Two Sides Of The Law: Showdown In Megacity One

Who directed 2012's Dredd? Was it, as star Karl Urban recently suggested, really Alex Garland? What does it matter? And what do the differences with 1995's Judge Dredd tells us about the future of the comic adaptation?

Alex Garland is having a bit of a moment right now. His new Netflix movie Annihilation has been picking up some rave reviews for its fusion of psychedelic horror with heady, grown up sci-fi preoccupations. It’s officially credited as his second film as director (after 2014’s similarly cerebral AI morality thriller Ex Machina). However, you may remember Dredd, the 2012 adaptation of 2000AD comics character Judge Dredd, for which Garland provided the script. And, if recent comments from its star, Karl Urban, are anything to go by, Garland also provided much of the unofficial direction too.

Dredd was ostensibly directed by Pete Travis, but to quote Urban, recently in conversation with, “A huge part of the success of Dredd is in fact due to Alex Garland and what a lot of people don’t realise is that Alex Garland actually directed that movie… I just hope when people think of Alex Garland’s filmography that Dredd is the first film that he made before Ex Machina. You think about it in those terms; it goes Dredd, Ex Machina, Annihilation.”

As interesting as this is in itself, it got me thinking not so much about directorial control or who gets credit over what, but rather about Dredd itself: a stark, bloody, breathlessly efficient action movie which, in hindsight (should Urban’s comments be true), does actually fit neatly with Garland’s fondness for flashy, smartly-delivered B-movie conceits. More specifically, it got me thinking about how it currently has a reputation as the ‘good’ adaptation of the stone-chinned 2000AD lawman.

Yes, Dredd is actually the second time its title character has been adapted onscreen; the first attempt was of course the much-maligned 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd. These two films are especially interesting when taken together as examples of how comic book characters can be adapted in very different ways from one interpretation to the next, and what this says about comic adaptation generally.

First off, it’s worth digging into exactly why the Stallone film is so often lambasted while the later adaptation is held in such high regard. Judge Dredd is a big dumb action movie, with an emphasis on ‘dumb’. But it’s really no more stupid than many other action movies (even when just compared to some of the other stuff from Stallone’s filmography). Indeed, the charges levelled against it tend to stem not particularly from its faults as a film in its own right, but more specifically its faults as an adaptation of its title character, exposing some of the peculiar demands made of comic book fans when it comes to adaptations of that medium.

I write this as a huge comic book fan myself – a Judge Dredd fan, at that – and so I have some sympathy for this. In much the same way that seeing Batman using guns in Batman v Superman left me feeling more angry and upset than I should maybe admit to, I can understand how hardcore Judge Dredd fans would be angered by details such as Dredd removing his iconic helmet in the Stallone film (we still haven’t seen Dredd’s face in the comics after over forty years), and particularly that it’d be Rocky Balboa himself under there.

That said, the film actually gets a lot right about the world Dredd inhabits, at least visually. His city, Mega-City One, is recreated extremely faithfully in all of it blocky, high-tech grimy glory. The wonderfully goofy, impractical outfits the Judges wear are about as close to perfectly replicated as they could be in live action while still allowing an actual human being to move around in them. Characters and storylines from the comics are dutifully touched on. It’s interesting that a common complaint about ‘bad’ comic book adaptations is that the look of the source material is somehow incorrect, and yet in this regard, Judge Dredd actually succeeds quite nicely.

It does however lean too heavily on its attempts to be funny (giving Dredd a habit of saying “I knew you’d say that” as a dry, pithy catchphrase; Rob Schneider… being Rob Schneider), and crucially betrays a lot of the actual character of Judge Dredd. The faceless fascist of the comics becomes an altogether more palatable action hero – to placate, presumably, the ego of the film’s star, who had more control over the direction of the film than he perhaps should’ve been allowed.

The 2012 Dredd, on the other hand, is not as obviously faithful an adaptation of the source material, at least on a superficial visual level. Urban’s Dredd keeps the helmet on, sure, but otherwise the film is more a straightforward, protracted action set-piece with far less of the specific world-building stuff of the Stallone effort (here, Dredd and a rookie Judge – Olivia Thirlby’s Judge Anderson – scale a tower block which has been taken over by Lena Heady’s villainous drug kingpin, mowing down bad guys as they go. It’s an effectively brutal, lean story, but that’s really all there is to it). It’s the kind of fairly bare bones action movie setup which could feature in any number of films not specifically centred around Dredd as a character, and doesn’t seem quite as invested as the ’95 film in attempting to win over Judge Dredd readers by directly aping the setting and visual style of the comics.

