A point I’ve often made in movie conversations over the years, particularly about superhero films, is that they are usually only as good as their villains. Extending that point across other genres, I think it holds water. What’s the difference between a highly rewatchable movie and a solid film that’s worth the original watch or worse? The strength of the antagonist. Avengers: Infinity War, for instance, is about Thanos, the genocidal but weirdly intellectual titan. Josh Brolin’s work in that role within two viewings entered the movie villain pantheon for me, and in doing so elevated Avengers 3 (and, to a slightly lesser extent, its sequel) to Empire Strikes Back levels of historical cinematic achievement.
From Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men to Bodhi in Point Break, from Agent Smith in The Matrix to Joker in The Dark Knight, the heel makes the movie. The lesser the antagonist, the lesser the potential movie.
Case in point is Gladiator. Recently, I rewatched it for the first time in years and for the only time to date in a state of mind oriented toward rewatchability evaluation. What stood out to me more than any of the rewatchable scenes (tops among them being the initial glimpses of Rome at the Empire’s peak and of the Roman Coliseum, the re-creation of the Battle of Carthage, Maximus vs. Tigris of Gaul, and the climax) was Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Emperor Commodus. A lot of movie heels are somewhat relatable, adding a layer of depth to the storytelling; Thanos, for example, has an apt point about finite resources in spite of his extremist solution. Others are what they call in sports entertainment “cool heels,” like Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Some, like Darth Vader, are both. Commodus, though, is just a pure evil bad guy that you want to see get his comeuppance.
Commodus might be the baddest of all bad guys, in fact. There is no redeeming quality about him. He is not the least bit cool. Commodus is the worst version of any person, complete with a total lack of morality and incestuous feelings for his sister. He kills his father in a tantrum over not getting passed the torch, calls for Maximus and his family to be executed, and threatens to have his sister and nephew killed. To put it simply, Commodus is a corrupt and ruthless little brat. And my goodness is it hard not to jump out of your seat and clap when Maximus kills him in the climactic scene, no matter how many times you have seen the movie already. It evokes a visceral reaction. That is the mark of an exemplary villain.
Who would Maximus be without Commodus? We get to see the depths of the general’s psyche explored because the Emperor is so very unlikeable. The tears Maximus sheds, the anger he displays (“Like you mourned for your father…”), the sincerity, the ruthlessness…all of it…he is taken to another level (an Oscar-winning level) by playing off of Commodus. And we who love movies salute him.