Each time a new comic book adaptation gets the green light, fans hold their collective breath over the Internet, fearing the worst. We always hope that the writers get it right – to be exact and bring justice to the characters. Not everything can spring from print to screen, but the apprehension always lingers. In the case of Constantine, there’s a case to argue for how this series was handled.
I’d like to get this out of the way first: This show wasn’t optioned by The CW, like most DC properties like Arrow and The Flash. This show is under NBC’s umbrella, whose shows seem to be getting cancelled left and right. There are rumours that Constantine might be transferred to Syfy, in lieu of being renewed, and then rebranded to what it should’ve been titled in the first place: Hellblazer. It’s also supposed to be darker.
Some common complaints about Constantine: “It’s a watered down version of Hellblazer,” or “It’s a bit dumbed down.” “But he won’t smoke up!” was actually an issue, but that’s been debunked. He smokes in 9 episodes! I’ve also seen the “Matt Ryan’s accent is exaggerated cockney.” To that I say, well, yeah, but’s also spectacularly fun to listen to, luv.
The former two complaints do have some valid points. Yes, it’s a slightly watered down version of the comics. But at its core, one has to understand that not everyone is as an avid a geek to know everything. There has to be an introduction. The first episode, “Non Est Asylum,” gets straight to the point of John’s motivation in the series. He botched an exorcism in Newcastle, and little girl named Astra gets damned to hell. Constantine then voluntarily gets himself committed to the mental hospital out of guilt. He wants to leave the supernatural behind, but it finds him anyway by possessing a girl in art therapy and leads him to find a girl name Liv Aberdine.
It’s a straight-up introduction of what we’re in for in the show – horror and action, or mostly action laced with horror, and a new pair of eyes for the not-so-familiar viewers to relate to. Liv Aberdine was supposed to be the audience surrogate, but (fortunately or unfortunately), the producers and writers decided that wasn’t the direction they wanted. So they wrote her out and penned in Zed (Angélica Celaya), a character from the comics. Jim Corrigan also gets thrown into the mix for an episode or two. Points for us comic geeks!
What may have followed was an expectation that things would get darker and more complicated from there as the comics are to do. It doesn’t. The show simplifies to a degree that is coherent for the casual viewer. It doesn’t mean the essence of the characters is watered down. Constantine is still a jackass. He’s unrepentant in his schemes and still as manipulative as ever, exemplified in the episode “A Feast of Friends,” a lose adaptation of the comic arc. A lot of the driving force in Constantine’s character is guilt. It’s clear in this episode that the writers do understand that. After a chase with the hunger demon, ol’ John traps it into Gary who only belatedly realizes that this was the plan all along. Gary accepts this. He accepts that this is his fault. He also accepts that this is what Constantine is. The episode ends with him dying in agony, and all John can do is hold his hand while he Gary screams. Guilt is painful to watch.
Some character moments, however, are unrealistic. Take “Danse Vadou,” which is the second run-in with Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw). Midnite is unwittingly raising spirits from the dead, and not in good ways as this show is wont to make. “Am I pretty?” the lady with scissors asks before she murders a passerby, a hitchhiker kid gets people to run it a giant tree and get killed, and a husband who died of cancer saps the health of his grieving wife. It feels a bit unrealistic. It took less than 2 minutes for the people who called on the spirits in the first place to forgive themselves, and have those spirits released from the mortal plane. It’s a generic plot theme.
What isn’t generic about the episode is the power play between Constantine and Papa Midnite. Ryan and Shaw play off each other remarkably well. They’re both manipulative and unrepentant. While the previous encounter with Papa Midnite in “The Devil’s Vinyl” is antagonistic, here he’s showcased as a powerful magic user that hates on Constantine for many reasons, but it stands out that he dislikes Constantine for his habit of being a “magpie of magic.” He’s a patchwork of magical arts, with no singular style to him. Papa, on the other hand, is Voodoo through and through, including the accent. They’re two magi that clearly do not get along but have to, because Midnite, for all the Voodoo OG villain that he is, still respects magic. If something is wrong with his spells, he holds himself accountable. The way he and Constantine create a pyre and recite their spells is absolutely fun. It’s rare we see two magi working together in this show, and it’s great. The ensuing argument when the spell doesn’t work is also a source of humour.
