Monday, October 27, 2014

[Constantine] "Non Est Asylum" Review


I watched the leaked episode of Constantine around mid-July before I even started my Hellblazer comics diet on August. I'm not going to lie; seeing someone who actually looked the part play this well-loved charismatic cynical Brit occultist got me in the ovaries. I have the complete 300 issues of Hellblazer but never really had the energy to read them chronologically (shamefully enough, I tend to read the fairly recent ones just to keep up with what was current). But after the show's pilot, I decided that it's about time I read one of Vertigo's classic in the right order and treat it with the respect that it deserves.

Fifty issues read and reviewed here in this blog later, and I only had to wait three weeks before the official pilot "Non Est Asylum" aired on Friday, Oct 24th. In comparing the leaked episode from the official one, I must note that they only changed one particular scene and added two scenes at the end (if you follow the news, you'd know why this was done. I'd explain that later on in this review). Reading Jamie Delano and some of Garth Ennis in the first fifty issues of the series and then re-watching this finalized pilot episode have definitely affected my overall opinion and appreciation for the adaptation. It is worth mentioning that Constantine has been brought to the silver screen once, starring Keannu Reeves, and that was by far a polarizing film for fans. I would consider myself belonging to the faction that didn't exactly hate it. I was actually fine with that movie (though Shia Labeouf as Chas is an unforgivable miscast, I daresay). I was more than open-minded to have another TV show based on a comic character who is not a superhero this time, and one who is immensely scintillating at that.

To be frank, when I watched the leaked pilot for the first time, I was enthralled and also quick to overlook some awkward moments in the pacing and story itself. Now that I know enough of the source material, re-watching it again has made me slightly anxious and more inclined to examine the same things I dismissed in the first viewing. That's not to say I still didn't enjoy it, but my enjoyment was definitely not the same as before. Look, I'm hardly a purist. I can always separate the original canon from the adaptation on screen (hell, as a long-time Holmesian, I've gotten used to the alterations that every Sherlock Holmes-based movie or TV show have done) so I would still consider myself lenient in reviewing this pilot episode. However, there's going to be a discussion about the characterization of TV Constantine and the comic book one later.

This review will only be a SPOILER for you if you haven't seen the episode. If you have no intention to read the comic book series yourself yet also interested to know canon background, this review will hopefully enlighten you enough.

CANON TIMELINE: NEWCASTLE AFTERMATH


The opening scenes of the pilot featured John Constantine' voluntary submission to the Ravenscar psychiatric facility. He allows himself to undergo electroshock therapy. He talks to one of the doctors about why he was there in the first place. We get a creepy sequence featuring a possessed patient whom John subsequently exorcised. Said possessed patient left a cryptic writing on the wall which John easily decoded. And then we proceed to  the character Liv Aberline's first appearance where we immediately witness that her life is in peril (supernatural forces want her dead) and only John can prevent it as long as she'd trust him. So far, so good. The pacing wasted no time to introduce its lead (and his baggage), the damsel to be rescued and the chief conflict this episode will revolve on. As a premise, it was intriguing to watch unfold, but re-examining these elements would reveal that it's yet another typical set-up for any horror-based flick. Not that the formula doesn't work, it's just not fresh enough to hold up to its comic book counterpart.

The most invigorating aspect about Hellblazer and John Constantine as its central figure is that it defies the readers' expectations and has this uncanny ability to subvert horror tropes. The opening scene of the pilot did its best to capture foreboding and chilling elements that would keep the viewers at the edge of their seat but the pacing was also abrupt, eager to hurry along to get the story told without paying more attention to the best way it should be delivered. I'm afraid I'm going to have to raise my first complaint about how the show writers handled one of the most crucial plots of Hellblazer which was composed of the events in Newcastle and Ravenscar. In the show, the viewers became immediately privy of John's nervous breakdown and the specific details that caused it (the young girl Astra Logue whose soul he condemned to hell, and the demon who claimed her). Meanwhile, it took ten issues to get to the Newcastle storyline in the comics (and the build-up was delicious; it made me keep reading). When readers finally discovered what happened in Newcastle, it was so shocking and depressing, and it certainly painted John Constantine both in a repulsive and sympathetic light.

