The Film: Roman General is betrayed and sold into slavery, but returns as a Gladiator, intent on revenge for the murder of his family.
Why it works as a stand-alone feature: A perfect moment of filmmaking, from the script to the direction and acting, everything works and is perfectly contained in the film. Plus, Maximus dies at the end.
Where the franchise could have gone: Nobody from the original would reprise their roles, so they recast the parts with D-list soap opera actors for a series of straight-to-DVD prequels. Here’s how it went;
Gladiator: Rise of the Fenix Legions (2002) – A young Spaniard is assimilated into the Roman Army, and quickly rises through the ranks, gaining the unwavering support of his men through heroic fighting and wise leadership.
Gladiator: In the Shadow of the Empire (2003) – Maximus leads a troop of men into an unconquered foreign territory, only to fall fowl of a rogue band of Roman soldiers intent on taking over the Empire.
Gathering together the locals, they defeat the Rogue Romans and return the Empire to it’s former glory, before assimilating their new found friends and their countrymen. All is fair in love and war.
Gladiator: Assault on Africa (2003) – With the Empire stretched and the Army underfunded, the Emperor is desperate for new revenue, and sends his most trusted General into Africa to bring back riches.
What happens next is basically the plot of Zulu, with the hundred Roman soldiers slaughtered - only Maximus escapes due to his guile and cunning, and also because he knows how to make a raft from bodyparts.