10 Reasons Why Dredd Is The Best Comic Book Movie Of 2012 You Didn't See

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It was tough to be a comic book movie in 2012 if your name wasn't Batman or The Avengers. Even poor Spider-Man didn't fare well in comparison. Because while The Avengers worldwide box office was over 1.5 billion, and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was just over 1 billion, and even Spidey cracked an impressive 756 million, poor Dredd with its R-rating made a paltry 37 million (almost). But were The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man really that much better than Dredd? The answer is a resounding no.

While I saw and really liked all three of the above mentioned films (and really loved The Avengers), there's only one way in which Dredd can't go up against them, pound for pound, and that is because of its well-deserved R-Rating. Ignoring the fact that I'm not sure The Dark Knight Rises should only be PG-13, all of these movies except Dredd received said rating. A PG-13 greatly expands your potential audience. It is, of course, why movies (comic book and otherwise) love to aim for that sweet spot (and how sad for all of us well over that age). I have to assume this speaks volumes about who we continue to think comic book-based movies are for -- namely, kids. Which is ironic considering much of the comic book industry doesn't seem concerned with courting kids, and sometimes even openly admits it mostly care about males 18 - 34.

But there are plenty of other factors you can blame Dredd's box office performance on: how much money the film had to market itself, when the film came out (fall, not summer), and even the marketing strategy. I remember being interested in Dredd, but only vaguely, and ultimately I didn't see it in the theater. I did see The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, but why wasn't Dredd on my must see list? I just don't know. But after having seen it, I can tell you that it deserved my attention, and here's why.

1. IT'S SMART

As much as I love comic book movies, even I have to admit that sometimes they're not so smart when the time comes for heroes to save the day. Even my beloved Avengers movie has a bit of an eye-rollingly convenient moments at the end (you're just having so much fun you don't care), but Dredd has none of this. Dredd is smart from beginning to end. Everything is well set up and makes sense throughout. Additionally, there's a clever device partway through the film that traps characters in one location, which is both brilliant from a cost standpoint, and ups the stakes significantly for everyone involved.

2. IT'S UNCONVENTIONAL

Another common trait in action films, comic book-based or otherwise, is the "tough as nails hero with a heart of a gold." Undoubtedly, before we can make it to the end of our action film we will have been force-fed some cliche backstory about how our badass hero lost his wife and child thanks to villain X, or tragic accident Y, etc. While Dredd has a tough as nails hero that is a decided good guy at its center, we never have to endure that cliche backstory. In fact, there's an actual groan-inducing moment early on when you think they're going to do it, they even start to go there, and then... they don't. They just cut it off. It's fantastic. I have never been more relieved than when we cut away from that "cue the music cheesefest."  For some I suppose this might be a problem; you never do really find out what Judge Dredd's deal is. However, I argue you don't need it for the film to work, or to care about your central hero, and I think it's a bold and unconventional choice.

3. IT'S UNCONVENTIONAL

Yeah, I know I already said it, but it deserves two mentions. You know another thing you expect to see in an action film, especially when you have a hunky male lead? You expect to see his face. But you NEVER see Karl Urban without the oppressive Judge Dredd helmet and that feels shockingly right. Judge Dredd is not the kind of guy who takes off his helmet all willy-nilly. He's a badass, but he's just a normal guy and he needs all the fancy toys that his futuristic society can provide him, including a helmet that keeps him from getting dead immediately. I was shocked that he never takes it off, not even at the end. So again, bold and unconventional. Ballsy.

4. IT'S GOT STRONG BUT UNDERSTATED WORLD BUILDING

A lot of action movies set in a future dystopia dwell far too much on the world building or don't sufficiently address it at all. Judge Dredd's world is unarguably a dark one, but there are effortless things that suggest what kind of future we're in. The kind of future where there's a ton of technological advancement but people are still living in high rise slums with crappy elevators and bad lighting. While Judges have an arsenal of awesome weapons and a hacker character has cool if disturbing mechanical eyes, kids are still riding beat up skateboards and people drive whatever they can afford. All the thought is there, nice and understated. We're not here for the fancy toys (though they're fun), we're here to see some heroes gut it out in a world where the odds are stacked against them.

5. IT'S GOT A FANTASTIC FEMALE LEAD

Without any disrespect meant to the obviously gorgeous (and extremely talented) Olivia Thirlby, she's not the female lead you expect in an action movie like this. She's never out of uniform; it's never torn in "sexy and convenient" ways. Her lack of helmet makes utter sense and is only used as a negative for her, not a chance for her to toss her perfect mane of hair around. And she moves, fights, looks, and acts like the talented but totally inexperienced rookie judge she is. It's a wonderful performance and character -- both of which could have easily gone horribly off the rails in so many ways, but don't thanks to smart choices made across the board. So many action movies would be happy to cast the lady part with a too sexy actress, unbelievable as an "average woman;" or would have given her a different costume than Dredd's, one more about titillation than function; or would have cast her as the damsel in distress; or worst of all -- all of the above. Not Dredd. Judge Anderson (Thirlby) is physically believable in her role. She wears a costume identical to Dredd (sans the Helmet for which there's a logical in-story reason), and when this rookie gets captured she rescues herself and then helps to save Dredd for good measure.

