Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena [DVD] (2011)

DVD Review by Ursus

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena diverts from its titular lead character, and instead charts the social rise and moral fall of the House of Batiatus several years prior to the first season. Contained within six episodes are enough gore, sex and slow-motion special effects to assault the senses into submission. Despite what might be perceived as excess in that regard, this prequel nonetheless weaves some of our favorite supporting characters into an enjoyable tale of ambition, vengeance and passion.

I've been leery of prequels ever since George Lucas ruined my childhood with the recent filth he tried to pass off as Star Wars. But the producers of Spartacus: Blood and Sand had little choice. Lead actor (and now, sadly, late actor) Andy Whitfield was unavailable for the planned second season due to a bout with cancer. Meanwhile, the fans wanted new stories, and the remaining actors under contract wanted employment. The practical solution was thus to rewind the saga several years. Hence, Gods of the Arena. And it works. Mostly.

Lentulus Batiatus is the grandson of the first lanista in Capua. When his overbearing father moves out of town into semi-retirement, Batiatus takes over the family ludus. His ambition exceeds the grasp of his lowly social status; poor Batiatus secretly yearns for a career in Roman politics. But with the gladiator school as his only means of social currency, he and his scheming wife Lucretia seek to make a name for themselves on the local scene by playing to the crowd with their gruesome spectacles.

In this he is aided by a dear friend and fellow lanista, Solonius. He also has the support of Gannicus, his current champion, and Oenomaus, a former champion. Viewers of the first season know that Solonius is Batiatus's rival several years hence, while Oenomaus is the school's trainer rather than a serving gladiator. Meanwhile, Gannicus the Celt must give way to Crixus the Gaul, a lowly slave laborer who is destined to become the new champion (and rival of the future Spartacus).

Batiatus is opposed by Tullius, a shady Capuan noble, and his toady Vettius, a rival lanista. Lentulus' plans are also stymied by the return of his own father, an old-fashioned sort who views his son's unorthodox means of social climbing with disdain. That the paterfamilias disapproves of his son's marriage with a lowborn wife is also a continuing source of tension within the family.

Prequels are subject to anticlimax because we ultimately know which characters must survive to see their future selves. But watching how and why their past characters evolve into their assigned roles of the first season is where the tension and enjoyment lie.

Or one might be entertained (if not overwhelmed) by the visual feast on parade. Violence punctuates every second scene, with blood splattering and limbs flying. Sex punctuates the remaining half of the scenes - there is no end of pretty naked people of both genders and sexual orientations. Interestingly, scenes of sex and violence are often juxtaposed next to each other - lust and combat locked in montage, suggesting that both activities are borne of the same primal urge.

The acting is sufficient. I have no real complaints, surprisingly, given that most of the cast could be mistaken at first glance for bimbos and himbos. In particular, Jack Hannah and Lucy Lawless stand out for the venomous air in which they portray their characters. Their performances are in what large measure made the first seasons, and the same is true here. One wonders if the series will be able to survive solid footing without the interaction between them (as the events of the first season finale placed their continued presence into question).

But through it all, I believe the most striking thing about this incarnation of Spartacus is the dialogue. It is both high brow and low brow at once. Imagine if an English poet liberally laced his verses with the F word, and you have a picture of how the characters speak. But what matters is that they speak to the heart. Emotions are always running high, words drip with passion and menace.

The main problem with the series are twofold, both of which have been alluded to above. The first is excess. Does Lucretia really need a hot lesbian friend (many men are probably enthusiastically nodding their heads ...)? Do we need so much violence and profanity, even in a series about professional killers? The other is the curse of foresight common to prequels. The chess pieces are moving into predetermined positions, and you can hear them moving across the board. But what matters is if you have fun along the way.

Is Gods of the Arena as good as the first season? Not quite. But is it an enjoyable experience? Yes, if you let yourself be guiltlessly carried away in the fantasy. And it is all we have till the new season rolls out in early 2012. Make your offerings to the gods, for the arena beckons.

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