Constantine has arrived a little bit later than its fellow comic book TV shows Arrow, The Flash and Agents Of SHIELD (and sneakily released on Amazon Prime in the UK), but this is one we’ve been keeping close tabs on.
Putting our love for the mystifyingly underrated (yes, we know they made him American) Francis Lawrence/Keanu Reeves movie to one side, this new TV show comes from the absurdly busy David S Goyer, and presented a lot of surface-level fidelity from the get-go. There’s a British actor! He’s blonde! He’s got the proper trenchcoat! As ever, all of this is irrelevant if the show isn’t good. Thankfully, at least going by the first episode, Constantine looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Its status on network TV necessarily means that a lot of Hellblazer’s harder edges have gone (tell that to Hannibal, though). So, less gore, less in-your-face terror and no smoking, but what Constantine seems to be going for is a darker, edgier take on the kind of supernatural horror adventure that’s currently serving shows like Sleepy Hollow so well.
The episode begins with John Constantine (Matt Ryan) going through shock therapy treatment at Ravenscar, attempting to shake the memory of losing a young girl to the demon Nergal. He’s masking a lot of trauma with a neverending stream of sarcastic put-downs, but once he gets an invitation from a spirit that’s impossible to ignore, he checks himself out and heads to the rescue of Liv (Lucy Griffiths), who’s seeing spirits from the other side and seems to be the target of a nasty demon.
Perhaps the most impressive element of ‘Non Est Asylum’ is just how much fun Neil Marshall is having behind the camera. Although he’s been given the task of bringing war to Game Of Thrones fairly regularly, the director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent opens a box of visual fireworks to give Constantine a cinematic sense that its rivals can rarely match, at least as far as this episode.
The real question, as we’ve already said, is whether or not Constantine can offer anything beyond the visual flash and the apparent fidelity to the comics. While there are plenty of tips of the hat, nods and winks, and just flat-out direct references, actually channelling the spirit of the rake at the gates of Hell is a different matter, and this first episode seems to suggest that the makers at least know what it looks like.
Naturally, the show wants to make sure everyone’s on board, and not just the Vertigo faithful. What this means is that everything’s turned up to 11 on a character who comic book readers will recognise from a resigned sense of fatalism and a keen sense of self-awareness, that he is a complete and utter bastard, that people get hurt no matter how many times he tries to do the right thing.
Constantine the show gives Ryan’s John an emotive range that might feel a little much to those who have read the comics, but is a necessary part of establishing the character. By the time he’s having an extremely emotional confrontation with the demon Furcifer who’s just pretending to be offering him the chance to save Astra, it’s as if we’ve maybe gone a bit too big a bit too fast. On the plus side, Ryan settles into the character quickly enough, selling both the big, brash bastard and the tortured survivor sides of Constantine’s character. Oh, and his accent also seemed to improve as the episode went on.
We’re given flashbacks to AND exposition about his tangle with Nergal (solid work from veteran character actor Jeremy Davies as the bitter, damaged Ritchie Simpson, who might get a lot more to do if they’re faithful to the comics), there’s the angel Manny (Lost‘s Harold Perrineau), who’s trying to get Constantine to join the good fight and maybe save his soul, and there’s Chas (True Detective’s Charles Halford) to remind him that hey, he’s only human. While it all feels like a bit much, it does contribute to the breakneck pace, it establishes a bigger world and it will hopefully give the show room to breathe as it goes on.
However, Lucy Griffiths’ Liv did feel rushed. She was barely given a chance to realise what she could do before she was shuffled off to go somewhere quieter, although her scene with Grandma’s ghost was quite possibly the worst moment of the episode. However, Zed is arriving imminently and hopefully she’ll be a better fit.
Still, despite the histrionics and our nitpicking, this is episode one. It’s a brash, bold and pacey opening that has definitely got our attention, and it’s a welcome to relief to see the show embrace its horror elements. Whether or not it can offer the substance to counter the inevitable post-pilot slow-down remains to be seen.