There are probably even more reasons, but I just realized I'm basically doing a list inside a freaking list and since this isn't an outline for a novel, we should probably move on!

The choice to feature a Judge Dredd that we never really get to know beyond his professional demeanor (which is not to say there isn't good character development) alongside a rookie trying to make the grade draws wonderful contrasts throughout the film. She's naive and inexperienced but optimistic about the good in people and the world; Dredd has seen it all, can handle it all, and can't believe there's anything good left anywhere... although if he really believed that, I doubt he'd show up for work. See! Nice, subtle contrasts and character development. Wonderful.

6. IT'S GOT LENA HEADEY

If you watch Game of Thrones (or if you watched Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles) you know Headey is an absolute badass, especially when it comes to playing complicated women. Here she's the villain, Ma-Ma, and while her villainy has none of the nuance and subtlety of her Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones -- Ma-Ma comes with a brutal facial scar, the figure of a wasted drug addict, and a reluctance to bathe or brush her hair -- it's still a fantastic performance. She's every bit the commanding drug lord worthy of taking down both our heroes (and whoever else happens to get in her way), and without ever once using her sex appeal. Because let's face it, when was the last time you saw an action movie with a villainess that didn't at some point try to use her sex appeal for something. Yeah, just about never. Headey's Ma-Ma wouldn't dream of using whatever sex appeal she may have, and with her lack of bathing and hair brushing she's not even trying to seduce the audience. It's great.

7. IT HAS SOME FLASHY EFFECTS, BUT THEY ALL MAKE SENSE

In the opening scene I rolled my eyes and groaned because only a few minutes into the movie we got one of those Matrix-y "Zach Snyder Specials" where everything stops and slows down. I'm sure the technique has a name, but I'm no filmmaker. You all know what I'm talking about, right? Anyway, if I never see another one of those shots in my life it will be too soon. HOWEVER, there is an in-story reason for this shot choice in Dredd and I nearly wept with joy when I realized that director Pete Travis was only going to use that effect to illustrate a very specific effect of the drug Ma-Ma is producing. A drug that makes the user feel as if time is slowing down. See how that makes sense?! Filmmakers everywhere, please take note -- stop using this just because you think it looks cool. Use it for an in-story reason and you will do yourself and all your viewers a huge favor. 

8. IT'S GOT VIOLENCE, VIOLENCE, AND MORE VIOLENCE

Dredd is unapologetically, unrelentingly dark. It's an oppressive and depressing world Judge Dredd lives in, and the film pulls no punches -- quite literally. You will be aware of the necessary R-rating in the first scene when an innocent bystander is creamed by a car and the camera doesn't even flinch. The aforementioned in-story reason for time slowing down also makes some of the violence incredibly gory. Like seriously, you have to look away because "oh my god that bullet just went through that guy's cheek and they slowed it down so I could see it FOREVER." Yeah, that kinda violent. There is also some violent sex and the repeated suggestion of rape/gang rape, but both are only in small flashes and not drawn out the way the non-sexual violence is. It is not a movie for the faint of heart in any way, shape, or form.

9. IT'S RATED R

I like plenty of non-R-rated things -- both in comics and out. In fact, a huge part of what I thought worked for The Avengers was that it felt as much like a great comedy as it did an action movie. And that comedy felt like good, clean, fun. Similarly The Amazing Spider-Man had a sense of humor and sweetness to it that I really enjoyed. But that doesn't mean sometimes I don't want to get down and dirty with some R-rated action movie adult themes, adult content, nudity, violence, and all the rest. It frustrates me that movies, in order to make the most possible money, frequently have to water down their concepts and executions into pale imitations of what they should be. A PG-13 Judge Dredd movie would be ridiculous. It would be working against itself at every turn. So good for this movie, for embracing it's R-ness and saying "we don't even want that giant PG-13 audience." I mean, yes, it hurt the film when it came to the box office, and maybe there won't be a Dredd 2 in our future because of those weak numbers, but it's a better movie for making that choice. And I'm all for better movies. You?

10. IT'S GOT AN ALEX GARLAND SCREENPLAY

I was impressed with the script and story from go  (see above re: Smart and Unconventional) and it was only during the end credits that I saw Alex Garland credited as the screenwriter and I slapped my hand on my head and said, "Of course this was good!"  Alex Garland, he of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. He of Never Let Me Go. Sure, I haven't loved every single movie Garland's written, but I've loved a bunch of them (and one of them is arguably my favorite movie of all time). Even the ones I didn't adore have all been smart and well considered. They don't wallow in cliche, and Garland also has a knack for writing complicated and interesting women. Of course this was good.

And I just wish everyone (including myself) had realized it while Dredd was in theaters. We can't go back in time and change the box office for this sadly-missed comic book movie, but we can talk to our friends about it and make sure everyone rents it, or pay-per-views-it, whatever your poison, so it can stand the test of time as a really great example of an R-rated comic book movie.  If you don't mind your comic book movies dark and you can get Stallone's "I AM the LAW!" out of your head long enough, this is absolutely worth a watch. It's not going to win any major awards, but as an action movie and a comic book based movie, it deserves to be up there with the other heavy hitters of 2012.

