Is A Gladiator Sequel A Bad Idea?

Are we actually entertained?

Gladiator (2000)
Gladiator (2000)

Rumours of a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic, Oscar-winning Gladiator have been floating around Hollywood since 2001, and just when it seemed that we would not be returning to Ancient Rome after all, it has now been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Gladiator 2 is indeed happening.

The cast is established (sans Crowe, apparently), the script is written, and set construction is underway. There are many reasons to be excited about this long gestating film. Director Ridley Scott returns to the helm and is bringing with him Janty Yates and Arthur Max, the original costume and production designers. Together, these three depicted the Roman Empire on screen in a way that has been unmatched before or since. The cast is also killer: recent Oscar nominees Paul Mescal and Barry Keoghan will star alongside bona fide acting legend Denzel Washington. What’s not to love?

Despite how quickly the team behind Gladiator decided that a sequel/prequel would be worth considering, it’s pretty easy to understand why we haven’t had one yet. If there was ever a film that it seems impossible to make a sequel to, it’s Gladiator, a film that resolves every plot thread and leaves no obvious form of continuation.

It has evidently been a struggle for the creative team to come up with an idea, best embodied in the borderline ridiculous idea that Nick Cave was commissioned to write by Russell Crowe. This would’ve had Maximus resurrected by the gods and forced to fight in battles throughout history, including World War II. The title it would’ve been given, Gladiator: Christ Killer, rings like some kind of bizarre fan fiction. Russell Crowe, upon first reading the script, rather dryly said “don’t like it mate”.

There’s also the inescapable feeling that Gladiator’s release and subsequent success was an irreplicable lightning in a bottle moment. A slew of historical epics were greenlit in its wake that tried to ape its success, but each one has either been not as good, or not as profitable. King Arthur was distinctly average and not particularly profitable. 300 and Troy were financial successes, but also total cheese fests. Alexander was such a failure that it sent Colin Farrell into a depression and drove Oliver Stone to retool the film a total of three times.

Ridley Scott himself has made four historical epics since Gladiator, none of which have reached its lofty heights. The director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is an unsung masterpiece, but is also a philosophically complex film that doesn’t have the same gut-punch simplistic narrative of Gladiator, and was famously butchered in its original release. Robin Hood, with its reuniting of Scott and Crowe, seemed like a sure-fire hit, but somehow managed to make the legendary figure boring.

Exodus: Gods and Kings has its fans but did not do well by any measure and was mired in controversy over its casting. The Last Duel was fantastic, but its tough subject matter and multi-layered narrative lost the studio more than $73 million dollars, even though it starred one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood in Matt Damon. When no filmmaker, no matter how acclaimed, can do what Gladiator did, and when even its original creator cannot replicate its success, perhaps it should just be left alone.

At first glance, Scott returning seems like reason enough to rest easy that Gladiator 2 is in safe hands. He has directed some timeless classics (Blade Runner, Alien) and despite the fact the man is now 86, he is still firing on all cylinders, turning out a huge number of movies, some of which have proven to be great (Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, The Martian, The Last Duel). But the keyword is some.

Scott is famously rather hit and miss, and appears intent on making any film that even remotely appeals to him. He has released 17 films since 2000, and at least half of them have either been financial failures, or not very good. He has only directed two films so far that are narratively linked to his previous work: his two Alien prequels. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are both interesting films but have intensely polarized film fans, and both feel somewhat separate from Alien itself, especially the former. He also produced Blade Runner: 2049, which is a great sequel and a great film, but directing duties were left to Denis Villeneuve, who, so far, is more reliable.

Gladiator will always be an awesome film. Gladiator 2 might be great, and who knows, maybe it’ll be just as quotable, epic, and badass as the first. There are few directors working today as talented as Scott and it’s clear the creative team wants to live up to the original. But it is evidently going to be very, very difficult, so let’s just hope the time it has taken will prove to be fruitful.

Many have ceased to bemoan the unending stream of sequels and prequels we see in cinemas these days and have just accepted it as the reality of Hollywood. At the end of the day, no amount of angry YouTubers can make the Star Wars prequels ruin the originals, and The Matrix Resurrections does not negate The Matrix. So, even if the film isn’t perfect, we will still always have Gladiator.

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