In a post-Avengers world, it can sometimes be hard to remember the dark days of the mid-90s. A time when comic book story lines like The Death of Superman were hitting the mainstream media, most big-name properties were languishing in development hell, and the success of Batman Forever was about to give birth to the laughing stock that is Batman and Robin. It was a weird time for comic book fans; while Tim Burton’s Batman movies had proven that comic books and superheoes could make money, just getting a film off the ground seemed to be a struggle. Until X-Men in 2000, it was mostly independent and lesser known books that hit the big screens. Some did well (Men in Black, Blade, The Crow) while others were less successful, (Tank Girl, Barb Wire, The Shadow.) Judge Dredd was something of a mixed bag. Marketed more as a Stallone action vehicle with a Total Recall vibe, it was hated by fans of the comic and wrong for the action movie audience. The character wouldn’t be brought to the screen again until 2012’s Dredd. (Another film that deserved to do much better, but we’ll talk about that another day.)
So, what was it about Judge Dredd that upset people? For the audience unfamiliar with the comics, Judge Dredd was probably just too weird. Taking place in the distant future, the setting is Megacity One. This cramped metropolis houses half the people on the planet, surrounded by a desolate wasteland inhabited only by scavengers and mutants. So far, nothing too far out, but with a premise that comes off like The Road Warrior, Judge Dredd is more like Lethal Weapon meets Robocop. Dredd is a StreetJudge, the only real law enforcement in the future. The Judges are part cop, part courtroom, capable of investigating, enforcing and sentencing entirely on their own. Coming from the satirical British comic, 2000AD, Judge Dredd was originally intended as a sort of fascist parody of Dirty Harry. There’s humour in the concept, and both the comic and the movie explore this. Megacity One is home to cramped, bored, infighting thugs who are ruled by rampant commercialism and a lack of respect for their ridiculously harsh legal system. While the movie both revels in, and mocks Dirty Harry style justice, the goofy sci-fi elements were probably off putting too.
For fans of the comic book, the answer is a little bit more complicated, but as a fan of the Dredd books, I really think it comes down to taking the source material too seriously. The observation has been made before, but it’s worth restating, a lot of comic books fans are insecure. It comes, I think, of being attached to a medium traditionally thought of as intended for children. This shouldn’t matter. The Dark Knight Returns was in the 80s, the comic book world has moved on, and anyone involved in the medium either as an artist or consumer knows that it has all the range and style of TV or Cinema. The problem with this insecurity is that it often creates hostility to any interpretation of comics that is seen as also being for children. Most recently, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, an animated series that is probably best described as a tribute to the DC Team Up comics of the 50s and 60s was so maligned by armchair critics that the writers had Batman break the fourth wall to justify his own existence. What is most unreasonable about this anger is that it is usually predicated on the false assertion that the serious, the dark, the deep interpretations are the “true” ones. Bob Kane’s first Batman stories might have been gritty detective tales, but in a few years the books weren’t that different to the 1960s TV series. This didn’t really change until the late seventies. In that sense, The Brave and the Bold accurately reflects a much longer period of Batman’s history than a show like Batman: The Animated Series or the Nolan trilogy. This is coupled with a belief that the artistic value of the source material is so great, that any changes over the course of the adaptation are necessarily negative.
But what has this got to do with Judge Dredd? Well, 2000AD fans’ most common objections to the film were these. Firstly, that Dredd removes his helmet in the film. In the comics, Dredd is never seen without his helmet. This is because he is always depicted as a symbol of pure justice, and never as a man. Secondly, that everything was too funny. Rob Schneider is a comedy sidekick, the city has a lot of jokes and everything feels like it’s poking fun of the action. Y’know, like Robocop. Thirdly, that Dredd was not the lethal, ends of the earth, shoot first and ask questions later Lawman of the books. I would argue that in every one of these examples, the problem is a very selective reading of the source material and an overzealous need to adhere to the purity of the comic.
The easiest to deal with is the helmet. This is probably the best criticism, partly because it does represent a notable change from the character in a comic, and partly because it makes a handy soundbite. It is a simple visual and philosophical change that is easy to point to. It practically became a meme in discussion of Judge Dredd, and when Dredd rolled around with Karl Urban, the helmet stayed on. And frankly, I couldn’t care less that Stallone removed his helmet. When people ask me what I think the worst comic book adaptation is, I don’t even need to think. It’s Sin City. A terrible adaptation of a great comic. Why is it terrible? Because it isn’t an adaptation, it’s a direct translation to screen, and what works as a comic isn’t going to work as a movie. It’s why Wolverine doesn’t wear that mask that seems to defy the laws of physics in film. You don’t sit and read a comic for two hours, but you do sit and watch a movie, and staring into the dead look of a tinted visor gets tiring. It might not be true to the comics, but losing the helmet was the right choice cinematically.
