With superhero comic adaptations proliferating all over the small screen, it was only a matter of time before someone noted the potential of DC’s Hellblazer as a television series. Its central character, John Constantine, is simply a spectacular protagonist; a complex, atypical, gritty and multifaceted antihero, and master of the mystical arts. Following in the successful wake of other horror series such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, a Hellblazer/Constantine show practically writes itself. Still … NBC? Not exactly where most comics fans would have expected to see John Constantine come to life on television. But we probably shouldn’t be surprised that network TV wants a piece of the lucrative horror genre pie, especially if they can create a show that turns into another Walking Dead.
This brings us to the Constantine pilot, “Non Est Asylum,” which aired Oct. 24. It’s a surprisingly promising hour of television for comics fans hoping to see a fairly faithful adaptation of the Constantine character, handled ably by veteran horror director Neil Marshall, who crafted several of the better indie horror flicks of the 2000’s, Dog Soldiers and The Descent. At the very least, it’s a far more sure-handed depiction of the character and his universe than the 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves, which was hopelessly misguided from the beginning.
We are introduced to Constantine in an insane asylum, receiving shock treatments in a desperate bid to forget certain aspects of his past. After a conveniently localized demonic possession, however, the viewer quickly gets introduced both to the basics of the British exorcist’s personality (bitter, snarky, rude and guilt-ridden), and abilities (magic and expertise in the occult). Driving out a demon convinces him of what he already knows—he can’t afford to sit around in the asylum when there’s evil encroaching on the world. Constantine is coming back to the streets.
Leaving his voluntary commitment, he reconnects with his ally/cab driver Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), who apparently possesses an odd power to survive otherwise deadly injuries—I’d explain further, but I honestly have no idea how, and the episode doesn’t even begin to explain it. Mid-episode, he gets impaled with a live power cable, and Constantine barely bats an eye, apparently aware that this is only a temporary setback. Later, Chas simply reappears with no explanation as to how he survived, beyond the fact that it’s one of his talents. It’s perplexing, but at least it explains Constantine’s lack of a palpable reaction.
The episode revolves around a character named Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of one of Constantine’s recently deceased mystical confederates, who has been targeted for assassination by a demon. She’s your classic viewpoint character, a walking audience stand-in who can ask all the necessary expository questions, like “How does this magical thing work; how do we defeat him; what do these newfangled powers do?” It’s storytelling 101, a little clichéd, but understandable in a pilot episode. Liv is essentially a blank chalkboard, an impetus for Constantine’s action. We ultimately learn very little about her, but learn quite a bit more about Constantine through his reactions to her.
Case in point: We’re privy to Constantine’s harsh childhood and his motivation to, at some point, find the soul of his mother, who died giving birth to him. Perhaps most importantly, we begin to understand the all-consuming guilt that drives him, because at heart, the Constantine of the comics is almost always defined by his guilt-wracked actions. Both there and in this pilot, the source is a terrible mistake he made in trying to perform an exorcism on a young girl named Astra. Calling in the assistance of a more powerful demon named Nergal (sure to become a regular antagonist or “Big Bad”), he ultimately loses Astra’s soul to the very creature he attempted to command. For this his soul has also been damned to hell, which a visiting angel named Manny (Harold Perrineau) makes abundantly clear. And thus, we have the base of Constantine’s motivations, both to clear his guilty conscience and somehow earn himself back into the good graces of heaven. It’s a compelling oxymoron, a man who does good deeds for a fairly selfish set of personal reasons in an attempt to buy his salvation.
The single most promising thing about the series, though, is the performance by Matt Ryan as the title character. He may look just a bit too well-groomed at the moment, but he radiates the correct disregard for authority and fatalistic gallows humor that the Constantine character demands. When he sticks an angel with what is presumably an extensive bar tab, that’s the moment a comics fan should know that the writers have a decent idea of what this character symbolizes.
“Non Est Asylum” does a good job of establishing the show’s primary character. while glossing over the others, giving us a deep set of motivations while only hinting at where the story might go from here. Here’s hoping that. at the very least, the character of Constantine himself can remain engaging while picking up a decent supporting cast over the rest of this season.
Jim Vorel is News Editor at Paste and a long-time Hellblazer reader. He hopes they’ll eventually adapt the storyline where Constantine convinces the devil to drink some holy water.