‘Judge Dredd’ vs ‘Dredd’ on the Satire Scale

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After two straight years of call-to-arms, online petitions and continual coy “maybe there’ll be a sequel” talk from Karl Urban, Dredd finally earned itself a follow-up. Not a real sequel, of course. Actually, it might be less of a sequel than last year’s official comic book follow-up, “Dredd: Underbelly,” but it’s new Dredd nonetheless. Judge Dredd: Superfiend, an animated Judge Dredd webseries from Dredd producer Adi Shankar is viewable online right now!

But again, not a real sequel. Because while Superfiend may be Shankar’s baby, it’s a “bootleg”- as in, not licensed by 2000 AD (the comic magazine that puts out new “Judge Dredd” stories every week) or anyone else non-Shankar who would have had a hand in a “real” Dredd Part II. It’s more or less a pro-quality fan film, in the style of Shankar’s other shorts, The Punisher: Dirty Laundry or Venom: Truth in Journalism. Still, it’s putting Judge Dredd back in the spotlight, and for all those Urban-hounding petition signers, that’s enough of a win on its own.

Now, why is Shankar bootlegging his own film as a bizarre-looking cartoon? Well, besides the obvious (that Shankar and Urban have been unable to get a sequel pushed through), cartoondom offers a special advantage. According to Shankar (as read in Collider), “The ‘Bootleg Universe’ is about viewing things through a fresh lens. I wanted to do something that played up the satirical tone of the Judge Dredd comics an anti-establishment British comic about post apocalyptic America.”

He kind of has a point there. Neither of cinema’s two attempts at Judge Dredd (Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 Judge Dredd or the 2012 Dredd) have been particularly well-versed in the character’s satirical side. But both touch on the core ideals of the character in some small fashion. And it’s our job to find out how by unearthing the satire jammed in the crevices of each Dredd, comparing the two and proclaiming a winner.

But before we cover this any further, let’s make sure everyone’s up to speed on what kind of satire we’re dealing with. Judge Dredd was born in 1977 to writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills. And way back in the wilds of 1970’s Britain (though Dredd may be an American future cop in an American future town, he’s the product of mostly British creators in a British comics magazine), you had Margaret Thatcher wielding conservative politics with an iron fist and Dirty Harry dispensing hardline street justice overseas. Mesh the two together, teleport them a hundred years into the future and add a massive imbalance of power, and you’ve got one Judge Joe Dredd.

He’s the supercop with a zero-tolerance policy on all crime. ALL crime. Chew gum in a designated no-gum zone? Your ass is his, and will most likely receive a stay of several years in the Iso-Cubes (a cubicle-like future prison for all those bastard gum-chewers). Commit a harsher crime, perhaps worthy of the death penalty? He’ll gun you down right there. This is his prerogative as a Judge – the all-powerful future police where the “jury” and “executioner” part is implied.

But for the Judge System to work, you needed a society disastrous enough to have spawned it. So in “Judge Dredd,” culture is kind of a slop heap. And like how Wagner, Ezquerra and Mills ballooned a modern conservative government into terrifying police state, they took the usual societal strife and made it all future funky.

Rising rates of obesity? To that, “Judge Dredd” gave us the Fatties, men and women who tip the scales at several thousand pounds, require extra wheels attached to their bodies for mobility and regularly use their prodigious (and physically impossible, probably) girth for celebrity. Who can pile on the most pounds? Who can eat an entire car in a single sitting?

Immigration? Try the Ape Gang, a coalition of second generation Italian-ish immigrant apes (generation one was the zoo population, freed and given human-level intelligence). They’re just as subtlety-free as the Fatties. It might seem a little insane if you’ve only seen the Dreddfilms, but the comic book Judge regularly chases down apes with names like Joe Bananas and Fast Eeek who blast people with old-timey tommy guns and speak in bad Edward G. Robinson-ese through mouthfuls of banana.

Ok, all set on the satire? Good. Let’s begin.

Judge Dredd (1995)

It is so easy to disregard Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 attempt at Judge Dredd, just by counting the ways it gleefully stomps on the core tenets of the character. Classic Judge Dredd, who’s essentially a fascist with nary an emotion in his heart that isn’t tied to upholding THE LAW, and yet the film gives him a love interest – who he even kisses! – and lines like “my whole life is a lie,” whispered into an open window as a thunderstorm rains down outside.

Classic Judge Dredd is dehumanized to the point of never showing his face, ever, without his helmet (because we can only see him in the context of his job, and the law), and yet Stallone went sans helmet for the majority of the film. We will also dock points for Stallone’s pronunciation of “law” as “LUUUAGHH,” spoken only at all-caps volume.

Yet in all its character infractions, Judge Dredd seems to understand the basic point that Wagner, Ezquerra and Mills were going for. Despite kissing girls and letting people see the vulnerability in his eyes, the ’95 Dredd is all about the law. Especially the overly exploitative police state kind. Take an early back-and-forth between Dredd and Fergee (Rob Schneider, our studio-mandated comic relief), after Fergee dismantles a robot to hide from a pack of gun-toting lunatics.

Fergee: I had no choice! They were killing each other in there.

Dredd: You could have gone out the window.

Fergee: 40 floors? It would have been suicide!

Dredd: Maybe. But it’s legal.

That’s Judge Dredd in a nutshell. Even if the law makes no sense, or actively harms the civilian population, he will enforce the hell out of that law. Because it’s the law. See also: an appropriate punishment for multiple traffic violations.

