The game has changed. So long thought to engage only niche audiences, comic book properties have barreled into the mainstream consciousness. Don’t get me wrong, these stories have been showing up on both the big and small screen for decades (see the Superman and Batman franchises) but the influx that started roughly fifteen years ago (Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’) has grown exponentially in the past six years. Taking advantage of this boom is ‘Constantine’, a lesser known anti-hero (at least to the general public) first introduced by Keanu Reeves in a 2005 big screen adaptation, is resurrected in the NBC fantasy-drama of the same name.
For those in the dark, John Constantine is an exorcist, demonologist & Master of the Dark Arts who, due to past mistakes, has a one-way express ticket to hell once his time in this world expires. This sentence is quite a sobering prospect for someone with intimate knowledge of the demonic evil and horrors awaiting him downstairs and understanding of it follows him like the axman following a prisoner to the gallows. Such a future would make anyone a bit…prickly and though he is that, John Constantine finds a way to use humor, snark and arrogance as a shield lest he be crushed by his fate.
But enough of the background, let’s get on with the show.
It starts off in the Ravenscar Institute in Northern England where Constantine’s being hooked up for some good old fashioned electroshock therapy. As his voiceover explains who he is, it also makes the point of stating that he arrived at Ravenscar “voluntarily.” A brief conversation with the resident psychologist answers the why. Astra, a nine-year-old darling of a girl, was dragged to Hell, sentenced to an eternity of torment due to Constantine’s failings and, for that, he too will follow her into the abyss when he dies. The supernatural aspects kick off minutes after when, with the help of some terrible CGI effects, a patient delivers a cryptic “Liv Dies” message to Constantine, one he understands and that leads him to…
Liv Aberdine, getting off from her job at a travel agency, is soon thrown into some seriously terrible mojo. She’s nearly backed over by her own car and swallowed by a substantial hole in the ground before she runs into Constantine. Two minutes in and she’s already in denial land. Constantine tells the disbelieving woman that “It’s easier to deny danger than to face it” and gives her a card. She takes it, runs off but Constantine still has business in the area. He investigates the newly formed sinkhole and has a conversation with Manny, a mysterious angel. Their conversation touches on Constantine’s obligation to protect Liv as a “favor to an old, dear friend”, his hellish fate and Astra. Interestingly enough, Manny admits that he was sent to watch over Constantine, adding “I can’t change your fate, but I can ease your suffering.” He ends their chat by hinting at bad things are on the way before disappearing on Constantine without so much as a by-your-leave.
For Liv, the complications of her life are just getting started. She gets a ride from her neighbor Taila and retires for the night. She never sees the individual following her in the night and carving protections into her door. She is awakened by sounds of police as they investigate Talia’s grizzly murder. She returns to work the next day to find Constantine waiting for her. He tells her that her father, Jasper Winters, died just last year and gifted to her a necklace. His presence once again saves the young woman as the Medical Examiner van that housed Talia’s body comes barreling through the window of her job, crashing into her desk. Constantine tries to glean information out of the possessed body of Talia to no avail and Liv bails on the distracted exorcist. She confronts her mother about Jasper’s fate and not only gains the truth about her father but also a rude awakening into the spiritual world when she sees her long dead Nana is a gruesome state of disrepair. The vision drives her away where she again runs into Constantine, who has the job to tell the terrified young woman that she’s “waking up; seeing the world for what it really is.” With his help, she’s once again carried into the spirit plane where she watches as lost souls wander the landscape. “There are worlds beyond ours,” he explains, noting her inheritance of Jasper’s gifts, something even Constantine cannot view. They book out in the taxi where she asks Chas how her father died. “Bravely,” is Chas’s only response before Constantine cuts her inquiries short. A bit of musical distraction puts the trio in the way of a tractor trailer that t-bones the cab, sending it spinning out of control and…
It’s Astra, she’s beginning Constantine for help, pleading with him to make it go away. He tries protecting her but the demon holds strong, pulling Astra into the hellish nightmare of eternal suffering…
Liv’s pleas for help wake the unconscious demonologist as a live wire takes on a life of its own, trying to fry both her and Chas in the car. Constantine shouts an incantation that grants Chas the time to free the trapped Liv but the cabbie is speared through the chest as they try to flee. Constantine takes Liv to Jasper’s home, the one he sometimes stayed in when watching over her. It’s a fortress of the otherworldly, a place Jasper used for Divination and Scrying. Constantine discovers the name of the demon searching for Liv—Furcifer, who garners its powers through electricity. As he plans their next move, Liv discovers the blood aspects of scrying but is put on hold as Constantine pays a visit to Ivy University. There, he runs into Manny and informs the angel about Furcifer, a demon of the Inner Circle, one who’d need some serious help to cross over. The two once again argue over Constantine’s fate though, Manny’s cryptic nature rears its head when he reminds John that he’s damned to hell…”at least for a moment, anyway.”
