“Pennyworth” Season 3: HBO Max Show is more than a Batman prequel

It’s an entertaining drama series that takes some DNA from comics, rather than the other way around.

“Pennyworth” isn’t exactly the same show in Season 3 as it was for the first two years of its run on the soon-to-be rebranded Epix. What started out as a well-executed thought experiment – “What if Batman’s friendly janitor was a Bond-style government contractor when he was in his 20s?” – has gradually morphed into something else. The theme of the opening credits has shed some of its orchestral flair, the show is now unwieldy subtitled The Origin of Batman’s Butler, and the London surrounding its main character takes on more and more Mad Men pastels with each episode .

But despite all of these changes, “Pennyworth” is the rare bright spot amid a litany of bewildering to deadly decisions for HBO Max in 2022 (a list that’s only gotten longer and more serious in the past few days). The streaming service, which when it debuted seemed like a home for its namesake’s spirit of creative freedom, has quintupled in brandable series and films. While these decisions should rightly make the television and film worlds concerned about their respective futures, Pennyworth is proof that shows born of intellectual property gambits can still be high-quality programming. It’s an unexpected kind of blueprint for making a show with source material DNA that doesn’t feel like a corporate piece of point connection.

1. It makes the “biggest” characters feel normal.

Alfred may be the one with his name on the show. However, the most interesting ongoing case studies in “Pennyworth” are the Wayne family, most recently seen in a mind-trap death loop in HBO Max’s standout Season 3 episode “Harley Quinn.” While that show used an absurd setup to unpack the much-fetishized deaths of Batman’s parents in a more revealing way than pretty much every DC property before it, “Pennyworth” finds its own intriguing, indirect way of getting people to care for the famous “Zorro” contestant.

Yes, “Pennyworth” notes in its corner of canon that each of the Waynes were expat spies trying to hide their government involvements from the other. But the pace of Martha (Emma Paetz) and Thomas (Ben Aldridge) going from flirtatious acquaintances to marriage partners gives them a way to forge a connection that’s not based solely on thwarting plans or breaking bloody standoffs. Even though her last name keeps her on the show, the talk of billionaire fortunes and the Wayne family’s legacy doesn’t grab as much attention as that they’re people who fall in love (with the worst possible timing). Her fading moments in season 2 take on the kind of narrative zag that would be surprising in most other quasi-prequels. Here it’s par for the course for a show that has a lot more on its mind besides “coming to Baby Bruce.”

Pennyworth Season 3 Thomas Martha Wayne

“Pennyworth: The Origin of Batman’s Butler”

Colin Hutton/HBO Max

2. There is no pressure for the main character to be just like his predecessors.

It cannot be overstated how instantly at home on screen Jack Bannon feels in the role of Alfie. In this first season, it doesn’t take long for him to go from a guy who takes Michael Caine’s accent for a test drive to someone who cements his own younger version of a well-known character. The name “Pennyworth” is said enough times throughout the show that he doesn’t exactly create a brand new character from scratch, but there’s enough in his charismatic twist that he doesn’t just slide into an origin story framework.

It’s something that writer/creator Bruno Heller on “Gotham” had to sidestep on a fairly regular basis, winking at earlier versions of members of the rogue gallery while giving them other reasons for being. This Alfie exists somewhere between triumphant super agent and grumpy anti-hero. He has battle-hardened instincts that have saved countless lives, including those of the royal family. There is a revolving door of women he romanticizes in the upstairs room at his mother’s. He takes jobs that are blatantly bad ideas. He is stubborn, even stubborn at times, especially when it comes to avenging the deaths of people close to him. As much as this new subtitle seems like the show is trying to make him something superhuman, it’s more that he’s good at making well-connected friends and getting out of tight traffic jams.

3. It embraces its own weirdness.

Perhaps better than any other show of its kind, Pennyworth understands that having an alternative view of the world doesn’t mean it can’t plot a common story. On the list of characters one would expect to see in a Batman-like prequel, “Aleister Crowley” is not one of them. But before you can say “Strange Angel,” he’s popping up on the fringes of the show’s inaugural seasons. One of the tricks of those early episodes is to create a world that feels like a hallucination at times while keeping Alfie and Daveboy (Ryan Fletcher) and the rest of the crew grounded.

It’s also not tied to any particular style. The first season is a spy revenge flick, while the sequels are more like a political thriller. After a time warp in Season 3, “Pennyworth” finds itself in detective show mode, tracking down clues in a way that at times even gets a hint of X-Files vibes. The decision to have alternate characters narrate the intros of “Before on…” for each episode of this new season of HBO Max is fully in line with the substance-inspired style that pushes “Pennyworth” to expand its own possibilities.

Pennyworth Season 3 James Purefoy

“Pennyworth: The Origin of Batman’s Butler”

Colin Hutton/HBO Max

4. Fascism is not just a storyline or an aesthetic.

The show’s two Epix seasons laid the groundwork for an English Civil War that relied less on recreating real-life circumstances and more on how the slow creep into authoritarianism works in comic books stories too. In “Pennyworth,” the political movement that grew out of the Raven Society is made possible by people who nestle in power. It uses military power under the guise of charismatic leaders who promise to preserve a certain way of life. This message appeals to television viewers and exploits their nationalistic tendencies. And in the end, most dangerous aren’t the snarling ravers delivering dictatorial speeches, but the self-pitying behind-the-scenes fascists who love to bend institutions to their own ends before eliminating them altogether.

Is it odd that this political commentary follows in a roundabout way on episodes where the late Queen Elizabeth II gives Alfie and his cute little widow googly eyes? Inevitable. Do the prime minister’s rousing words about the inevitability of freedom’s victory sound a little hollow? Sometimes yes. But even as “Pennyworth” begins to slip into a world of “People With Enhancements” and stares a little in awe at what these new powers can accomplish, there’s a skepticism about that power already ingrained in the show’s DNA burned in. Watching this world’s next generation take center stage with a world-renowned vigilante taking center stage will be an intriguing square for the show to circle as it progresses.

5. It is not bound by the rules of time, lore, or physics.

The show’s biggest threat to the world to date comes in the form of a tiny vial of liquid. Sure, it was sort of an allegory for nuclear war, the idea that control of a weapon could help annihilate an entire population. It’s how the show’s characters resolve this menace – set against a backdrop of personal drama Alfie stirs up – that produces Captain Blighty, the closest thing Pennyworth has to a superhero now. The Pennyworth recipe requires a bit of absurdity and a pinch 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,” but “Pennyworth” is driven by what makes it interesting rather than what makes it a good complement of the larger DC world. It’s the perfect guiding principle for a show where anachronisms don’t really exist. Aside from broader expectations for the characters yet to come, Pennyworth sticks to the idea that there really is no wrong way to tell this story: no detail too bizarre, no logic jump too big.

Pennyworth: The Origin of Batman’s Butler drops new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/10/pennyworth-season-3-hbo-max-show-batman-prequel-1234771528/ “Pennyworth” Season 3: HBO Max Show is more than a Batman prequel

Lindsay Lowe

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