But the show isn’t short on horror either, as seen in “The Devil’s Vinyl” and “A Whole World Out There.” The former is part of the episodic format to which Constantine is still being introduced to new viewers. It also helps that Papa Midnite is brought in during this episode, where the devil’s words are recorded on a vinyl, causing a lot of evil and destruction. The episode is both ridiculous and creepy. Ridiculous because it ices over and sometimes possesses people, which seems to happen to a lot of secondary cast characters in this show. The scary part comes from the music. It calls to mind urban legends from childhood, about how evil music, when played backwards, yield Satanic messages. It’s not a terrifying episode, but it gets the right amount of horror across.
“A Whole World Out There” is everything Constantine should be. William Mapother plays the villain Jacob Shaw, terrifying as a serial killer whose existence lies on another plane. The murders are gruesome, the suspense is always placed right; Shaw shows up in his victim’s mirrors before he kills them. This episode builds the character of Constantine. Remember Gary Lester? John is enlisting the help of Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies), another one of the Newcastle crew. Hell yes. He drags Ritchie onto the Shaw’s plane of existence and a fight ensues. There’s this moment when Constantine’s machinations might cost him another friend, but he doesn’t want this to end up the same way. He argues this time to save his friend. It’s clear that the death of Gary still haunts John, and that’s all I ask for really: consistent characterization. It works, and gives us the best episode of the entire season.
“The Saint of Last Resorts,” both part one and two, are actually a good look into John’s brand of faith (or lack of it). Anne Marie Flynn (Clair van der Boom), his ex and now a nun, calls upon John through astral projection to enlist his help. Admittedly, the pacing is rough. Some parts could’ve worked better than others. Taking everything into account though, it’s a two-parter that’s a good example of how the writers can keep a show interesting when the monster-of-the-week trope has gotten too familiar.
I haven’t mentioned Chas (Charles Halford) yet, have I? He’s the guy they kill for shock value in the first episode, then they resurrect him. It’s not for kicks, I assure you. In “Quid Pro Quo” we get an explanation for his immortality, and as it is with John Constantine, it’s a result of a drunken spell and some tragedy. Chas’ story isn’t really horror-laced since it’s a character episode, but it’s pretty cool to see Chas pulling a Constantine on Felix Faust (Mark Margolis). And we get to see his daughter! They reconnect! It doesn’t feel superficial at all, and it does pretty well in someone not blaming Constantine for the trouble that’s happened on account of him. Charles Halford does a fantastic job as an angry father. Renee Chandler (Amanda Clayton) gets a good slap on John’s face too. Margolis plays Faust with as much bravado and ham as possible; it’s really quite entertaining. Bonus points all around.
My favourite episode of the series is “Blessed Are the Damned,” which involves my favourite character introduced in the show yet: Manny (Harold Perrineau). Manny’s been an angel speaking to John since the pilot, and here he’s given an entire episode. We learn of his function as an angel, what he is willing to sacrifice, and most of all, the power he can wield. There’s also a gorgeous angel named Imogen (Megan West). Manny, who has been guiding John since episode one, finally gets to take an active part in the episodes proceedings. And bloody hell, is it a doozy. This show has not been shy on exploring John’s faith, but an angel’s faith and fate can be more damning.
So what have I been getting at? Constantine is a fun show. It’s not excellent, but it’s got more potential and promise than what people initially thought of it. It draws on the Hellblazer stories, even if it doesn’t outright adapt them. When it finally uses horror and its characters right, you get something the likes of eleventh episode, “A Whole World Out There.” When it’s down on its writing, it feels like Buffy the Vampire in its first season, see: “Angels and Ministers of Grace” and the season finale, “Waiting for the Man.” Both border on mediocre-boring, if a bit desperate, to draw in the audience. The threat of cancellation may have stifled the writing, suspending reality more than what the viewer would allow for just for the episodes to make sense. The show could be darker, as the darker episodes of the season are actually the better ones.
What matters, though, is that it’s been adapted well enough to be a fun ride. It’s not always substance. If the show can spin a good enough tale for this series, it should be enjoyable television.
And as for getting Constantine the character down pat? They’ve got it in Matt Ryan – he’s done a good job in being brash and vulgar as network TV will let him. We’ve got our Hellblazer.