Some of the best movies have been victims of bad timing. Horror movie The Thing struggled to fill seats with ET and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan still playing, and The Shawshank Redemption just couldn’t cut through Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump’s historic theatrical run.
2012’s Dredd, an action movie based on the flagship character from comics publisher 2000 AD, suffered at the hands of The Avengers and the MCU just starting to realise its power. Focused on Judge Dredd, a futuristic cop enforcing the law in a dystopian city that’d make Ridley Scott proud, this comic adaptation didn’t have any heroic sacrifices or Norse gods.
It’s practically the opposite of Earth’s mightiest heroes really, following a fascist policeman with complete jurisdiction making a violent drug bust. But such contrast to Marvel movies is what made Dredd feel special, in addition to being a tight thriller movie, and in the years since it’s become more and more ahead of its time.
In the world of Judge Dredd, the judges are the law – judge, jury, and executioner to the people of Mega-City One, a sprawling, post-nuclear concrete wasteland. They dress in heavy leather, wear black helmets that obscure their face, and their response is swift, final, and usually bloody, a necessity of stunningly high crime rates.
Of these heavily-armed enforcers, Dredd is revered as one of the most fearsome, an unflappable purveyor of the legal system. He’s recognised by his iron chin, a constant scowl worn by Karl Urban for the movie. Suited up, jawline in grimace position, his Lawmaster bike fully fueled, Dredd responds to a call about some executed dealers in a slum apartment block.
He has the rookie psychic Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) at his side, and their investigation triggers pushback from druglord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who traps them inside the building. Knowing escape is up and through Ma-Ma, Dredd and Anderson begin their ascent.
A key element of Judge Dredd is that, though he excels in his field, he is just another judge doing his job. This is intrinsic to Dredd’s stakes, which merely pivot on whether or not he apprehends his target. If he does so, great; if he doesn’t, he dies trying – exactly how he’d want to go out. Ma-Ma isn’t an existential threat to the city, she’s just who needs to be arrested that day, and Dredd got the assignment.
Typical thriller screenwriting, employed by writer Alex Garland as a way of accentuating Judge Dredd as a vehicle for great action storytelling, and touching on the character as a satire of superheroes. We go in expecting John McClane on steroids, and while we get that, the film doesn’t revel in it.
The structure is procedural, with The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Raid woven into the second and third acts. Dredd and Anderson blast their way up floor-by-floor using Lawgivers, specialised handguns coded to their DNA. They manoeuvre around miniguns and massacred civilians to put out a call for backup.
When reinforcements are confirmed, Anderson wants to wait, but Dredd pushes them on. Not out of valour, but duty and dedication. He wants to get this done today instead of worrying about it longer than needed. Worst case scenario, he makes it easier for the next judge to ruin Ma-Ma. And rest assured, she will fall. Eventually all criminals do, it’s built into the narrative architecture.
The greatest weapon to any superhero is the decision for them to win. Whether that’s Batman fighting with the Justice League or Iron Man using the Infinity Gauntlet against Thanos, the story yields to their success because that’s what it’s designed to do. That’s why we enjoy this kind of fiction. They’re the goodies, and we like to see and create situations where goodies outwit and outdo the baddies.
Mega-City One and Judge Dredd take that to its logical end by placing an authoritarian, militant force in an environment so constantly erupting in heinous crime they are the only solution. The alternative, public executions like Ma-Ma’s where people are skinned alive and ham-strung, is so disconcerting, the judges are inherently justified.
To this end, Dredd is a major forebear to The Boys, Prime Video’s sci-fi series that rigorously skewers Marvel and DC’s capitalistic underpinnings. One could easily imagine Judge Dredd as some new gimmick used by corporation Vought that becomes worryingly problematic when he and Superman analogue Homelander start butting heads. If released now, Dredd could piggyback on The Boys’s fandom.
Over the course of three seasons since 2019, The Boys – also starring Karl Urban – has become one of the biggest pop culture TV series currently running, and part of that can be credited to how well it counters the MCU and DCEU. Premiering in the aftermath of DC’s Justice League debacle and at the tail end of Marvel’s Infinity Saga, The Boys benefitted from burgeoning franchise fatigue, offering a mean-spirited, comedic alternative to all the overblown cinematic adventure movies.
Dredd had the unfortunate luck of coming out right when Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were becoming global icons. The Avengers had just proven Kevin Feige’s concept of having several solo movies converge into an even bigger blockbuster, and audiences couldn’t wait for more. We’d get two Marvel films annually starting the year after, expanding into space for Guardians of the Galaxy, and new MCU characters arriving every instalment.
Cynicism, especially so hard-chinned, was a tough sell. Granted, the title didn’t help: to anyone unfamiliar, Dredd reads like bad wordplay. Yes, dropping the ‘Judge’ differentiates this version from Stallone’s awful 1995 iteration, but it relies too much on established fans to be understandable, and I say that as a near-lifetime reader of the comics. But I digress.
Brutalist concrete surrounds Dredd and Anderson on their mission to get Ma-Ma. Their uniforms sometimes barely stand out from the yellow and grey walls. Director Pete Travis, then known for ambitious political action film Vantage Point, treats them like lions in a maze full of rats. They know there’s no escaping the slums Mega-City One. Class mobility doesn’t exist, just more buildings like this one.
It’s all systemic repetition, from the uniform of the judges to the stock apartments. So regimented and neat and tidy and square and neutral, it’s no wonder people don’t fall in line. Their existence is all cubicles, pushing them to resist. That suits the judges just fine, because they wouldn’t be needed if the populace were quiet, not that they think critically about their role in society.
Even when Dredd is faced by corrupt judges, a sign his entire livelihood has become corrupted, he has no crisis of conscience. He treats them like any other lawbreakers and moves on. You could argue there’s some power fantasy in a cop policing other cops, but it’s just Dredd doing his job, same as always.
The drug Ma-Ma sells is Slo-Mo, a gaseous substance that slows down your perception of time to a crawl. Feelings, positive and negative, are heightened, as the user enters a euphoric state. Life is so fleetingly happy, people become addicted to artificially extending good moments by whatever means possible, even if it means facial scarring.
Citizens of Mega-City One need something like that because if they break the law, there’s no going back. They won’t get it from Ma-Ma, though, that’s for sure. She’s thrown down the atrium the same way she sent those dealers plummeting at the start, making a point of who’s the bigger threat on these streets.
No remorse, Dredd gives Anderson her passing grade and heads back on patrol. There are no heroes here, just the judges and their victims. Antithetical to superhero movies in just about every way, it’s an injustice that we might never get more unless we find some Slo-Mo.