Re-focusing on the now, Constantine visits Richie, a former compatriot who was present for Astra’s unfortunate fate. He needs Richie’s help to hack a power grid, resorting to threats for Richie’s cooperation. Still suffering from nightmares and disgust at that night in New Castle, Richie tells his former friend “I wish it woulda been you John,” that was taken by Nergal. “That makes two of us, mate,” is Constantine’s only response.
Dabbling in her newfound abilities, Liv remains at Jasper’s cottage. She views her father in the mirror, one that connects to the past. Chas’s return throws her for an even greater loop and Constantine points out that “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” Supplies obtained, they put in the part of the plan where Liv’s used as bait. On the rooftop of an indistinct building, Constantine maps out a boundary sigil to trap and destroy Furcifer. Liv uses the downtime to get to know a bit more about the acerbic Master of Dark Arts (or petty dabbler) who’s surprisingly candid on his less than ideal raising. After his mother died giving birth, Constantine was the focus of his father’s jibes and abuse, resenting Constantine for the death of his wife. Their heart to heart is interrupted when Furcifer, hijacking the security guard’s body, shows up and heads straight for Liv. Trap sprung, Constantine begins his exorcism only to be confronted with his “future.” Furcifer comments on the exorcist’s “lack of intention.” Thinking it’s won, Furcifer is trapped when Richie shuts down the power grid, in effect negating the demon’s power. As a last ditch effort, it conjures the suffering Astra, promising to release her if Constantine removes Furcifer’s bindings. The ruse nearly works until Liv recognizes that it’s not the real Astra. Pissed off to the highest points of passivity, Constantine rages at the demon, promising that he’s “coming for Astra. Then I’m coming for Nergal. And you can pass that along…in Hell!” He exorcises Furcifer from this plane in a column of flame…the day has been won.
Dismissed from the scene, Liv gets a ride from Richie who fills her in on Astra’s sad tale. Possessed by a lesser demon, Astra was consigned to Hell when Constantine summoned Nergal in an attempt to pull the lesser demon from his friend’s daughter. We all know how that worked out for all parties involved. When they pull up to Edgewood Ave, Liv remembers the intersection from her scrying venture and find the bad tiding that visited the scene. It pushes her away from this life and Chas informs Constantine of Liv’s retreat to Cali. She’s left the necklace to Constantine as well as a scrying map highlighting points where bad things will be occurring throughout the country. Chas is more than Constantine’s road dog, he’s the exorcist’s conscious. He sees his friend’s guilt over Astra but remarks that if Constantine wants to “give her loss some meaning, then do something about it.” Manny reappears, upset by John purposely driving Liv away. But the angel is pleasantly surprised when the rude and antisocial antihero signs up to join in on the good fight.
“My name is John Constantine. I’m the one who steps on the shadows, all trench coat and arrogance. I’ll drive your demons away; kick ‘em in the bollocks and spit on ‘em when their down. Leave with only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack.
“I walk my path alone because, let’s be honest; who’d be crazy enough to walk it with me…”
And then the woman whose room is filled with drawings of our unlikely hero.
A Nod, A Wink, A Wisecrack
- Many fans of the original Hellblazer books raged against Keanu Reeves’s altered depiction of the titular antihero (though my own fondness for the 2005 flick has it firmly entrenched in my top 25 list of most rewatchable movies). With that said, Matt Ryan hits it out of the park in his portrayal. Chain smoking notwithstanding (something the movie did get right), Ryan embodies what I’ve read on Constantine. He’s an arrogant ass by all accounts but one who wants nothing more than to send demons screaming back to Hell. Ryan is masterful in crafting Constantine’s guilt, something always simmering just below the surface. The few times we are allowed behind the scenes, past the wisecracks, the pain and vulnerability on display pulls the audience deeper into Constantine’s mind, allowing the viewer to empathize with the character in a way many shows fail to do.
- The supporting characters, Chas (Charles Halford) and Manny (Harold Perrineau) provide their own boons. While neither is granted the screen time or depth of character as Constanine, they bring a sense of direction and varying degrees of strength to the show which will be imperative as Constantine faces off against the unknown.
- Overall, the series premiere did a spectacular job establishing the main character and his motivations without overwhelming us with information. True, events did start off fast and did not give the audience much time to absorb the goings on. Still, ‘Constantine’ succeeds where last year’s ‘Dracula’ failed. We’ve been given a concise story, one that doesn’t depend on uninteresting socio-political manipulations to drive the narrative. And, as mentioned, Matt Ryan’s performance is as complete as one could ask for as it pertains to a lead role. Big things are ahead, both for Ryan and his alter ego, John Constantine. Oh, the places they’ll go…
- And then there was the little Doctor Fate Easter Egg…