On the Plot Holes We Finally Fall Into: A Requiem For My Perfect Love of ‘Gladiator’

Credit: Dreamworks

A “plot hole” is an oft lamented, and yet commonly misunderstood, mistake in storytelling. In standard movie criticism (especially on the internet), the term is used both excessively and incorrectly to describe any plot point or character moment a certain person finds dumb, ridiculous, or just entirely too convenient. For example, in the first Avengers, as soon as the nuclear missile Iron Man ushered through the Tesseract portal detonates against the Chitauri mother ship, all their soldiers fighting in New York City simply shut down and collapse, ending the entire battle in that one moment.

Critics railed against the ridiculousness of this, stating how these creatures seemed like organic life forms, as opposed to robots, so why would they simply power down when their ship was hit? Why wouldn’t they just keep fighting? Such an exceedingly advantageous development simply had to have been an unforgivable plot hole.

But was it really? Well… no, actually.

Plot Holes vs. Standard Dumbness

Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

The following is a thorough, detailed definition of what actually does — and does not — constitute a plot hole, taken from Urban Dictionary:

In a piece of fiction, a Plot Hole is a completely implausible occurrence or series of events that contradicts logic or previously established events in the story. Includes things such as unlikely behavior or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements/events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.
A Plot Hole is NOT a simple omission of information or unanswered question. These can only be considered a Plot Hole if said omission has no plausible explanation AND is essential information to the overall story’s outcome.
ACTUAL Plot Hole: In Batman Begins a microwave emitter is used to vaporize the water in Gotham to release a psychedelic drug that the water has been laced with. However, the microwaves would in all actuality have caused all of the water molecules in every human body to boil and kill everyone very painfully. But this does not happen in the movie.
NOT a Plot Hole: In The Dark Knight Rises, not explaining how Bruce Wayne manages to get back onto the Island of Gotham after it has been cut off from the rest of the world.
Credit: Warner Bros.

So no, the Chitauri folding like origami the moment their ship gets destroyed does not qualify as a plot hole because, at no time, was the audience informed — be it implicitly or explicitly — they wouldn’t do this in such a scenario. We were never told/shown what they were or how they operated, so them reacting like that was surely possible within the established parameters of the story. You can call it lazy, much too favorably expedient, or just plain idiotic, but you can’t call it a plot hole.

But what you can call a plot hole is any time a focal character in a tale behaves in a way that heavily undermines their established identity for the sake of plot convenience. As another example, the great Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is a movie that many people both appreciate and admire; it grossed almost three hundred million dollars worldwide, while also winning Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director. And yet the whole premise of the movie functions under what is, in my opinion, an unacceptable plot hole:

The guy we’re constantly told is a careful, cunning criminal acts like a reckless moron.

When Smart People Need to Act Dumb

Credit: Warner Bros.

Try to answer this question for me: Why doesn’t Nicholson’s character shoot DiCaprio’s in the head an hour into the movie?

I mean, let’s take stock here: 1) Nicholson’s Frank Costello is supposed to be this shrewd survivor with decades of experience in organized crime; 2) He comes to suspect there is a police rat planted in his outfit; 3) He knows DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan was just enrolled in the police academy mere months before joining his outfit, which was also right around the time he started seeing suspicious peculiarities in police responses to his activities.

“So it’s Costigan then,” says any even halfway intelligent human being, the second things start going awry. And yet Costello doesn’t, simply because the young buck once withstood about 45 seconds worth of pain and then swore on his mother.

Yup, if I was a successful organized crime boss who started seeing my operation get screwy within a matter of weeks, which were the same weeks I’d brought in a new guy who I knew had ties to the people I also knew were investigating me, I’d totally just be content with that minute or two I roughed him up and made him to swear to me he wasn’t a cop. Of course that’d be enough.

