Maximus: The Hybrid Archetype Hero of the 21st Century

Kristen Leer, “Maximus: The Hybrid Archetype Hero of the 21st Century”

The ideal hero has been subjected to change based on the ever-evolving values of American culture. Within the sword-and-sandal film epics of the 1950-60s heroism was molded into a particular image of American glory, honor, and duty to serve one’s society for the greater good. However, this genre of film came to a halt, apart from some scattered sword-and-sandal spoof films that were produced, until Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000) marked a revival of classical movies which attracted mainstream interest in the ancient world. It begs the question: What happened during this approximate gap of 30 years? There was speculation that the interruption of the genre was due to “stilted dialogue, predictable stereotypes…” etc. (Briggs, 2008). However, I argue that the change in ideals of heroism was responsible for the halt of sword-and-sandal films from the 1950-60s to the 21st century. Due to the counterculture occurrence of the 1960-70s, heroes who maintained traditional virtues couldn’t thrive or adapt to a rapidly developing American culture as it was these ideals that were being opposed. Despite the break, inspiration from the sword-and-sandal films can be noted in the 1970-80s sci-fi films. These, in turn, inspired further evolved ideas of heroism depicted through historical war films. An important evolution to be noted through these films is the ideals of heroism being reintroduced to American audiences. Monica Cyrino argues that “Gladiator reinvents ancient Rome,” but I propose that Gladiator instead reinvents the epic hero through hybridization of the traditional and counterculture attitudes that ultimately influence the 21st century’s relationship with heroes (2004). Gladiator’s protagonist, Maximus, successfully does this by evoking psychological insight into these heroes. As Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Commodus in Gladiator, says, “Now we care about heroes with flaws and humanity” (Cyrino, 2004).


  1. This is a very interesting topic, I wonder how it translates to Americans ideas of superheros and vilians in films from past to present. Thanks for sharing your research!

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