Unfortunately, viewers will never get to experience that dread. I'm sure we'll get an episode flashback where we actually get to see the Newcastle event play out, but it wouldn't be as surprising anymore. This is problematic because what happened in Newcastle is a big fucking deal for the way John turned out. It's the kind of past that has a long reach and has tormented John so deeply that he eventually lost his mind and had to commit himself to a mental institution. Ravenscar was treated with the same casual abruptness as Newcastle in this pilot. It's as if the show writers don't recognize why these two places (and the events that happened in them) are significant enough to warrant a build-up leading to their revelations. It also undercuts the complexity of John Constantine's struggles with his inner demons and the live demons he had to face (I have plenty to say about his characterization in the later part of this review so let's put a pin on this for now).


Look, I can understand the need to inform the viewers with the essentials but this is practically spoon-feeding them the climactic revelations which will only lessen their impact once we reach the episodes that would explore them. The blatant name-dropping of 'Newcastle' could prove interesting to a casual viewer but for someone who has read the comics, it's coming off tacky and heavy-handed. I wonder if this is because of the network this series is being broadcasted in that the show writers decided to cut down the meaningful exposition and narrative development that Newcastle and Ravenscar have to be told with. If this was HBO or Showtime, perhaps they'd have more creative freedom and wouldn't shoot their bullets far too early in the game. Perhaps NBC preferred a pilot that's more action-oriented that important plot points get told in the dialogue of the characters instead to save time, because what matters is that they keep the casual viewers interested with the special effects, jump-scares and gore that will entertain them.

Personally, if any of you want a formulaic paranormal adventure show then Hellblazer is not the material for that. The CW's Supernatural has claimed that demographic already but I speak as a fan of that show as well, and I can honestly say that it thrives more when their writers prioritize character-driven stories. Hellblazer is also a type of comic book series that works better when characters and their decisions (both noble and damaging) affect the plot instead of the other way around. John Constantine's existential angst and cases of cosmic horror are the compelling things I've devoured in reading the issues. Knowing this, I guess I'm just going to have to adjust my expectations for the NBC show.

I think the biggest drawback of the pilot was more or less caused by a certain young lady who didn't help propel the story forward. And this is why she was dropped as a recurring main character which was unfortunate because actress Lucy Griffiths would have been wonderful to watch in this show. Let's discuss that now.


PLOT OVERVIEW: LIV ABERLINE

 
The entire premise of the episode suffered mostly because of the original character that the show writers introduced in the story: Liv Aberline. I wouldn't have minded OCs if they were compelling enough to watch but Aberline fell short in many ways. Things are mostly happening to her and she has no control over them. She's haplessly going through the motions in a very inconsistent way too. One moment she's compliant and the next she's flippant. This happens a few more times for the rest of the episode. I was almost dizzy after it's all over. I don't think I liked or enjoyed her while watching the pilot and since the story mostly revolved around her, I think it's not far-fetched to say that she's definitely the major reason why the episode had a hollowness to it. This is more or less the fault of the writers, and they recognized that after a screen test at Comic Con. Griffiths wasn't given anything substantial about her role to put her teeth on so her performance also suffered and she was unable to deliver a believable and sympathetic protagonist who could join John Constantine and have adventures with. Initially, this was the plan. In the leaked episode, we see her taking initiative (FINALLY) and ready to use her psychic abilities to help solve a pattern of strange murders across the country.

When the writers decided to drop her character altogether, that scene was changed into Chas informing John about Liv's departure and the fact that she can't handle any of this supernatural nonsense. I can't say I was bothered with this. Liv Aberline just didn't hold up on her own and the revised ending of her character arc was probably the most believable aspect about her. Besides, that new scene also gave us a chance to see the interplay between Chas and John. Chas is definitely a crucial character since he's basically John's best friend (and frequent chauffeur) who knows the dangerous life that John lives and doesn't judge. I hope to see the two of them interact more as the series progresses.

I'm not sure I even want to touch the storyline about Manny the angel. I don't know enough about it (I believe this is also a show-based plotline) so I'll just let that play out in the next episodes and take it from there when I can discuss it in detail.


