HBO Max’s ‘Pennyworth’ shows best way to rethink IP
“Pennyworth” is not exactly the same show in season 3 as it was during the first two years of its airing on the soon to be renamed Epix. What started out as a well-executed thought experiment – “What if BatmanThe kind guardian was a Bond-style government contractor when he was in his twenties? – gradually turned into something different. The opening credits theme has lost some of its orchestral flair, the show now has the unwieldy subtitle “Batman’s Butler Origin”, and the London surrounding its main character is absorbing more and more pastels. “Mad Men” by episode.
Yet with all these changes, “Pennyworth” is the rare bright spot amid a litany of confusing to fatal decisions for HBO Max in 2022 (a list that got longer and engraver just the last few days). The streaming service that, in its early days, seemed like a home to some, the spirit of creative freedom of its namesake, has quintupled in customizable series and movies. While these decisions should rightly have the TV and movie worlds worried about their respective futures, “Pennyworth” is proof that shows born out of IP games can still be quality programming. It’s an unexpected type of plan to make a show with source material DNA that doesn’t feel like a corporate dot-connect.
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1. It makes “bigger” characters normal.
Alfred may be the one named after him on the show. The most interesting ongoing case studies at “Pennyworth,” however, are the Wayne family, seen most recently in a mind trap death loop in fellow HBO Max’s standout Season 3 episode, “Harley Quinn.” While this show used an absurd setup to unpack the highly fetishized deaths of Batman’s parents in a more insightful way than virtually any DC property before it, “Pennyworth” finds its own intriguing and indirect way of bringing the people to care about the famous “Zorro” participants.
Yes, “Pennyworth” establishes in its corner of the canon that each of the Waynes were expatriate spies trying to hide their government entanglements from each other. Yet the pace of Martha (Emma Paetz) and Thomas (Ben Aldridge) going from flirty acquaintances to spouses gives them a way to connect that isn’t based solely on foiled storylines or breaking bloody dead ends. Even though their last name is what keeps them on the show, talking about billionaire fortunes and the Wayne family legacy doesn’t matter as much as whether they fall in love (with the worst possible timing) . Their moments of decline in Season 2 take on the kind of narrative zag that would be surprising in most other quasi-prequels. Here, for a show with a whole lot more than “getting to Baby Bruce” in mind, that’s to be expected.
Colin Hutton/HBO Max
2. There is no pressure for the main character to be like their predecessors.
It can’t be overstated how instantly at home Jack Bannon feels on screen as Alfie. It doesn’t take him very long in that first season to go from a guy picking up the Michael Caine accent for a test drive to someone cementing his own younger version of a well-known character. The name “Pennyworth” is pronounced enough over the course of the series that it doesn’t exactly mold a whole new character out of everything, but there’s enough in his charismatic spin about it that it doesn’t not content to slip into an origin story setting.
It’s something that writer/creator Bruno Heller had to avoid on “Gotham” quite regularly, nodding to past versions of rogues’ gallery members while giving them other reasons to be. be. This Alfie exists somewhere between triumphant superagent and mopey antihero. He has razor-sharp combat instincts that have saved countless lives, including those of the royal family. There’s a revolving door of women he likes in the upstairs bedroom at his mother’s. He takes jobs that are obviously bad ideas. He is stubborn, even sometimes irritable, especially when it comes to avenging the death of his loved ones. As much as this new sub seems like the show is trying to pass him off as something superhuman, it’s more that he’s good at making well-connected friends and getting out of tight traffic.
3. He embraces his own quirkiness.
Perhaps better than any other show of its kind, “Pennyworth” understands that having another worldview doesn’t mean it can’t craft a shared story. On the list of characters you’d expect to see in a Batman-adjacent prequel, “Aleister Crowley” isn’t one of them. Yet faster than you can say”strange angelhe appears on the periphery of the show’s opening seasons. It’s one of the tricks in those early episodes to creating a world that feels like a hallucination at times while keeping Alfie and Daveboy (Ryan Fletcher) and the rest of the crew grounded.
Nor is it locked into a particular style. The first season features a spy revenge sequence, while follow-up episodes were closer to a political thriller. After a Season 3 time jump, “Pennyworth” is in detective show mode, hunting down clues in a way that sometimes even gets the faint whiff of an “X-Files” vibe. The decision to have “Previously on…” intros narrated for every episode of this new HBO Max season is totally in line with the substance-inspired style that drives “Pennyworth” to expand its own possibilities.
Colin Hutton/HBO Max
4. Fascism is not just a plot or an aesthetic.
The show’s two Epix seasons laid the groundwork for an English Civil War, one that relied less on recreating real-world circumstances and more showed how the slow slide into authoritarianism is also happening in comic book stories. In “Pennyworth”, the political movement built from the Raven Society is activated by people who come closer to power. It mobilizes military power under the guise of charismatic leaders promising the preservation of a certain way of life. This message appeals to viewers and attacks their nationalistic inclinations. And, at the end of the day, the most dangerous people aren’t the surly ravers making dictatorship speeches, but the whiny fascists behind the scenes who like to bend institutions to their own ends before eliminating them altogether.
Is it strange that this devious political commentary follows episodes featuring the late Queen Elizabeth II staring at Alfie and his pretty little widow? Inevitably. Do the Prime Minister’s catchy words about the inevitability of freedom’s victory ring a little hollow? Sometimes yes. But even as “Pennyworth” begins to slip into a world of “people with enhancements” and indulge in gazing in awe at what these new powers can accomplish, there is skepticism about this power already. anchored in the DNA of the series. Watching this, unlike the next generation of this world, with a world-renowned vigilante at the center, will be a fascinating place for the show to spin as it continues.
5. It is not beholden to the rules of time, traditions or physics.
The show’s biggest global threat to date comes in the form of a tiny vial of liquid. Of course, it was a kind of allegory for nuclear war, the idea that controlling a weapon could help wipe out an entire population. It’s how the show’s characters resolve this threat — against the backdrop of a personal drama that Alfie helps stoke — that spawns Captain Blighty, the closest thing “Pennyworth” has now to a Super hero. The “Pennyworth” recipe takes a bit of the absurd and a dash of comic book logic, and the end product has delicious hints of both.
There’s no real reason for Black Sabbath songs to appear on this show a decade before they ‘should’ have existed, but ‘Pennyworth’ is driven by what makes it interesting rather than what makes it a nice addition to the big DC world. It’s the perfect guiding principle for a show where anachronisms don’t really exist. Along with broader expectations for future characters, “Pennyworth” sticks to the idea that there really is no wrong way to tell this story: no details too bizarre, no leaps in logic too important.
“Pennyworth: The Origin of Batman’s Butler” drops new episodes Thursday on HBO Max.
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