of the evening. We may not see John smoking but it is made clear that he does smoke and drink and that he does both to excess.
Oddly, the most radical changes in the show’s mythology apply not to John but to his sidekick, cabbie Chas Chandler. The pilot does not go into detail on this point but Chas is given another reason besides sheer dumb luck for being one of the few to survive an association with John Constantine. This mystery promises more fodder for future episodes and is reportedly tied in to why this version of Chas feels indebted enough to John to act as his muscle and chauffeur.
Another interesting change involves the nature of angels in this universe. In the original Hellblazer comics, Heaven and Hell were depicted as two sides of the same coin, with both angels and demons being willing to commit some truly heinous acts for the sake of their war. This pilot delivers the revelation that angels are parasitic and feed on the suffering of mortals whilst giving them a brief feeling of euphoria – an act that royally pisses off John when Manny attempts to ease his suffering for a moment.
The cast equals the show’s writing in skill and quality. Matt Ryan doesn’t just look the part of John Constantine – he becomes John Constantine! Charles Halford doesn’t get much to do as Chas Chandler, but what little we see of him seems true to the slow-witted but good-hearted bloke from the comics. And Harold Perrineau portrays Manny as a salesman who clearly knows more than he’s willing to say behind his plastic smile.
The only real weak point in all of this is Lucy Griffiths as psychic Liv Aberdine, who has little purpose beyond being a receptacle for John Constantine’s exposition. She’s basically the companion to Matt Ryan’s Doctor, but without any of the charm or agency of an Amy Pond or Clara Oswald. It’s clear why the showrunners saw fit to replace her with Angelica Celaya as Zed – an associate of John’s from the comics who was much more capable and able to stand with John as an equal, not a sidekick.
It remains to be seen if Constantine will find an audience beyond the fans of the original comics. Still, this first episode promises to be pleasing to those fans if nothing else. And the direction and setting should appeal to fans of similar series, such as Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural. All in all, if you’re a fan of good horror series, you’d do well to give Constantine a try.