And yeah, there’s some dialogue addressing this here and there later on, another candidate Costello gets told about, and some other minor stuff that happens to make it all seem so complicated but, again, this guy is supposed to be an intelligent, wary crime boss with decades of know-how. Why would he take the chance? It literally makes no sense at all, except for the fact that, if he did kill Costigan when he should have, the movie would then be over. The plot needs him to not kill the new kid, so he doesn’t, despite how much it paints his character as a rank amateur, even while we keep being told he’s a highly capable professional.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a plot hole, and it has always taken me out of the movie entirely. To work, The Departed needed me to buy the idea of Costello not killing Costigan, despite having every reason to do so, and I just couldn’t. The premise of the whole story didn’t work for me based on that singular, gaping flaw.

The Plot Holes We Stumble Upon

Credit: Dreamworks

So what does all this have to do with the also great Ridley Scott’s Academy Award-winning film Gladiator? Well, to get right to it, I freaking LOVE that movie; it’s pure awesome. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. If nothing else, it has this scene, which contains some of the most ballish, bad ass work ever rendered to celluloid:

I actually watched it again just recently, to re-bask in the ass-kicking pleasure… before unfortunately, depressingly happening upon an incredibly significant plot hole I’d never noticed up until that exact moment, and doubt many of you have either — one that might have just put a HUGE dent in my ability to enjoy the film from now on. Remember this scene?

Of course you do; that’s the moment when the stuff gets really real. Commodus has discovered his sister Lucilla’s secret feelings about Maximus, as well as her desire to oust him from his imperial position in order to reestablish Rome as a republic. As such, he is now indirectly threatening her son Lucius — thus terrifying her into spilling the beans about the plan underway against him — so he can squash these plans and ensure total command over his empire.

But do you also remember how he happened to find this out, mere minutes before the scene? Um… Lucius told him, by shouting out for all the world to hear that he wanted to be “Maximus, The Savior of Rome!” To which Commodus then naturally queried “Who said that?”

The scene cuts next to Lucilla entering the palace after her plotting, before coming upon her terribly vexed brother, who’s now menacing both her and her child. This practically screams that it was Lucius’s own mother who told him Maximus was here to save Rome. To which, when I watched the scene this last time, I responded with an actual, audible “WHY?! Why would she do that?!”

Credit: Dreamworks

Because what do we know about Lucilla by this point in the story? We know from her father that she’s wise; we know from Maximus that she has a “talent for survival;” we know from her own mouth that she’s been living in a “prison of fear” since her brother became emperor and has only visibly gone along with him to save her son, whose safety is obviously paramount to her.

So then why in blue perfect hell would she tell him Maximus was the “Savior of Rome?” Why would this protective mother endanger her own son like that? Why would this talented survivor confide a secret THIS HUGE in a child, especially one that’s around the Emperor so frequently? Why would someone this wise now jeopardize the plan she had — up to this point — so cautiously crafted in such a careless, idiotic way for no reason at all?

Plainly put: She wouldn’t. That scene makes no sense whatsoever, given the pre-existing reality of the movie. Even if she just let it slip or he overheard her talking to someone else, the stunning level of flippancy either mistake would entail — within this life and death scenario — completely undermines the explicit point/purpose of her character. The only reason why it happens is because the plot needs her to be that dumb and/or absentminded this one time, after having well established her as being anything but those things, so her would-be revolution fails and the showdown between Maximus and Commodus in the Colosseum can happen swiftly. (That scene is inarguably still pretty great though.)

So this, too, is a plot hole, and a gaping one at that. For the duration of what was so recently, for me, a perfect ending to a flawless movie, I spent this time now thinking to myself: “They shouldn’t even be here; this makes no sense.” Encountering that plot hole forever changed the way I watch Gladiator; it’ll never be the same for me.

Consequently, the next time you watch a movie you really love, I’d advise you to be even ever so slightly on your guard. Because what I just learned — practically against my will — is that discovering plot holes isn’t merely the pseudo-clever act of those who don’t quite know what they are. It can also be a dark pit, just lying in wait to swallow your pristine adoration for a film whole.

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