Constantine Premiere Review: Non Est Asylum

The first episode of Constantine, inspired by the DC Comics character, was a hell of a time. Here is our full review...

This Constantine review contains spoilers.

It can be reasonably said that DC television is currently ruling the genre world at the moment with the ratings success of the slowly improving Gotham, the continuing awesomeness of Arrow, and the near perfection of The Flash. Now, adding to this mitzvah of DC goodness comes Constantine, a very different kind of DC Comics series.

You see, until recently, John Constantine: Hellblazer was a Vertigo book and featured some of the most cutting edge horror ever to appear in comics from such talents as Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, and so many more that remained narratively separate from the DC Universe proper. Constantine could be the television home of countless dark horror and magic based properties that DC holds and potentially scratch a very different itch than the current superhero shows ruling our world. Constantine could serve as the entry point into the Vertigo Universe, and that is very exciting.

All I can say about the pilot, and this might be the ultimate compliment, is that it’s a John Constantine show with all the trappings and dark tonality one would expect. Now, don’t get me wrong, the realism of the Alan Moore Constantine can NEVER be fully realized outside of comics, he’s just such a product of his medium, but this series created an almost perfect replica.

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Matt Ryan is note perfect: a snarky, world weary, rumpled urban sorcerer barely hanging on to his sanity. He looks like John Constantine, and I know the character has only appeared as a static image (Keanu Reeves does not count…at all), but somehow, I got a sense that he moved like Constantine, too. Writers David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone captured something very much resembling the essence of the character and distilled him down just enough to have him carry the pilot.

Which is not to say the debut episode does not have its problems, it was paced strangely and it thrusts the viewer into the middle of the action in a very disorienting way, but these were pilot problems, and the grizzled charisma of Ryan carried the proceedings, distracting from any structural issues. The episode centered around Constantine trying to protect a young woman named Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths) who had inherited the power to see spirits and demons from her departed father.

The pilot used Liv is the POV character, allowing Constantine to explain how magic works in this very demonic world. The only problem was that Liv was not fully realized. She’s introduced lamenting her quiet life and wishing for a call to adventure. It’s obvious and cliché, and stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the episode. Ultimately, she added nothing to the show, which is probably why she was written out after the pilot was filmed. Griffiths did her level best but she had nothing to work with.

That’s the end of the complaining, because everything else about the episode just works. It feels like an homage to late ‘80s horror with its gritty realism and sudden scares. There were a few jump out of your chair moments like when Liv saw her long dead nana or the sequence detailing the sudden death of Liv’s neighbor Talia. The series seems to know how to do classic horror atmosphere with everything seemingly old, slightly broken and out of place. It has the perfect tone, and I look forward to seeing how far the series can push the horror envelope once it has its sea legs.

As for the rest of the cast, Charles Halford was great as Chas, the seemingly immortal man of few words that just happens to be Constantine’s best mate. I wasn’t really able to get a sense of Harold Perrineau as Manny, Constantine’s literal guardian angel, as the Lost vet’s scenes really just functioned as pilot-y exposition dumps. Speaking of Lost actors, Jeremy Davies (Justified) was his usual brilliant self as Ritchie Simpson, Constantine’s brilliant but reluctant hacker friend. All these characters play suitable second bananas to the man of the hour.

Considering Liv is going to soon be abandoned in favor of Zed, this pilot simply served as a vessel in which to introduce Constantine and his world. We learned about his world, his regrets, and his tragic past. It also introduced the character of Astrid, an innocent young girl who Constantine failed to save and now resides in Hell. The show evoked the Newcastle Incident, something fans of the comic will be very familiar with. We were similarly informed that Constantine’s mother died in childbirth and that his father was physically and mentally abusive as a reaction to the loss of his wife.

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So, Constantine confronts the demons pursuing Liv while we learn what makes this complex sorcerer tick. The opening exorcism in a mental institution did a great job establishing the character, his personality, and his abilities as well as the creepy as hell grittiness that permeates the 44 minutes. It’s hard to judge the series fully yet, but for now there is a show on the air that understands and celebrates the legacy of John Constantine.

As for the elephant in the room, no, we never see Constantine light up, but he does carry a cigarette lighter (and is seen putting cigs out), so the “Dangerous Habits” storyline you are all jones-ing for is indeed still a possibility.

Constantine should please the loyal fan and the casual viewer seeking a good scare on a Friday night. While suffering from an extraneous and ill conceived character in Liv and some typical pilot pacing issues, it is another triumph for DC and a welcome addition to network television as comics continue to conquer the airwaves.

Those Magic Moments

– Ivy University is where the college Professor Ray Palmer worked at when he wasn’t busting crime as the Atom. Now, don’t expect Brandon Routh to team up Constantine, but it was still cool to see the Atom’s alma mater mentioned.

– I know it was coming from the trailer, but I still peed a little when I saw the helmet of Dr. Fate. There’s a little plot point that they can’t get to soon enough for my tastes.

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– Golden age hero Ibis the Invincible has a relic stashed away in John’s lair, too.

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3.5 out of 5