To fight in the arena, you must have skill, strength and a physique I could never even dream to achieve. In Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, the prequel to the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, we see the posturing, deception and loss necessary to elevate the House Batiatus as Capua stands on the precipice of the opening of its great arena… More blood and sandals after the jump.
Quintus Batiatus, the lanista, lives in the shadow of his father. These are the beginnings of the ambition that will eventually lead to his destruction. His wife, Lucretia, still a hopeful newlywed, worries about her father-in-law’s approval, as well as his ability to remove her from the picture or even the pair from the Ludus. Lucretia’s gal pal Gaia arrives to help her navigate these troubled waters, but ultimately guides her towards a path of indulgences.
Much like Blood and Sand shows the rise of Spartacus, Gods of the Arena follows Crixus through his arrival and ascendance. This is not the (former) champion we’ve come to know, but a shaggy, unfocused Crixus. A new character, Gannicus, shows the charisma of a champion and inspires Crixus to better himself and commit to the life of a gladiator. However, despite Gannicus’s devil-may-care demeanor, he holds a secret love for Melitta that threatens his deep friendship with her husband, a pre-Doctore Oenomaus. Capua itself is also on the threshold of change as a smaller arena is currently in use as the larger venue finishes construction.
It was nice to see John Hannah return to the role of Batiatus after what happens in Blood and Sand. Though much of the returning cast is more innocent than we’ve seen, the ambition that will make soon make Batiatus a villain ambition boils throughout. Hannah’s charisma makes you root from him regardless. The flawless Lucy Lawless develops a more naïve Lucretia into the force we’ve come to know. Playing no small part in this Bacchanalian rebirth is her friend Gaia, played by Jaime Murray. Tough love comes in the form of Jeffrey Thomas as the elder Batiatus. Manu Bennett gives a real tour-de-force performance as Crixus. He’s initially unrecognizable, but slowly grows into his gladiator self. Stephen Lovatt brings Batiatus’ rival Tullius to thug life. He’s a gangster before the term was coined, finessing when possible and achieving his desires through brutal force when necessary without remorse. His crony, Gareth Williams’ peevish Vetticus, is also quite fun to root against. As a fan of the first season, it was nice to see a softer side of Oenomaus, and Peter Mensah delivers splendidly. Temuera Morrison provides as grizzled a Doctore as Oenomaus will someday be. Nick Tarabay’s Ashur displays the sneaky drive to be an honored gladiator we’ve come to love and loathe, but adds layers and understanding. What can I say about Gannicus? He’s almost a polar opposite of Spartacus, immediately savoring his time in arena battle. This revelry is a joy to watch, but it’s the depth that Dustin Clare brings in his relations with both Oenomaus and Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) that is most grounded and wonderful. I look forward to see how he returns for Season 2.
Is there excessive violence and sexuality in this series? Absolutely, there’s enough sex, money and murder to make a hardcore rapper blush, so prudes beware! What shepherds this series away from schlock is character performance and arc, emotional depth and drive. Ambitions and dreams shine just as much as they tarnish in the harsh realities of the arena and those closest to it. Each character decision ripples out and changes everyone. When you look through the blood, the craftsmanship is clear.
Audio options are English Dolby TrueHUD 5.1 and Spanish Mono with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish available.
Trailer for Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Boss, Camelot and Torchwood: Miracle Day on Disc 1 start-up. Three of the four episodes on Disc 1 (“Past Transgressions,” “Paterfamilias” and “Beneath the Mask”) are extended versions.
Disc 2 features episodes “Reckoning” and “The Bitter End,” both extended versions, as well as bonus features. 3D “Ring of Fire” Battle Sequence — Alas, I haven’t upgraded to a 3D player and television yet, but it’s there for those that have. Also on Blu-Ray Disc trailers for Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Spartacus Game Trailer (for Facebook), The King’s Speech and Sons of Anarchy.
Disc 2 Featurettes — Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena (an overview of the characters and arc of the six episodes), Weapons of Mass Disruption (a look at the prop weapons and their real-life origins), Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene (a six-minute breakdown of The Bitter End’s “ring of fire” arena battle), On Set with Lucy Lawless (a look at a day in the life of the actress and her sense of humor), 10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment (body facts accompany shots of dismemberment), Post Production: The Final Execution (a look at how visual effects and sound design create the final product), Enter the Arena: Production Design (a look at the creation of Capua’s first smaller, practically shot arena), Dressed to Kill (a look at the costume design behind the gladiator, Romans and women), Convention Panel (six minutes from San Diego Comic Con 2010), Arena Bloopers (five minutes of flubs and messing around).
I’d grown to care about these characters during the course of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. To see them take a few steps back, and to realize just why they are who they are, made the journey all the more fulfilling. Beautiful stylization, fantastic character studies, substantial story and a healthy amount of extras make this a great addition for fans of the series and a nice appetizer for newcomers.
FINAL GRADE: A