Preview: Constantine 1×1 (NBC)

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In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, NBC. Starts October 24

I was remarking only yesterday how DC comics and adaptations in other media now have something of a reputation for gloomy grittiness. When did this start, you might wonder, given how light and breezy the 1980s Superman and 1990s Batman movies were (yes, they were. Don’t argue)? Some might argue it was Denny O’Neil’s Batman strips. Others might point to the mid-80s decision by DC to try to appeal more to adults than children with its comics, which led to ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’. 

But it probably began with a strand of DC comic-writing that began in the 80s and blossomed in the 90s with DC’s ‘Vertigo’ imprint, which was intended for ‘mature readers’. Many of Vertigo’s creations are still with us: Shade the Changing Man, Animal Man and Doom Patrol still crop up in DC Comics, although most people haven’t heard of them. They will almost certainly have heard of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – indeed, it’s the creation that introduced the world to Gaiman and even now, movie producers are trying to come up with a way to adapt it that can feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The other Vertigo character of note is John Constantine. Not truly a Vertigo original – Alan Moore created Constantine as an escort for another future Vertigo character, Swamp Thing, during that mid-80s ‘Crisis’ – it was nevertheless Vertigo and writer Jamie Delano who turned Constantine from a chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing, petty London street thug and Sting-lookalike with a certain knowledge of the occult into one of DC’s most popular, authentic and powerful characters in Hellblazer. Since then, Constantine has gone on to fight demons, devils and angels in his own comic, Constantine, as well as heading Justice League Dark. He’s even appeared in a movie of his own, played by no lesser and no less an inappropriate actor than Keanu Reeves:

Now NBC, which scored something of a critical, if not ratings success with ‘elegant horror’ show Hannibal, is trying to branch out into more conventional horror with its own version of John Constantine. Vastly more faithful visually and culturally than the movie, and drawing considerably on Delano’s Hellblazer run for its plot, NBC’s Constantine is nevertheless a horror show exemplified by the fact that its bad boy protagonist isn’t allowed to smoke on network TV in case it sends the wrong message.

Here’s a trailer.

About
Based on the wildly popular comic book series “Hellblazer” from DC Comics, seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult John Constantine specializes in giving hell… hell. Armed with a ferocious knowledge of the dark arts and his wickedly naughty wit, he fights the good fight – or at least he did. With his soul already damned to hell, he’s decided to leave his do-gooder life behind. But when demons target Liv, the daughter of one of Constantine’s oldest friends, he’s reluctantly thrust back into the fray – and he’ll do whatever it takes to save her. Before long, it’s revealed that Liv’s “second sight,” an ability to see the worlds behind our world and predict supernatural occurrences, is a threat to a mysterious new evil that’s rising in the shadows. And now it’s not just Liv who needs protection; the angels are starting to get worried too. So, together, Constantine and Liv must use her power and his skills to travel the country, find the demons that threaten our world – and send them back where they belong. After that, who knows… maybe there’s hope for him and his soul after all.

From Executive Producer David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) and director Neil Marshall (“Game of Thrones,” “The Descent”) comes a dark new thriller that proves fighting evil is a hell of a job.

Is it any good?
It’s okay. If you’ve never read the comics, then this might be a bit of an eye-opener for you, but if you’re a hardcore fan, you’re not going to be impressed by this weak, holy water-tainted, B-movie version of the original.

The show is really a two-hander between Constantine (played with multiple Northern English accents, none of them Constantine’s supposed Scouse, by Swansea boy Matt Ryan – he went to the same FE college as my wife, in fact) and the evil-noticing Liv Aberdine ( Lucy Griffiths, employing a slightly better, American accent), with Constantine using his magical talents to protect Aberdine from the mustering demons that want to kill her because of her evil-spotting ways. As with the comics, Constantine does this through a mixture of bluster and knowledge, motivated as much by self-interest and a desire to keep a promise rather than any real concern for Aberdine. 

Although Delano’s probably not seeing a penny from any of this, there are many references to his work in the show. Constantine is haunted by the ‘Newcastle incident’, as are his compatriots, including the taxi-driving Chas (Charles Halford) and computer hacker Ritchie (Jeremy Davies from Lost). His true motivation for helping Aberdine is to save his own soul, which was destined for Hell thanks to that incident but might still be up for grabs if he can help the angels (as represented by another Lost alumnus, Harold Perrineau) defend humanity from the devils. And if Constantine has to sacrifice others and do all kinds of questionable things to do it, so be it.

However, while there is plenty of magic and witchcraft, including one halfway decent scene involving time stopping, this is from the B-movie school of ‘white eyes means possessed, horns equals demons’ school of horror, rather than Delano’s more politically oriented and darker ideas, which touched on issues of poverty and even third-world hunger at various points. While there are plenty of Britishisms and a few laughs, there’s not much by way of horror or intelligence and Constantine doesn’t do anything that amoral. 

Ryan does at least make for a good Constantine, although Griffiths spends more time focusing on her accent and playing the innocent than on giving us the knowing spark that her Marion did in Robin Hood. There are a few magic moments of magic and if you squint hard enough, you’ll spot the occasional DC comics reference – Doctor Fate’s helmet even shows up at one point. But largely, this is no better, no more innovative, no more frightening and no more exciting than an episode of The Dresden Files.

Thankfully for it, Constantine is airing in the fall, because stacked up against Hannibal, it would look ridiculously weak and insipid. But maybe in the winter, with the nights drawing in, it might manage to find a few scares worthy of the original.