It feels strange to write a review of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” right now, just a short few days after the untimely passing of actor Andy Whitfield, who played the titular gladiator in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”, the series that preceded “Gods of the Arena”. Despite the absence of Spartacus, and Whitfield, in “Gods of the Arena”, he looms in the background, largely because if not for Whitfield’s well-publicized battle with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the six-episode mini-series likely wouldn’t have happened. When Whitfield was originally diagnosed he stepped down from the show, a huge hit for the Starz network. While producers of the show frantically searched for a new leading man, eventually selecting Liam McIntyre, the idea for “Gods of the Arena” first came about. It will be curious how the series carries on without Whitfield. The more I watched “Blood and Sand”, the more he carried the bulk of the workload, and he will be missed.
For fans of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”, “Gods of the Arena” will come as a welcome addition to the cannon. All of the hallmarks are present—sex, violence, deceit, and crazy “300” style fight scenes—but somehow, and I’m not entirely certain how this is possible, everything is cranked exponentially. “Gods” is bloodier, nakeder (that’s totally a real word), and even more vulgar than before. For every beheading or disemboweling in “Blood and Sand”, “Gods of the Arena” sees that and raises. You see a lot of Lucy Lawless, but I swear to god, this time around there must have been a clause in her contract because she’s naked at least twice in nearly every episode.
“Gods of the Arena” is full of slow motion sword play and outrageous melodrama. Cheesy at times, occasionally bordering on silly, it is essentially an ultra-violent soap opera, but dammit, it is also a crazy good time. The glitz and glamour and gore and skin catch your attention and pull you in, and before you know it, you’re hooked. What I’m trying to say is that, if you don’t take yourself too seriously, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” is a lot of damn fun.
“Gods of the Arena” is a prequel to “Blood and Sand”, hence the aforementioned lack of Spartacus. You join familiar faces Batiatus (John Hannah) and his wife Lucretia (Lawless), and true to form, they’re out to increase their social standing. They scrape, con, and connive for every inch, but are met with resistance at every turn. The gladiators of the House of Batiatus, led by their charismatic champion Gannicus (Dustin Clare), are the best fighters, but politics excludes them from the choicest fights. What follows is series of violent, debauched plots to attain power; screaming, all out, life-or-death brawls between ultra-buff dudes that will make you feel sad that you didn’t go to the gym today; betrayals, lies, deception, double crosses, murder, and cover ups, that all lead to an absolutely insane climax.
You’ll recognize a lot of characters aside from Batiatus and Lucretia. You see the hustler Ashur (Nick Tarabay) before he walks with a limp, Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) as Batiatus’ best bro, Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt) before she was handmaiden to the lady of the house, and many, many more. For my money the most interesting part of “Gods of the Arena” is the Oenomaeus (Peter Mensah). During this period he was just a gladiator, one of the brotherhood, and not yet the whip-cracking hardass Doctore that he ultimately becomes. He is a wounded legend, with a wife, Melitta (Marisa Ramierez), and is tight bros with Gannicus. All he wants is to be able to do battle in the arena once again, a dream that may not come true.
My biggest issue with “Gods of the Arena” is that I feel like Crixus (Manu Bennet) is given the short end of the stick. He’s definitely present in the action, but there is little done with his character, and he’s just a one-dimensional caricature of what he becomes later on. He only has one note, he wants to fight for blood and glory, and doesn’t want his victories to be tainted—he wants to earn every scrap and scar and accolade. That’s fine, it’s a big part of what drives him, but it’s all he has in these six episodes. Every line he’s given is pretty much the same, and after a while you’re attention will wander.
You don’t have to watch “Blood and Sand” to enjoy “Gods of the Arena”, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you do. You’ll appreciate elements like Lucretia’s forked tongue that much more, and the show introduces a great deal that is taken for granted in the first series, setting up the world and providing a context for “Blood and Sand”. Ridiculous and absurd as the show can be, “Gods of the Arena” is a hell of a time for fans of big, bloody, epic violence.
The DVD comes with ten featurettes that range from approximately 15 minutes to two or three.
“Starz Studio: Gods of the Arena”—This is standard behind-the-scenes look at the show, with the usual background information, like how it came to be, the logistics of filming, and such.
“Weapons of Mass Disruption”—This quick look at the weapons of “Gods of the Arena” is one of the more interesting extras. It not only examines the props, but it places the various weapons in a historical context, as well as delving into the choreography of the fight scenes.
“Battle Royale”—Like I said earlier, the climactic scene is a massive, bat-shit-crazy, arena battle between two sizeable forces. Here they go into the practicalities of executing such a large-scale fight, including the boot camp every actor attended, and the choreography.
“On Set With Lucy Lawless” follows the female lead through a day of shooting on the set. She definitely plays to the camera, but it’s fun to watch her entertain herself by messing with production assistants and the make up people.
“Ten Easy Steps to Dismemberment” is basically a collection of ten particularly gory clips from the show.
“Post Production: The Final Execution”—“Gods of the Arena” is a show that is 75% digital, or some crazy number like that. There is extensive greenscreen work and camera trickery to give the show its trademark look and feel. Here they examine how the production employs technology to ramp up the visceral mayhem by adding elements like the sounds of blades slashing through flesh, or vibrant fountains of blood spurting from a severed artery.
“Enter the Arena: Production Design” takes a look at the elaborate sets that lend historical credence to the series.
“Dressed to Kill”—You can probably guess what this featurette covers, the costumes, or more importantly, the frequent lack thereof. The high point is John Hannah ranting about how his robes are rough and itchy. But he’s a funny guy, so it’s entertaining.
“Convention Panel”—This is archival footage from the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, where the producers and a few key players discuss issues like how “Gods of the Arena” came together.
“Arena Bloopers”—I expected this to be dudes messing up their fight choreography and accidently smacking each other upside the head, but it is mostly flubbed lines and actors playing pranks on each other.