In Judge Dredd, future society is appropriately nutty. That robot that Fergee illegally tore open? A few minutes beforehand, it was buzzing through an apartment complex on patrol, spouting a cheery message:

“Eat recycled food for a happier, healthier life. Be kind and peaceful to each other. Eat recycled food. Recycled food: it’s good for the environment, and OK for you.”

That’s culled straight from “Judge Dredd” comics where overpopulation and overcrowding are such serious concerns that the bodies of your loved ones will be ground down into delicious nutrients and/or fuel. All for the good of society.

As anathema to reason as it might seem, Schneider’s performance and character are our anchor on the satire of Judge Dredd. Throughout their bizarre buddy-buddy adventure, Fergee snipes about how Dredd arrested him unfairly – he only broke into that robot because his choices were “hiding in defaced government property” or “being seen and then shot to death by crazed gunmen.” And continually, Dredd refuses to apologize, or even acknowledge the potential of wrongdoing. That kind of obvious moral play comes off as realllllly hokey, but in the end it’s still making the proper point. Judge Dredd isn’t really a hero, in the classic sense of the term. He’s an overinflated fear of big government, personified. It’s only that he shoots holes through villains or shouts the name of his ammunition before he fires it (so cool) that we think he’s such an impressive guy.

Fergee gives us the half of Mega-City One that we’d miss if we only saw things through Dredd’s not-nearly-helmeted-enough POV. Stuff like: robots that advocate eating rejiggered human tissue or just how unfair it is that a guy with zero sense of humor is allowed to dole out prison sentences for acting entirely justifiably in self-defense. It’s through that Schneidery contrast that we’re given insight into the Fattie and Ape Gang and mutant side of the poverty line – and with it, a truer sense of the Judges’ ridiculous over-authority.

Dredd (2012)

Despite the glaring differences – Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd keeping his forehead covered and his heart emotion-free (and adhering strictly to the belief that girls have cooties, as it should be) – the two cinematic Dredds are more similar than you might think. Those bites of satire layered within Judge Dredd? The same ones, nearly note-for-note, can be found within his darker, grittier re-imagining.

The films establish the whole “society ruled by the grip of martial law” thing in the exact same fashion – voice over across a grim future landscape. Both follow the Mega-City One standard of christening the most horrid slums with the cheeriest names – Judge Dredd’s is “Heavenly Haven,” Dredd’s is “Peach Trees.” Mulching dead bodies for food? Yep, that’s in Dredd too, just packaged in a far less recognizable way. In case you don’t recall, every time Dredd and his rookie-in-tow Anderson called back to home base, any casualties were rattled off as “bodies for Resyk” (pronounced “re-psych”). As in, short for “recycle.” As in, “the entity from Wagner, Ezquerra and Mills’ comics that did so much corpse-processing.”

But Dredd did forge into a bit of new satirical ground. The film opens on a Dredd v. Creeps chase sequence that ends with both parties blasting a food court to pieces. As the blasting occurs, you can hear a pre-programmed PSA chime through food court, suggesting that “Alternative refreshments can be found on level eight and level two.” Because in Dredd’s world, bloody hostage situations are both a part of everyday living and no good reason not to get that Big Gulp refill.

You’ll find examples of those last two starting at 3:15 in the clip below (NSFW warning- extremely graphic violence, excessive F-bombs).

What Dredd lacks though is anyone to give perspective on the wackier parts of non-Judge life. All our characters of note are either Judges or criminals being mercilessly hunted by judges. The few who don’t apply are all victims of the system – a computer hacker enslaved by the baddies, or the “I want no part of this conflict” medic who gets his head kaboomed roughly four seconds after officially taking part in this conflict. But those characters could just as easily be embroiled in the issues of 2014 as those in the far future. “Nerd held hostage and tortured for his computer skills” and “guy who’s seen way too much trouble in his neighborhood” don’t provide any specific insight into Judge Dredd’s supersatire setting..

Also, when the only character espousing a counterpoint to Judge Dredd’s “all law, all the time” philosophy is a gang warlord, Dredd comes off like a shining beacon of heroism. And Judge Dredd should really have a few scuffs (needless arrests, harsh sentences, forcibly exiling a candy maker into space because his secret candy recipe was just too delicious) on his hero beacon. Otherwise the whole “over-dramatized fascist state” tends to lose all meaning.

Dredd is willing to admit it takes place in a world of kooky over-generalized stereotypes. We’ve got Soylent Green and even a quick cut to an extremely overweight man munching junk food in an apartment that’s wall-to-wall snack wrappers – Dredd’s inclusion of a comic-authentic Fattie. It’s just not willing to admit that very loudly. Which is why all the goofy stuff, and with it Judge Dredd’s satirization of societal excess, is lost in the film, relegated to a quiet, offhand chuckle before the no-nonsense bone-crushing begins anew.

What ultimately matters though is pitting Dredd against Dredd. Judge Dredd is a profoundly, head-scratchingly stupid film (click through to 1:02 for conclusive proof), but it’s loud and brash in its stupidness and gives equal treatment to the satiric statements of the original Judge Dredd. Dredd might contain strikingly similar material, but it’s not willing to put those elements at the forefront of the film. The impact is muted, the elements of satire feel weak, and we’re left with a Dredd who kicks infinite ass but will never have a sad-sack robot housekeeper who pronounces all his R’s like W’s and buys Dredd thoughtful gifts every holiday season.

As far as the satire goes? Judge Dredd takes a clean win. Take that into consideration, next time your thoughts turn to the ’95 edition and how terribly it performs in nearly every other aspect of filmmaking.

Alright, enough of this. Time to turn on that Superfiend web-series and see if it’s a worthy successor. I’m giving it five minutes to deliver a 2,000-lb man or an ape in pinstripes. Otherwise I revolt.