Image of Dredd [3D Blu-ray/Blu-ray + Digital Copy + UltraViolet]
Director: Pete Travis
Starring: Lena Headey, Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Domhall Gleeson, Santi Scinelli
Rating: R (Restricted)
Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson lives in Manhattan and writes the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good, reviews for Comic Book Resources, and runs the 3 Chicks Review Comics Podcast. Her first novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING was a Kindle best seller and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She's represented by the Irene Goodman Agency and managed by Principato Young.

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Comments

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. February 7, 2013 - 1:53pm

Dredd was one of my favorite films of 2012, and I saw it in theatres.

monkeywright's picture
monkeywright from Los Angeles is reading The Narrows by m. craig February 7, 2013 - 1:55pm

Absolutely one of my favorite movies of last year, and easily the best use of 3D in any movie I've ever seen. 

Ray Richards's picture
Ray Richards from Michigan and Iowa is reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson February 7, 2013 - 1:56pm

I think that it is funny, dispite the scene where we see her bathe, she still comes off as unbathed. 

Conor Mcvarnock's picture
Conor Mcvarnock from Belfast is reading The Spirit level February 7, 2013 - 2:11pm

I saw it. as a long time 2000AD Fanboy i have to say it hit all my sweet spots, it was a class film that actually managed to do justice to the source material, and not just by aping it panel for panel (fuck you Snyder! you ruined Watchmen) but by being true to the spirit of creativity, anarchic humour and verve as much as the aesthetic, plot and backstory of the original. If only they would do more comic films, or even just more 2000AD films that you could say the same about.

Now, if you liked the film and you like comics, go back to the source material and give it a go.

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler February 7, 2013 - 2:11pm

I feel a big reason for this movie not being that big was because of Stallone's version of Judge Dredd.  I could see the faces of many rolling their eyes when they saw the previews for it.  Maybe, and I can only hope, that when the DVD is released it will catch enough attention to make many want to see a second one.

Drew Carr's picture
Drew Carr from Pennsyltucky is reading Unholy Night by Seth Graham-Smith February 7, 2013 - 2:28pm

You have to also highlight the humours one-liners in there, which you briefly mentioned in the final paragraph. When Urban's Dredd says over the PA system, "Ma-ma isn't the law, I am the law," I pretty much lost it. I had visions of Stallone yelling this then getting a bullet in the dome from Urban's Dredd.

Good thing I was one of the three people in the theater at the time.

Dredd even cracks wise about cracking skulls at one point, though I don't remember the exact quote to reference. Though that could just be my warped sense of humor taking things out of context.

The tone of the movie follows that of the source material relatively closely, with never revealing Dredd's face and all that. The violence as well, which is a main-stay for the comic.

I don't want to call this a "shoot-em-up" but rather an excellent action movie. Yeah, there is a lot of gun play, blood and violence, however, for all the reasons listed in the article and more, it was a great movie that deserves way more attention then it got. Especially after that 90s mess. Rob Sneider? I mean seriously.

Dennis's picture
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Dennis from Hollywood is reading Ready Player One February 7, 2013 - 3:45pm

Yeah, I was only mildly interested in this one when it played in theaters.  But I caught it on VOD last month and I really dug the hell out of it.  It's so simple in its story and the Judges are such professionals.  They basically just follow police protocol from minute one, and its the way they do their job... economically and wisely... that gets them through.  Nothing spectacular or sensational about it.  Just work.  And I really loved that about the film.

I've been thinking about this movie ever since seeing it, and its surge in Video sales has given me hope that maybe, we would see a sequel at some point.  Regardless, I think I'll be buying the Blu-ray, just to physically own the thing.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Arrest Us Entries February 7, 2013 - 4:32pm

Tarentino should do a Dredd film, i get what yer saying here but Dredd has QT all over it.

AM Gray's picture
AM Gray from Australia is reading The Book of Blood and Shadow, by Robin Wasserman February 7, 2013 - 7:42pm

Funny, I saw the trailer and thought it looked cool. Love Karl Urban and like you... never made it to the cinema to see it. I will add it to my DVD wish list.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks February 8, 2013 - 2:06pm

Just bumped this up in the ol' queue.

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories February 9, 2013 - 3:48am

Kelly, just finished watching Dredd with a friend after reading your article earlier today and you are spot on. It won't win any awards, and its R rating coupled with memories of Stallone's Dredd surely hurt it at the box office, but it was a great action/comic book movie. I usually avoid 3D but watching this actually made me wish I had sprung to watch it in IMAX 3D when it released. Too bad a 2nd probably won't happen.

Ashley Beeching's picture
Ashley Beeching February 9, 2013 - 9:33pm

Dredd was easily one of the best movies of 2012, if not the best. But I did see it at the cinema several times and bought the Blu-ray. Glad to hear it's selling so well.