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DC comes for Marvel on the small screen: a first look at 'The Flash' and 'Constantine'

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While DC doesn’t have quite the spread of TV shows and movies that Marvel has developed, it’s a few months away from launching three new series based on the lower-profile parts of its comics empire. Wednesday night, we got a look at the pilots from two of those series: The Flash, airing on CW, and NBC’s Constantine. Both have potential, but they couldn’t be more different – and neither is a sure bet.

The Flash ties into CW’s existing Green Arrow adaptation, and the protagonist, Glee star Grant Gustin, seems to nail the tone it’s going for: earnest and incredibly excited at its own geekery. The pilot quickly sets up Barry Allen’s rise to World’s Fastest Man: raised as an orphan after his mother is mysteriously killed and his father takes the blame, he becomes a quirky young forensic investigator obsessed with paranormal science. That is, at least, until he’s hit by a bolt of lightning from a particle-accelerator accident and wakes up nine months later with super-speed and accelerated healing. When he does, he begins to tie his newly discovered powers to the tragic events of his childhood.

Friendly melodrama with decent production values, a suspiciously handsome cast, and occasionally awkward special effects

The Flash feels like a prototypical CW show: a loose, friendly melodrama with decent production values, a suspiciously handsome cast, and occasionally awkward special effects — though for such a computer graphics-heavy show, its bright palette and lighthearted tone let it get away with a surprising amount. It might not have the polish of a big-screen counterpart, but it’s set up a lot of forward momentum and potentially strong characters.

The show quickly lines up a cast of archetypes: the tough but kind surrogate father, the childhood friend he’s hopelessly in love with, the decent but arrogant romantic rival, and so on. Their roles and dialogue, at least in the pilot, can verge on awkwardly generic, and those references to cronuts and twerking are going to feel awfully old by the time it airs in October. But the bevy of side characters keep the episode running quickly, and they’ll hopefully carry it through the rest of the season. The pilot splits its time equally between the police force and STAR Labs, home of the ill-fated supercollider and a group of scientists who are key to helping Barry discover his powers. It’s not really clear where the balance will lie between these two, but given how threadbare the forensic detective genre is at this point, I’m hoping it will tilt towards the latter.

Barry has good cause for angst, but the pilot is really about how cool superpowers are, even when they prove dangerous or fatal. Appropriately, it’s most comfortable in the super-science milieu of STAR Labs, whose characters are dedicated to the show’s most eminently reasonable cause: figuring out the limits of Barry’s abilities and who else has been affected by the blast. One of his researcher sidekicks is the lab’s conscience, reminding everyone of what she and others lost in the accident. The other says he’s there to "make the toys" — Barry’s super-suit and lightning bolt-shaped tracking sensors — but he’s essentially the show’s designated fanboy, completely enraptured by the sudden appearance of people who can run hundreds of miles an hour and control the weather.

Like many other elements in The Flash, the responsible woman / fun-loving man gender dynamic is dangerously cliché, but the pilot surprisingly manages to flesh both people out just enough to sidestep it. And the lab’s founder, Harrison Wells, is equal parts fatherly, coldly practical, and enigmatic — he’s the subject of a twist ending that people have been discussing since the pilot leaked last month. The show’s real antagonist right now is the elusive killer of Barry’s mother, but the pilot’s weakest area is its villain (identified by fans more vigilant than me as a revamped version of Weather Wizard), a bank robber hit by the same lightning storm as Barry. He’s the point at which the show’s broad characterization completely breaks down. I am willing to accept a sneering hipster supercriminal who looks a bit like the lead singer from Leftöver Crack. I am not willing to accept that he spends his free time sitting in a barn and declaring that he has become a god.

John Constantine is a manipulative demon-fighting misanthrope, damned to Hell because of a disastrous exorcism

The Flash feels like a CW show. What’s odd is that the decidedly darker, NBC-hosted Constantine feels quite a bit like a CW show too — specifically, the occult drama Supernatural. John Constantine, as seen in the long-running Hellblazer or a more recent rebooted comic, is a manipulative demon-fighting misanthrope, damned to Hell because of a disastrous exorcism. After receiving an otherworldly warning, he tracks down an old friend’s daughter, Liv, who’s being stalked by a creature that’s discovered her latent psychic abilities. While he works out a plan, he discovers that he might be able to save his soul after all, if only with the help of a slightly sinister angel played by Harold Perrineau of Lost and Sons of Anarchy.

That sounds straightforward, but the pilot can be incredibly busy. Constantine’s driving motivation is dealing with the aftermath of the exorcism, which left a young girl named Astra in the clutches of Hell. She was dragged there by a demon that he called up to fight another demon, and now he’s following the warning of a demon to save Liv from a demon, and… well, let’s just say there are a lot of demons, and it can get hard to keep them all straight. The pilot draws heavily from the comics, but with confusing changes. In Hellblazer, for instance, Constantine is committed to an asylum by police who think Astra’s disappearance looks a lot like a crazed murder. In Constantine, he checks himself in, apparently for the sole purpose of complaining about it and then leaving. You can come up with an explanation if you think hard enough, but it’s mostly just distracting.

Part of the problem is the apparently last-minute decision to drop Liv as the show’s female lead. In the long term, I think it’s a good idea: she’s not given much space in the pilot to do anything but look shocked and afraid. Even the re-shot ending, in which she decides not to join Constantine, seems more natural than the alternative. But it means that what’s clearly meant as a larger arc feels like a poorly resolved monster-of-the-week plot. The bright spot is "guardian angel" Manny. Perrineau is the hammiest actor in an already hammy cast, but he’s the only character who feels like he has a coherent long-term agenda, even if we don’t know if it will pan out.

For a show that relies on often mediocre special effects and makeup, Constantine can also be surprisingly stylish. Its costume design is stylized but not cartoonish, from John Constantine’s trademark trench coat to Liv’s slightly stuffy suits and fresh-faced makeup. The pilot isn’t creative with its demonic imagery, but it picks its locations well, from Liv’s desolate apartment complex to the top of a skyscraper. And Matt Ryan plays Constantine with the right combination of wisecracking charm, amorality, and world-weariness.

The quest to save Astra’s soul can carry the series a bit, but it’s got to be sustained on the strength of episode-to-episode plots, and it’s hard to tell how well that will go. The best parts of Hellblazer were either grounded in larger societal issues — consumerism, nuclear panic, Margaret Thatcher — or personal battles like lung cancer. If the pilot is any indication, Constantine will be a fight more against the generic Forces of Evil, and its protagonist will be a more broadly drawn antihero — before the pilot’s premiere, the series was criticized for erasing his bisexuality. The problem is, we’ve already got a show about wisecracking, wandering demon hunters. It’s even got its own John Constantine homage.

'Constantine' hasn't found its voice yet

The showrunners have spent months assuring fans that unlike the notoriously loose Keanu Reeves adaptation, the series will hew true to its source material. It hasn’t screwed up on that front yet, and I’m admittedly going into it with high hopes. But Constantine hasn’t found its voice yet, and unlike The Flash, there are fewer clear signs about where it will go.

Regardless, neither of these shows are the biggest test of DC’s television lineup. Fox series Gotham will be airing before either of them on September 22nd, telling the origin stories of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and others. But like Arrow, they’re a test of how well the company can introduce characters seen mostly within the pages of comics to a larger audience. How will this work out in the long term? We’ll be waiting until October 8th for The Flash, and October 24th for Constantine, to find out.