It’ll be interesting to see how films historians view the late 2010’s. The decade where comic book movies, primarily DC and Marvel properties, became at once the most expensive and the highest grossing films in the history of the medium. Where the cinematic titan that Marvel Studios has become stood on the shoulders of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to dominate popular culture in a way nothing has since Pokemon.
In a lot of ways, it’s impressive. The average Marvel movie has levels of both razzle and dazzle unseen in anything else the medium has yet to produce. They do things with CGI that were unimaginable before they’re creation and are now required in big budget movies. Hell, these movies almost single handedly took a subculture for children/dorks and made it the towering pop cultural force of the decade. It’s gotten to the point that in the year of our lord 2021, people on social media argue, in earnest, that comic book movies are the modern day version of ancient Greek myths. And they might be right.
Christ…that sucks, man. Mythology at least had a point 1,000 years ago. They were parts of peoples’ religions. They taught you how to live and tackled tough moral questions. You into plays? Paintings? Poems? Novels? Mythology from ancient cultures the world over has inspired some of the most long lasting examples of each of those genres. Not straight retellings, but telling those stories in new ways. You can slap a modern-day coat of paint on almost any well-known myth and have it resonate with a modern audience because those stories had something to say about the human condition, be ye from Rome, Cairo or Cleveland.
What morals do most comic books have to teach us? Iron Man was literally invented by Stan Lee as a joke to get his mostly young, counter-culturally inclined 60’s readership to root for a war profiteer. The first Superman and Batman comics were adventure stories for kids with precisely zero deeper meaning. Overtime Batman became a symbol of obscene wealth used to fuel personal vengeance and Superman is a bad day at work away from being the most bland doomsday scenario a CIA supercomputer can think up. Captain America was made to sell war bonds in World War II. Wonder Woman was invented by a bondage fetishist. That last one sounds pretty alright, but goddamn guys, is this the best our culture can come up with? Shilling forever war and the idea of an ubermensch? Black Panther is the best example of a film that this trend has produced and it’s essentially a story about an isolationist techno-monarch versus a guy who wants to use god-like technology to end structural racism worldwide. Spoiler alert: that second guy is the villain!
And I don’t buy that they’re just escapism or a power fantasy. Greek heroes had all sorts of powers, but that wasn’t a guarantee. They failed sometimes. They almost always die at the end. No matter how strong you are, there are forces beyond your control that can end your hero’s journey real quick. Super hero stories don’t do that. The villains never stay dead and the heroes always come back to life. Enough magic powers can save anything. Ancient Greeks would have called bullshit on that and so should anyone else that looks at these movies beyond the face value.
Speaking of which, the face value of these movies isn’t great. There’s like twenty of these movies and all but like three are indistinguishable from each other. They’re big, loud and colorless. Action scenes are almost impossible to follow and the talky bits in between can barely hold your interest as they drag you from identical fight to identical fight. Taken together, they’re boring. Not one of them is really worth re-watching unless you park your kid down in front of it to get a two hour parenting break. All the razzle-dazzle in the world can’t make a soul.
2012’s Dredd, starring Carl Urban, Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headly is about as far from a Marvel Studios film as one can get. Based on the nearly 50 year long ongoing series 2000 A.D., it tells the day in the life of a lawman from a distant, but not too distant future. Climate change and nuclear war have wrecked the planet, unemployment is like 98% and the police have taken control of the government to create a dystopian fascist state that cares solely for order has the world around it collapses. No modern parallels there. Judge Dredd is the best of these futuristic super cops (called judges). He’s biggest, meanest, harshest judge in Megacity On. A routine distress call at a massive skyscraper turned slum leads Dredd into a roughly 90-minute gunfight with several hundred gang members that run the place when the cops are away, rookie partner in tow. They go from the bottom floor to the top, massacring drug dealers along the way.
That’s it. That is the entire story. It’s simple and fun as hell. It trades the grand pseudo-mythic battles of Marvel movies for small, intimate violence between the four actual characters of the film and a sea of goons. The action looks great and the blood rarely stops flowing. Carl Urban acts his socks off despite the fact that you never see his eyes under his helmet. Urban’s Dredd almost doesn’t have a personality. And it nails who Judge Dredd is as a character. He’s more of a machine than a man, dispensing verdicts and bullets (in that order) and is almost psychologically incapable of seeing shades of gray when it comes to dispensing justice from the barrel of a futuristic gun. It’s the exact kind of person someone that embraces a fascist philosophy becomes, and Urban does it perfectly.
The film also nails the aesthetic of the comic. 2000 A.D.’s Megacity One is the city from Bladerunner minus the rain and whimsy. It’s gray and ugly, the inhabitants shambling grotesques in mind and body. Scarred, grossly overweight, prone to mindless self-indulgence. The exact kind of people you get when you’re forced to live in a box and subsist on food little better than garbage. Again, no modern parallels there. The film’s MegaCity One is a Wasteland out of Elliot, with no hope and no color besides red. It’s a not so far flung future that captures the brutality of a great dystopian film.
Ugly as it can be, certain shots are beautiful and interesting enough to be memorable. Characters under the influence of a time slowing drug (call “slo-mo”) see flashes of gore as crystalline globules that catch the light and shine like little rubies as Dredd tears a room full of mostly criminals to pieces. It’s a really cool trick for a film with a budget of like $12.
Lena Headley crushes as the psychotic drug kingpin “Ma-Ma.” She’s unpredictable, violent, and her backstory as an abused prostitute turned knife happy murderess gives her character some unexpected depth. In many ways she’s like Dredd: a product of her times, unable to solve the problems of her society that were unfixable long before she was born. A person only able to respond to barbarity with more barbarity.
Compared to a bigger budget movie, this film looks enclosed and tiny. All hallways and efficiency apartments. CGI villains aren’t to be found. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in visual power. Every bullet wound looks painful and the constant gun battles will get your blood up. For all Dredd’s lack of character, he represents the closest thing to what a comic book hero would be like in real life. Callously dispensing justice to those he views as little more than ants. It’s a super hero movie with the pretensions stripped away. It’s an ugly, simply cut, brutally perfect little gem.
Watch this movie. It nails perfectly the look and feel of Judge Dredd in comic form. Even if it’s not the best comic book movie you’ve ever seen, it will ruin most other comic book movies for you. It’s a good thing.