Thematically, the film handles the helmet and Dredd’s role as a symbol of the law perfectly. He first appears wearing the helmet, his attitude is consistent with his adherence to the law made explicit through his actions, and his helmet is removed on two occasions for reasons consistent with the storytelling. (Though, admittedly, the second time the helmet stays off until the end of the film.) On the first occasion, Dredd is speaking to Max Von Sydow, who plays a father figure to Dredd. The conversation is played out after Dredd has come under fire for excessively executing gang members; Dredd shows no remorse while Sydow’s character attempts to humanise him. Sydow’s attempt fails. Later, Dredd’s helmet is removed when he is framed and incarcerated. In keeping with the comic’s theme, the helmet is taken from him as he is declared no longer a representative of the law.
The second criticism, that the movie is too humorous to be Dredd, is just flat out bizarre. We’re definitely into the realm of selective reading of the source material here. The truth is 2000AD is a humour comic, and Dredd has always been satire. The level of humour has peaked and fallen, that’s true, and in recent years the book has taken a more tempered and subtle approach to humour. As the influence of the american Superhero comic has become a bigger presence in the UK, Judge Dredd has become more of a Punisher type character. But when you look at the era that established Dredd, if you take the first ten years of the comic that gave us stories like The Judge Child, when you look at the arc that first introduced Judge Death and the Psychic Anderson, you see a real hodgepodge of tone and style in stories.
People want to remember Dredd’s first encounter with the Angel Gang, redneck cannibals that live in the wasteland, but they forget the story in which Dredd forces a Sweetshop owner out of business because he makes sweets so delicious everyone’s eating too many. Or perhaps the story in which the citizens of Megacity get caught up in a craze for bouncing around the city in a spray on, full body, bouncy ball. Who could forget the story where being ugly becomes fashionable and plastic surgery clinics open up to deform people on request. How about the year long arc where Dredd became Chief of Police on the moon? The one where the Chief Judge goes insane and appoints a Goldfish to a prominent position of power? The silliest Judge Dredd comics are far more absurd than anything in the 1995 movie, in fact I’d say it strikes a really strong balance between the more serious plots and the often very comedic elements of the comic. It creates a far more consistent, grounded in reality version of Megacity One than the comics ever did, and then did it *without* losing the humour. I think that’s something to be proud of.
Lastly, we come to Dredd’s character. This, I think, is one of the most troubling criticisms for me, because really it’s about violence. Dredd is often a violent comic. Not always. In fact, in the early days it’s made clear that Dredd has the right to use legal force, but he often avoids doing so. In later years, the level of violence has stepped up, but the nature of the character has always been his willingness to take extreme measures to bring clients in, and to use the maximum sentence possible where he can. The golden age of Dredd is full of examples of the character imprisoning citizens for graffiti, or littering or walking on the grass. It has less examples of Dredd killing for minor violations of the law. Executions are usually reserved only for violent criminals. This is preserved in the Judge Dredd movie, it’s preserved perfectly. In the opening sequence of the film, Dredd goes up against an armed gang. He executes every member of that gang, mostly in self defence, with a sentenced execution for the last surviving gang member. Then, he sentences Rob Schneider to life imprisonment for inadvertently breaking the law while trying to avoid getting caught up in the gang war. Later in the film, Dredd continues to follow this pattern until he is framed, at which point he sets about trying to clear his name, while still sticking to his belief in the law. This is Judge Dredd, every inch the man of the comics. But the moviegoers, the comic fans, the people concerned about theme and message and maturity, for some reason they always want more violence. There should be more, and it should be more visceral, and more visual and it should always be present because violence isn’t for children, and neither are comics. Which is a shitty way of deciding how a character should behave.
Judge Dredd isn’t a perfect film. Its dystopian future feels a little too manufactured, and the twists of its corrupt officials and human cloning plot aren’t always believable, but it’s a decent action romp. More than that, it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the comics, that manages to capture the spirit of its characters, the darker elements to the plot and the humour of the source and boil them down to a coherent vision. I’d even go so far as to say it captures Megacity One better than 2012’s Dredd. For the missteps it makes, I’ve always liked the film, and I’ve always thought that had the film done well at the box office in 1995, a sequel that made better use of the world would have been an excellent film. Sure, it’s corny and silly at times, but so is the source material.