Video Versus: ‘Gladiator’ vs ‘Promising Young Woman’

Revenge movies are incredible, aren’t they? They can be on a grand scale or small and toned down, they can be set in modern times playing on societal feelings or set against the backdrop of some historical event, they can feature sympathetic characters who we constantly root for even though they will likely die and most importantly, they are deeply entertaining. On this edition of Versus, let’s examine two critically acclaimed films that feature completely different takes on revenge, Gladiator and Promising Young Woman.

Let’s start off with the protagonists; Gladiator features Maximus played by Russel Crowe, a former Roman general who was betrayed following the assassination of Rome’s Emperor by his son and is left for dead and solid into slavery while Promising Young Woman features Cassie, portrayed by Carey Mulligan who embarks on exacting vengeance against an entire system that failed her friend following a brutal sexual assault during college. These stories could not be further apart than they are; one is set in the days of the Roman Empire and sprawls across the landscapes of Germany, Spain, Africa and back to Rome and the other is set in modern times with the backdrop of the Me Too Movement and in an age where individual’s bad behavior is forced to come to the light. While Maximus’ journey is all about revenge, Cassie at one point abandons her plan to pursue love and actually begins to move forward with her life but is pulled back once she finds more incriminating evidence. 

As Gladiator opens, we are immediately introduced to Maximus, a general in the Roman Legion who commands the respect and admiration of those who surround him. Maximus’ presence is contrasted to the ambitious and often creepy presence of Commodus, the power-hungry son of the Emperor who murders his father after learning that Maximus and not him was named successor to the throne. Maximus immediately grows suspicious of the Emperor’s death and prepares to exact justice when he is betrayed by Commodus and is nearly executed but races to Spain to ensure the safety of his wife and son. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Maximus discovers his farm in ruins and his family brutally murdered. Following this, he is sold into slavery and trained as a gladiator to make his way to Rome and take vengeance on the false leader. As a gladiator, Maximus is able to pump up the crowds and dispatches his foes in entertaining fashion all while turning the masses against Commodus. All of it leads to a final confrontation in the Coliseum against Maximus and Commodus in which the latter has to resort to dirty tricks just to ensure their fight is remotely close to an even plane. Maximus prevails but tragically succumbs to his wounds while being honored as a hero of Rome. Gladiator remains one of the best blockbusters of the 21st century and offered a modern take on the classic “sword and sandal” genre films like Ben-Hur and Spartacus. It also turned Joaquin Phoenix into a bona fide movie star and immediately granted immortal status to star Russell Crowe who won an Academy Award for his performance. Gladiator offers a sympathetic and likeable protagonist who is facing nearly impossible odds to change a system of government, remove a dictator and avenge the murders of his family.


Meanwhile, Cassie in Promising Young Woman starts the film seeming as though she is just targeting assholes who want to sexually assault a drunk girl. However, Cassie feigns her drunkenness to confront these men and try to get at the heart of their issues. Her multicolored notebook contains the names and numbers of the men she has confronted and these confrontations do have a purpose; During her college years, Cassie’s friend Nina was raped and in spite of evidence and testimony, no justice was to be had for Nina and she was painted as promiscuous prior to her ultimately dropping out of college and committing suicide. The fictional story of Nina is reminiscent of the hundreds if not thousands of rapes on college campuses that go uninvestigated by the authorities or are vacant of any consequences for those who perpetrate these crimes. Cassie’s desire for revenge initially seeks to go after the system that failed her friend; she meets with a university administrator who refused to investigate Nina’s allegations of rape and convinces her that her young daughter is about to be assaulted. Cassie also meets with a former friend who led Nina to the party where she was raped but during this meeting, Cassie gets this friend incredibly intoxicated and allows her to stay in a hotel room while escorted by a man with less than honorable intentions. She then meets with an attorney who represented Nina’s assaulters but he has since left his law practice and has come to regret his actions that drove Nina to take her own life. Cassie is determined to obtain even the smallest bit of justice for Nina but at the behest of Nina’s mother, Cassie tries to rebuild her life and even finds love with Ryan, a former college classmate who at first seems sympathetic and caring but Cassie discovers that he was present at Nina’s assault and could have provided evidence to prove her allegations. Cassie then blackmails him into providing the location of Nina’s assaulter who is enjoying a weekend of debauchery at his bachelor party. Cassie infiltrates this party disguised as an exotic dancer and gets all of the attendees incredibly drunk so she can isolate her prey and tries to literally carve Nina’s name into his chest until he breaks free from his restraints and murders Cassie. However, Cassie had provided her location to the authorities and they are led to her charred body as her murderer and Nina’s rapist are hauled away in handcuffs. Promising Young Woman was a welcome film in the year that was 2020. Although it did not win a lot during the award season, Carey Mulligan received an Academy Award nomination for her performance and writer/director Emerald Fennell took home an Oscar for her screenplay. The film is a timely commentary as many prominent individuals are facing consequences for their deplorable behavior and features one of the most cunning and intelligent protagonists ever to appear in a revenge film.

The Verdict

So, the heroes in both of these films were successful in their quests for revenge but they were also killed at the conclusion of their journeys. Usually when we see a revenge story on screen, the characters have some understanding that this will eventually kill them and it is the rare exception where the protagonist will be able to continue their life. The most notable example being both film versions of True Grit (check out my previous Versus breaking down the two films) but Gladiator and Promising Young Woman feature protagonists who face their deaths admirably and ultimately achieve their goals. These breakdowns come down the idea of personal preferences and we should avoid any head canon theories. It is safe to assume that Cassie could outwit Maximus and that Maximus could kill Cassie but probably would not because he is an honorable man. Promising Young Woman offers a fresh perspective on a current social issue but also reminds us that the desire for revenge comes at a personal cost but Gladiator is a modern take on the old Hollywood blockbusters and manages to remain timeless after over 20 years. Gladiator is the perfect film for a movie night; it is epic, features classic performances from Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, showcases brilliant action sequences, has some of the best work from composer Hans Zimmer and if you are not moved to tears when Lucilla tells Maximus to join his family in the afterlife then you may be devoid of feelings. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button