A great hero needs a great villain. That’s exactly what Russell Crowe’s Maximus had in Gladiator. Joaquin Phoenix‘s Commodus was a slimy, conniving monster who made our skin crawl. We still hate him more than two decades after the Best Picture winner came to theaters. Which is exactly why we still love the character. That loathsome ruler is an all-time cinematic baddie. And his short time as Rome’s ruler is a cautionary tale for other big screen tyrants and scoundrels. Here are six timeless lessons every movie villain should learn from Gladiator‘s Commodus.
1. If you murder your father/emperor, don’t make it so obvious.
Commodus’ reign got off to a disastrous start when he made a huge rookie mistake. The problem wasn’t that he killed his own father, Marcus Aurelius. He had to. It was the only way to become Rome’s emperor. That’s Villainy 101 stuff and you can’t fault him there. But he failed the other half of that class’s final exam by making the murder so obvious.
Commodus realized his father already told Maximus his plans to make Rome a republic once more. You don’t inform your heir/son someone else is getting the keys to the castle unless that someone is fully aware of what’s happening. The famed philosopher-king wasn’t that dumb. So you can’t just kill the old man on the spot. No one is going to believe that “coincidence,” especially your greatest threat. You need to be more cunning and patient, like Commodus was later in the movie when he snuffed out the plot to free Maximus.
Villains kill people all the time, including their fathers and their kings. That’s a big reason they’re baddies. But the smart ones don’t make it so obvious they committed murder.
2. Never trust soldiers to kill your enemy out of sight.
Talk about another basic murder mistake. The only thing missing from the young emperor’s disastrous plan to kill his enemy was using sharks with frickin’ laser beams. Maximus, the most loyal soldier in the world, knows you just killed your father so you can rule. Obviously Maximus needs to die and he needs to die immediately. A stitch in time saves a knife in your heart.
Commodus did recognize this, and initially he made a brilliant move. He called for Maximus, knowing the general would never swear an oath to his new emperor. Boom! Now Maximus is a traitor and you have the perfect pretense for killing him, even though thousands of his soldiers surround you. But then Commodus made one of the dumbest mistakes possible: he sent soldiers to kill Maximus far away in the woods.
Fictional villains always—always—need to watch their enemy die with their own eyes. Never assume a few soldiers or henchmen, especially ones too dumb to realize frost makes un-sheathing swords difficult, will get the job done. Make it simple. Kill your enemy in front of you and then burn the body. Your movie will end much faster, but you’ll be good to go as a villain.
This lesson also applies for protagonists. Stop walking away from the serial killer you think is dead. Confirm. Then confirm again. And then confirm the confirmation.
The Inigo Montoya Corollary: If your dead enemy has a son, daughter, parent, or best friend, make sure you murder them too. Lest you create a new archenemy that will come for you in the future. (Even Commodus got this right.) If possible, make sure you watch the relative or bestie die as well. Rule #2 is really just so important.
3. When your nemesis turns up alive, don’t worry about public backlash. Just kill him.
The last thing any villain expects is for their supposedly dead enemy to be alive. And you definitely don’t think he’ll magically appear in the Colosseum as a hero before 50,000 adoring spectators. It’s a tough spot, for sure. We can forgive Commodus for not killing Maximus right then. That might have caused a riot. We can’t forgive him though for letting Maximus live after that. Gather yourself and finish the job. Act like a professional villain. And the last thing you should do is let your foe return to the arena to engender more love and admiration. Do you want him to win?
Sure, killing Maximus might have caused some short term backlash. But a legendary soldier who just swore vengeance against you for murdering his son, wife, and emperor is a much bigger, immediate problem. You don’t need that. Murder him in his sleep, or poison the food of every gladiator. Just do something to be rid of him. (Make sure you see the dead body this time.)
Do what must be done and worry about the fallout after. Could Maximus become a martyr? Sure, but only if you let that happen. You’re the most powerful person in the world. You can easily buy the public’s loyalty by giving them bread and circus, winning another war, or building some free public baths. No one will care how your enemy died when you’re filling them full of free meat while they watch tigers and bears fight.
4. Incest is wrong for so many reasons.
We’re not going to explain the many reasons why incest is wrong. Everyone knows without being told. We hope. Find literally any non-blood relative to be romantic with instead. Especially when you can offer a potential beau an entire region of your empire. “You want to lord over all of Greece? Cause I can totally make that happen,” is a great pick up line.
To rule an empire you need loyalty, either because people respect you or fear you. All power struggles, whether you want to rule Rome or sit on the Iron Throne, are hard enough. Don’t make things even more difficult by making everyone’s skin crawl when they think about what happens in your bed. You’re a villain, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a creep.
5. Never face off against your sworn enemy in one-on-one combat.
Do you want to look cool or do you want to live a long life? It’s a simple question, and yet Commodus got the answer wrong. After ensuring Maximus became the greatest folk hero in the world, the emperor quadrupled down on all of his mistakes by entering the arena against him. Commodus thought he could beat the general in single combat, despite Maximus overcoming every obstacle so far.
And why did Commodus think this was a good idea? Because Maximus had been stabbed in the torso? That guy fought a tiger while simultaneously fighting a legendary gladiator. He can deal with a wound like that. Especially when he’s full of righteous hatred.
Movie villains should never give their enemy the one thing they want. They’re desperate to fight you one-on-one. To do so is arrogant and foolish. Read The Art of War and avoid fighting your opponent on his terms. This is the whole reason you wanted power at all costs in the first place. So you can avoid these situations.
6. Remember to have fun.
Look, you’ve done some evil stuff to get to where you are. You murdered your father. Stole the title of Roman emperor. And killed many innocent people. Then you somehow let your single greatest enemy continue to live and grow in esteem with the public. We can’t sugarcoat it: you’ve been a disaster.
But the biggest mistake you made was when you stopped having fun. Being the villain can be the best. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want. Remember that. It will help your decision making. If you’re having a good time, you’ll want to see your enemy die. Not because it’s smart, but because it feels good. And you definitely won’t fight the greatest gladiator in the world when you’re enjoying his demise. Being a movie villain comes with lots of great perks. Don’t forget that.
Then you can come back for a sequel.