SUPPORTING CAST: Chas Chandler, Ritchie Simpson, Zed Martin

 
 
Chas Chandler, as I've mentioned above, is one of the few constant people in John's life who has never abandoned him especially in his time of need. This is a big deal if you know how the comics portrayed John's personal relationships with people--they're not flattering or permanent, that much I can tell you. The show did provide snippets of John's personality and how he acts in his relationships in his dialogue exchange with Manny the angel, and with that bespectacled gentleman with a curious Southern accent (Ritchie Simpson, I believe, given that he was there in Newcastle as he pointed out quite sharply during his scene with John). One of the most engrossing yet also a very upsetting aspect of John's characterization earlier in the comics is that he is, by black-and-white definition, a terrible friend who uses and then gets his loved ones KILLED indirectly or often because he's just far too self-absorbed with his bullshit to notice (POINT: This is where the events in Newscatle play up that integral part of his character). So it's a goddamn miracle and accomplishment for Chas to survive someone like John who has this nasty habit of outliving his friends. I certainly wish the show would touch upon that delicate part of his characterization--although I'm not sure if a network like NBC would allow their leading man to be painted in darker hues. But, and I cannot stress this enough, HE HAS TO BE RENDERED IN SUCH DREADFUL COLORS.

That's just who he is; his flaws and mistakes are the foundation that Hellblazer was established upon. John Constantine is, after all, a quintessential ANTI-HERO whose selfishness and reckless decisions would drive the stories he is a part of in exciting and often harrowing directions and heights.

Other characters I can't wait to see are Papa Midnite, Jim Corrigan/The Spectre (who had been casted from what I've read online) and, of course, Zed Martin, the mysterious woman at the end of the pilot episode who has an enormous collection of John Constantine sketches. I'm curious as to how they will portray her. She's one of John's prominent girlfriends (but their relationship is secondary to her plot relevance in the later issues, actually). From what I can understand, the writers decided to replace Liv Aberline because they don't want a mentor-student angle for her and John. They claimed that they want a woman of equal to test and challenge John (are they sure they're not talking about Kit Ryan? Because she's the girlfriend who fits that bill, and hardly Zed). But we shall see. I do think Zed is a fascinating character but only after her story arc with John ended. But I won't talk about that here. That would be too much spoilers.


CHARACTERIZATION: WHITE-WASHED TO BE MORE ACCESSIBLE?

 
 
Matt Ryan looks so good for the part; all trench-coated arrogance indeed! He's also a newcomer in the mainstream acting scene and what a lucky bloke to land such an influential role. I can only hope and pray for the best things to come from his casting especially since I think he nailed the presence and attitude the entire time he was on screen, including the moments he showed surprising vulnerability. It was exactly what I imagined a John Constantine driven to his limits would be like. As problematic as the pilot episode had been,  Matt Ryan's charming performance made everything pleasantly bearable. I think his enigmatic past, witticisms and connection with the occult are enough qualities to keep viewers invested enough to watch what happens to him in the next episode. I like Matt Ryan for the role a lot, but given the amount of criticisms I had in the earlier part of this review pertaining to the show writers' narrative decisions, I think I should also express my fears and anxiety for how they will possibly handle John Constantine on screen.

In the first fifteen issues or so of Hellblazer, what was so captivating about John as the titular hero is not because he is a decent human being with noble intentions to save people and fight evil. He's not Superman or Batman. He is an extremely flawed person who had committed foul mistakes against his own loved ones and often only survive brutal encounters with the paranormal because of his shrewdness and gift for deception. He's a con artist who lives in the fringes of polite society, occasionally concerned about those who are suffering terrible fates and is willing to help them, but more or less has "callous and cynical" as his default personality. But it's his worst qualities that often make him oddly endearing to his readers because they reflect our own darker inclinations when faced by situations beyond our control. John Constantine is a self-preservationist and it has cost the lives of the people closest to him. It's been a thematic aspect of his character; that anyone who gets close enough to love him will suffer a gruesome fate. And yet, poignantly and shockingly so, over the course of the comics he is revealed, after all, to be a decent human being with noble intentions to save people and fight evil. It just takes readers a while to unearth that beautiful core because the outer layers around it are corroded and have so much grime and blood in them that it's almost impossible to believe that he still is, on all accounts, a character you will root for to win against his demons (including the literal ones) and find happiness.

