Gladiator is a film that deals with extreme displays of heroism, of bravery and sacrifice, loyalty and honor – but also acts of extreme villainy. The character of Commodus serves as a foil for the protagonist Maximus, emphasizing Maximus’s heroic characteristics: his moral rectitude, his wisdom, and his devotion to family and friends.
At the beginning of the film, Quintus remarks to Maximus, “People should know when they’re conquered.” Maximus replies “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” While Quintus shows haughty disdain for the barbarians of Germania, Maximus recognizes their shared humanity and their shared proneness to foolhardy displays of pride. Throughout the film, Maximus displays a capacity for sympathy and an ability to unite with others, in contrast with Commodus, who isolates himself from others. When he is forced to fight in the ring for the first time, chained to Juba, he works with Juba to ensure that they both survive, unlike some of the other gladiators, who disregard their partners or even cut off their hands. When he fights in the Coliseum, he organizes the gladiators to ensure the best chance of survival and even saves the life of another gladiator, putting himself in danger.
He is always admired by his comrades, from the beginning, when he is a respected general, to the end, when he is a lowly gladiator standing up to the emperor of Rome. Commodus, on the other hand, takes every chance he gets to ensure that he is not respected. When he first becomes emperor and meets with the Senate, he threatens Gracchus and alienates the whole Senate when he has a temper tantrum and storms out. He sees nobody as his equal, and thinks he is fit to be a dictator of Rome.
I found it interesting that another way in which there is a contrast between Maximum and Commodus is their behavior towards their family. There is very different imagery associated with the families of the two men. Maximus has dreams of his wife and son and keeps figurines of them with him at all times, always hoping for the time when he can be reunited with them.
Commodus has very different images associated with family – he has major daddy issues, to say the least. I think that Joaquin Phoenix definitely deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this film – he plays Commodus with the exact level of creepiness to make the audience very uncomfortable. At the time stamp marked above (34:37), a shot of a statue is shown looking on as Commodus murders his father, emphasizing the disconnect between Commodus and any familial love and affection. Later on, Commodus is pictured in bed with his sister Lucilla, although she makes sure he never gets to act on his sexual feelings for her. Lucilla’s son Lucius seems to be another object of Commodus’s misplaced sexual desire. As a side note, I found it interesting that Commodus is portrayed as a sexual deviant, considering some of the homoerotic undertones present in Spartacus, the forefather of this film. Both Commodus and Crassus have abnormal sexual desires, considering the far less accepting attitude towards homosexuality when Spartacus was made.
Overall, the character of Commodus serves as a foil for Maximus because he emphasizes Maximus’s valor and moral fiber.