Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The film opens in Germania. The Romans are preparing for battle, and it's clear that Maximus is an enormously respected—and very competent—general.
Call To Adventure
Maximus is ordered to be executed, escapes, finds his family dead, and is sold into slavery. (Bye-bye, Ordinary World.)
Maximus is purchased by a self-proclaimed entertainer, Proximo, in Africa. When taken to his lodgings and forced to spar with Hagen, we know Maximus is being forced into the life of a gladiator.
Refusal Of The Call
Maximus really refuses a grand total of three important calls in Gladiator. First, he refuses Marcus Aurelius' request that he take over the reigns of power in Rome until it (Rome) can be made a republic again. Ultimately, he says he'll think about it.
Second, he refuses to be a gladiator. In Proximo's training facility, he simply stands there while Hagen hits him with the sword.
Third, he refuses to meet with Lucilla's friend, Senator Gracchus. Eventually, he resigns himself to all three.
Meeting The Mentor
After a triumphant battle in Africa, Proximo calls him in and tells him that he's pretty good as far as gladiators go, but he could be magnificent. They're heading to Rome, and Maximus will need to win the crowd to win his freedom.
Crossing The Threshold
Maximus starts to make a career for himself in the arenas in Africa. He's not willing to just stand there and get killed so he decides to the best he can as a gladiator.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Maximus has enemies everywhere, from the guys he faces in the arenas in Africa and Rome (especially Tigris of Gaul), to Commodus himself, who tries to destroy Maximus as soon as he finds out he's still alive and in Rome.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
Proximo, Maximus, and the other gladiators journey to Rome. Maximus begins winning the crowd (as Proximo's instructed him to do), and is that much closer to avenging the death of his wife and son.
Maximus can't get out of Rome and reunite with his army, unless somebody buys his freedom. Proximo doesn't want to let him go that easily (Maximus makes him a lot of money), and at first Gracchus is hesitant (letting a general storm Rome with an army is a big risk).
Maximus' soldiers will fight with him—he just needs to get to them.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Maximus realizes that he has enough friends still alive (Cicero and Lucilla are two of 'em), and that there are enough powerful people in Rome to help him dispatch Commodus. His freedom is purchased, and begins his escape.
The Road Back
Maximus' escape is thwarted, and he must face Commodus in the arena. He'll either win, and then become a free man, or die in the process. Either way, his days as a gladiator are numbered.
Maximus defeats Commodus, but dies in the process. He dies heroically, and his memory as a great fighter, and as the savior of Rome, seems secure.
Return With The Elixir
Maximus dies fighting Commodus, and he's able to reunite with his family in the afterlife.