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Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t a villain in Gladiator, and here’s the proof

Commodus seems a pretty nasty chap, but Ridley Scott insists Joaquin Phoenix's character in Gladiator is the one we should feel sorry for.

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator

Surely, the guy who sits on a throne and sends gladiators to their death just for the fun of it is a bad person, right? Wrong. Ridley Scott insists that Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix in the historical epic, Gladiator, is actually just a misunderstood man with daddy issues.

We’ve always known Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors around, but it turns out he’s so good at acting that he managed to convince Ridley Scott that his character was the one to root for.

Scott is on the promotional trail ahead of the Napoleon release date, but while talking about his new movie, the esteemed director has also been asked about one of his best movies, and has blown our mind regarding Commodus. “I saw him as the most sympathetic character of all, in Gladiator. He was a product of neglect, total neglect of a father that he adored,” Scott told Deadline. “Then finally in the film, the father would say, I’m going to neglect you even further. You will not be the prince of Rome.”

If you’ll recall, Commodus doesn’t take too kindly to that news. When I don’t get my own way, I might sulk for an hour or so, but Commodus goes straight to patricide. Even that’s not enough to get Scott to condemn his actions, though.

“The father realizes in his old age that he needs some form of absolute. So he does something fatal. He kneels before the boy asking for forgiveness. That was fatal because the boy has never seen his father ask for that kind of close discussion. So he suffocates him,” Scott adds. “So from that moment on, I thought Joaquin was the most sympathetic person during the movie. What he did and what followed, what came out of it, the nature of it had been created by his father.”

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Seems Scott is in the same school of thought as the poet Philip Larkin, whose poem ‘This Be The Verse’ begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.” Basically, if Marcus Aurelius hadn’t been so mean to his son, maybe he wouldn’t have turned out to be a murderous scoundrel.

I’ll be honest, I like Scott’s assessment of the character, and I definitely agree that Commodus was a product of his upbringing and environment. In the scene where he smothers his father, you can see the pain he’s suffering, which is a testament to Phoenix’s performance. However, I don’t think daddy issues are enough to save Commodus from ranking among the best movie villains of all time.

Joker might have been messed up by the streets of Gotham City, but he’s still pure evil. Thanos may have thought he was solving the universe’s issues by snapping away half of all life, but he was still a monstrous madman. Still, it’s these complex motivations and origins that add so much depth to our favorite bad guys.

Speaking of, why not look ahead to the Joker 2 release date for Phoenix’s next outing as the Clown Prince of Crime, or dive into our guide on the  Gladiator 2 release date for more from Commodus’ world. You can also catch up with what we know about Spider-Man 4, which’ll likely feature some formidable foes, too.