It's his evolution in Hellblazer that made this character so unforgettable and timeless. I only hope that the show writers keep that in mind and devote their time and commitment to deliver that fragile, complex characterization on screen. The stories themselves are only consequential to John Constantine's journey towards becoming the hero that I steadily and eventually fell in love with. I'm fearful that there will be some white-washing aspects to his character on TV. They did that with Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones because the grittier and morally ambiguous aspects of that character may alienate viewers who are so used to their heroes always doing the right thing no matter what. It's time to challenge people with their preconceived notions of morality. Nothing is absolute and definitive in the world, including the world of fiction, and most especially when it comes to what is good and what is evil. We all live in shades of gray and the inexplicable and absurd, and Hellblazer is a comic book series that is devoted to that aspect of living, and I certainly hope that Constantine will find its own voice while staying true to its source material's message and legacy.

THE EXCLUSIONS AND THEIR EFFECTS:

The two essential traits of John Constantine that might not make it on the adaptation, and hence what got people talking and complaining online are his chain-smoking and bisexuality.

I'm actually more concerned about the former because I consider the Dangerous Habits story arc one of the best stories that Hellblazer produced, and that mostly dwelled on Constantine's cancerous bad habit. I was appeased though when I read THIS ARTICLE where it was stated that the actual smoking will not be shown but it would still be in effect off-camera. This is due to network regulations, of course, which is understandable, as long as it's still established during the season that John is indeed a smoker. As for his bisexuality, THIS ARTICLE was a well-argued one concerning 'the erasure of bisexuality in pop culture' and I suggest you read it because I quite agree with some of its points. Personally, I have no strong qualms if John Constantine is not depicted as bisexual unlike a lot of people who have voiced how offended they are about this decision. I'm gender queer myself, and I have intimately related to John in so many ways that it has been really painful to read him in the comics (as shown in my reviews for each issue). But my connection with him has nothing to do with the fact that we're both bisexual. I'm at odds with this issue for now. From what I can see, Constantine always had more serious relationships with women. There was only one mention of the 'odd boyfriend' in one story and that was basically it.

No writer in the series (okay, there was Brian Azzarello but that was a universally agreed on 'crap' story) has taken time to explore that offhanded comment, which for me is a disappointment because John is such a complex man with unconventional values and philosophies so I won't be surprised if he is bisexual. I do think that the writers have driven themselves into a corner by publicly denouncing that possibility for their characterization of John Constantine because there really is no way of seeing that decision as a close-minded action that further contributes to the lack of gay or bisexual protagonists in a TV show. Only Captain Jack Harkness (John Borrowman) of the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is someone we can consider as the first successful queer hero but the show is obscure at best, known only to Whovians and other sci-fi geeks, and not exactly mainstream. I'm not saying that Constantine should aspire for that because there are truly more important things the show should focus on getting right than defining their lead's sexuality but my concern lies primarily on why they have to be immediately dismissive of the possibility of exploring bisexuality in John's character. I sure hope they would change their minds and realize that John is already an interesting and multi-dimensional character in the comics who can tantalize the readers and fans no matter what crazy and depressing story he's written in. I personally would find it refreshing to see someone of my gender identity and sexual preference be portrayed in a TV show positively and not merely serve as a gimmick to bait ratings during sweeps week or something.

Besides, there are so many fun possibilities to work that angle in the show. His attraction towards the same sex can be implied as the season progresses.  We could have him on scenes with other male characters that are ambiguous enough for speculation. This makes me think of the way the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class as played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively were depicted in the movie. Their relationship was homoerotic but it was still respectful of the characters and their importance to each other as friends and comrades. It doesn't need to be tawdry or outright sexual which I believe is the misconception when it comes to writing LGBT characters in a show dominated by heterosexuals. If the writers do change their minds and figure out a way to demonstrate John in that certain light which would even increase how mesmerizing he is as a character, then that would be swell. I won't count on it, though. Sadly, pop culture has a long way to go in embracing queer influence and presence.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

* The pilot had showcased the crucial plot points that the entire season will focus on for the next episodes, but the delivery of certain elements needs work. The titular character must prove himself compelling and sympathetic enough to warrant sustained attention both from the viewers and comic book fans who expect a lot more from this adaptation than the last one.

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