After the success of spy-action drama Iris 아이리스 (2009), the people behind it predictably are looking to cash in with a follow-up by way of a spin-off named Athena: Goddess of War (Athena). As a spin-off, the world of Athena lives and plays by the same rules as those in Iris’s- structured with the same hierarchies, law enforcing entities, and realism (or lack of). But the similarities bleed eerily over to the real world too.
Both series are produced by Taewon Entertainment, a production house that prior to Iris only produced films and imported foreign films for the domestic theaters. This background serves them well in achieving the slick look and feel of a big budget movie for a weekly drama’s scale. Second, the title names of both dramas, ’Iris’ and ‘Athena’, are the central nemeses in each respective storyline. Both are secret menacing organizations out to threaten Korea and the rest of the world. Iris was touted as the priciest drama production at its time, at 20 million KRW (a little over 17 million USD) but Athena holds its own with roughly the same pricey budget. Location shooting in multiple international hotspots is also a feature trait of both productions.
Cast-wise, Athena’s cast runs almost parallel to Iris’s stature by stature. Iris boasts über famous hallyu actor Lee Byeong Heon (LBH) as its male lead playing a good agent in Korea’s National Security System (NSS). To match LBH’s star power, even interested Kwon Sang Woo (Stairway to Heaven, Sad Love Story and upcoming Daemul fame) didn’t seem enough. They sought after and against all casting odds wooed Jung Woo Sung (JWS) on board, LBH’s co-star in 2008’s Korean kimchi western film The Good, the Bad, and the Weird 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈! This fact alone makes Athena trump Iris’s cast (imoho). After a 15 years absence from television dramas since 1995’s Asphalt Man 아스팔트 사나이(which coincidently also co-starred LBH), JWS will be gracing the small screen again as a National Anti-Terror Service (NTS) agent. When Athena airs this coming November, JWS will be hot off the heels of internationally acclaimed director John Woo’s movie Rain of Swords 剑雨江湖 to be released in late September. This is much like when Iris aired soon after LBY’s impressive Hollywood debut in the commercial hit G.I. Joe in the sizeable and memorable role of Storm Shadow.
An agent is only as good as his target and the ensueing chase. For LHB, it’s Jeong Joon Ho who played his best friend but who gradually fell over to the side of Iris and became his enemy. Athena’s resident bad guy with trigger happy fingers will be played by Cha Seung Won, leader of Athena, an international terrorists group.
Injecting romance and fierce femininity into the stories are Kim Tae Hee and Kim So Yeon in Iris and Soo Ae and Lee Jia in Athena.
Kim Seong Woo’s character in Iris and Kim Min Jong’s in Athena are agents out of North Korea, except the latter is a defector. They are the mature anchors in their respective casts.
To complete the parallelism and draw some of the tweenager demographic a hawt-idol-moonlighting-as-an-actor is required. Iris gets T.O.P. from boy group Big Bang while Athena gets Choi Si Won of Super Junior.
For all its consciously made similarities, there’s one aspect the producers probably do not wish for. That is the perception that the drama didn’t meet expectations set by the strength of the cast, money poured in, and surrounding hype and marketing, even with the assumption it’s able to garner usually enviable mid-30s rating points. But that will be a giant self-dug hole to escape from.
Athena opens with the kidnapping then ransoming of the South Korean President’s daughter in Italy by members of Athena. NTS agents are called in to hunt them down and safely retrieve the First Daughter. From the steady flow of photo stills and clips released from the Athena set, expect lots of shooting, chasing, explosions, and arse-kicking amidst blood, confusion, and plot twists- some integral to moving the storyline, but plenty just because they’ll look real cool or appear smart.
Athena picks up Giant’s Monday-Tuesday time slots on SBS network.