Paul Mescal battles a rhino in upcoming film

By Helen Bushby, Culture reporter

Paramount Paul Mescal as gladiator LuciusParamount

Paul Mescal plays Lucius, whose character was the grandson of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the first Gladiator film

The trailer for Ridley Scott’s sequel to Gladiator has dropped, showcasing several epic scenes, including a water battle in Rome’s Colosseum and Paul Mescal being rammed by a rhino.

All Of Us Strangers star Mescal plays Lucius, fighting for his life as a gladiator, despite his high status as nephew of corrupt former Emperor Commodus.

Sir Ridley’s first film in 2000, which starred Russell Crowe as soldier-turned-gladiator Maximus, won five Oscars including best actor.

The trailer opens as Lucius recalls his childhood memory, when ex-Roman commander Maximus battled his uncle in the arena.

“I remember that day. I never forgot it, that a slave could take revenge against an emperor,” Lucius says, before we see him in a flashback from the first film, being dragged to safety by his mother.

Paramount A rhino is ridden into action in the arenaParamount

A rhino is ridden into action in the arena

Here’s a quick recap of the first Gladiator film: the plot revolves around upstanding Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius, who was asked to inherit the role of emperor from ailing Marcus Aurelius.

But Commodus murdered the emperor and took the title, before killing Maximus’ family and leaving him a slave. Maximus rose up to become a gladiator, returning to Rome in order to exact his revenge.

World History Encyclopedia describes gladiatorial contests as “bloody entertainment… an opportunity for emperors to display their wealth”, where up to 50,000 spectators enjoyed “contests which were literally a matter of life and death”.

Some battles included wild animals – Gladiator featured tigers in the arena, while an angry-looking rhino with a bloodied horn charges at Mescal in the sequel.

It’s fair to say the first film caused a flurry of excitement among admirers of Crowe’s powerful portrayal of Maximus.

Given Mescal enjoyed a huge surge in his fanbase after he starred in BBC drama Normal People, it’s possible his role in Gladiator II may have a similar impact.

Paramount The arena is turned into the site of a water battleParamount

The arena is turned into the site of a bloody water battle – but are there sharks?

Paramount Denzel Washington as gladiator sponsor MacrinusParamount

Denzel Washington as gladiator sponsor Macrinus, tells Lucius: “Rage is your gift”

Lucius is undoubtedly reminiscent of the honourable Maximus, battling from below while having a much higher purpose.

In the sequel, Lucius has been captured from his home far from Rome, and brought there as a prisoner.

He becomes a gladiator, working for Macrinus, played by Denzel Washington, who sponsors fighters much like Oliver Reed’s Proximo did in the first film.

Lucius protects his birthright, saying he doesn’t know where he was born, adding: “I never knew a mother and or father.”

“You will be my instrument,” Macrinus responds.

It appears that the twin emperors now in place – played by Joseph Quinn and Fred Hechinger – are also corrupt. We see them laugh demonically while gladiators die in their mock water battle (which did happen in real life).

Lucius’s mother, Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen in the original film as well, watches with horror while her son fights beneath her, although we don’t know if she recognises him.

However we see her take him full circle, back to Maximus, by giving him a ring which belonged to the Roman general before he died.

Paramount Connie Nielsen as Lucilla, daughter of the late Roman Emperor Marcus AureliusParamount

Connie Nielsen plays Lucilla, daughter of the late Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Like the original, the film appears to be about the corruption of power, with worthy, embattled individuals taking on the might of Rome’s rulers.

Lucius favours “strength and honour”, while another Roman general, Marcus Acacius, played by The Last of Us star Pedro Pascal, says: “I will not waste another generation of young men for their vanity,” alongside footage of the emperors.

We don’t yet know enough about Pascal’s character to know where his morals fully lie.

The trailer ends with Mescal and Pascal battling in the arena, with the gladiator looking like he has the advantage, as he holds two swords crossed over the army general’s neck.

Paramount Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal fighting in the filmParamount

Mescal and Pascal battle at the end of the trailer

Initial responses on X were a mixture of both positive and negative, with some people excited for the sequel, while others said it wouldn’t be as good as the original.

Some fans spotted what looked like sharks in the water battle, with filmmaker Kyle Prohaska saying: “I’m all in on Gladiator II. I’ll go just for some of those insane sequences. Sharks in the arena? A rhino? Denzel? Come on. This is definitely one of those sequels nobody asked for, but this one looks better than most.”

Another post, from a user called @FilmmakerJeff, called the trailer “underwhelming”.

“I hate to report that I’m not a fan of the Gladiator II trailer,” he said.

“Terrible music choice, nothing from it gave me reassurance that it could be even close to as good as the original, and honestly, it looks like it could be pretty good at best. My hype meter dropped a notch.”

Paramount Sir Ridley Scott and Paul Mescal on the set of the filmParamount

Sir Ridley Scott and Paul Mescal on the set of the film

There was also disagreement on social media over the soundtrack, which was No Church in the Wild, by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

One user wrote: “In what world does the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator need Jay-Z and Kanye West? Stop shoehorning songs into trailers.”

Another in favour though, wrote: “That pounding hip-hop really works on the Gladiator 2 trailer. Fits so well to the era.”

Sir Ridley, who made 2023’s epic Oscar and Bafta-nominated film Napoleon, told Deadline last year that he made Gladiator II because “economically, it makes sense…

“I thought the [first] film was, as it were, completely satisfactory, creatively complete, so why muck with it, right?

“But these cycles keep going on and on and on, they repeat globally for the last 20 years. It started to spell itself out as an obvious thing to do, and that’s how it evolved.”

Gladiator II is released in UK cinemas in November.

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