However, what Dredd gets right is arguably more important. It may not be as visually faithful to the source material or as concerned with delving into the more superficial aesthetic trappings of the Judge Dredd comics, but it does maintain the ‘spirit’ of its title character far better than the Stallone effort. This is achieved mainly by keeping Dredd essentially blank; a faceless fascist who is dedicated to an abstract ideal of ‘The Law’ more than the protection and preservation of Mega City One’s citizens. This version of Dredd wouldn’t put up with Rob Schneider’s bullshit; he’d sooner sentence him for Unlawful Running of the Mouth.

There are brief moments of pitch black humour, but it’s played as very dry – nothing like the occasional mugging of the Stallone movie – and the film’s visual sensibilities are grittier and dirtier. Mega City One is not the gaudy megalopolis of the Stallone movie, but somewhere grimier and more lived-in. It’s also far more violent than Judge Dredd. Heads pop, bullets rend flesh in slow motion. At one point a couple of skinned corpses are thrown off the side of a building. Contrasted with the PG-13 nature of the Stallone movie, it is at points difficult to see much of a connection between the two as adaptations of the same character.

The fact that Judge Dredd nails the visual side of things from a ‘comic-accurate’ standpoint and yet the leaner, less slavish adaptation of Dredd is commonly seen as not only the better film, but crucially, the better adaptation, perhaps exposes the fallacy of blaming ‘bad’ comic book adaptations for simply not being ‘enough like the comics’ in some tangible, immediately discernible way. Could it be that despite the apparent obsession among comic fans that the properties we love so much be adapted exactly, down to a superficial aesthetic level, the more important component is simply a tightly constructed, well-told story staying true to the fundamentals of character and tone, rather than simply making everything look ‘right’?

Flippancy side, there is a strange relationship between what comic book fans ask for and what we end up latching onto when it comes to our favourite comics being brought to the screen. We love visual fidelity, but also form attachments to these characters which go beyond simply wanting to have them appear in comic-accurate garb, or strike poses in tableau images we recognise from certain comic book panels. There is a nebulous expectation that some purity of spirit be adhered to; that the feel of any given comic book property be respected when adapted onscreen.

A lot of Judge Dredd fans can’t get into the Stallone movie as – while it apes the visual sense of the comics down to a tee, and does at least make an effort to please fans with various references to storylines and characters they may recognise – it’s an adaptation in an ultimately superficial, surface-level way. It constantly tells the viewer that it’s a Judge Dredd movie because, hey, everything looks just like the comics!

On the other hand, Dredd (while showing a more relaxed attitude towards adapting the comics on a visual level) seems like a more sincere adaptation; something made by fans who actually understand what makes the character so interesting, and so focus on that above all else.

Of course, Judge Dredd as a character is an intriguing case when considered in film adaptation terms. He’s a far more cult figure than, say Batman or Spider-Man, and so Dredd films appeal to a smaller but perhaps even more rabid subculture of fandom – as though, because the character will never have the same level of constant conveyor-belt film-sequel-reboot cycle of those aforementioned big names, each adaptation almost has to be ‘right’. They become rare, special events rather than just products of the Hollywood machine (let’s all just accept right now that no matter how badly Batman or Superman gets dragged through the mud with piss-poor movies, there will always be Batman and Superman movies. That guarantee just isn’t there with properties like Dredd).

In fact, Batman is a good example of a comic book property which can be adapted onscreen in numerous wildly different ways (from the camp of the Adam West version to the super-serious Nolan movies, and every shade in-between), and all these adaptations are completely valid, as the character has enjoyed so many different interpretations in the source material. Judge Dredd, however, is a much more rigid character with a more immutable personality, and so a lot of fans share a very specific, implacable vision of what he should be like on film. Urban so fully embodies the stoic, dry badassery of Judge Dredd in the 2012 film that everything surrounding him is allowed to just be a slick, no-nonsense action movie. In the end, Dredd just feels like, well, Dredd.

Annihiliation is at cinema’s now

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today