‘Dredd’ and the Continuing Evolution of the Comic Book Superhero Movie

Dr Peter Han Area 49 Lead Scientist ‘Dredd’ and the Continuing Evolution of the Comic Book Superhero Movie When I look back on the history of Hollywood films featuring comic book superheroes, starting with Superman in 1978,    several titles standout in bold relief for the crucial “leap” in the creative evolution of the genre they each represent.

Blade, released 20 years after Superman, was the first “darker, grittier” superhero movie. Violent and blood-drenched, the film marked a genuine maturation point for a genre still reeling from the original Judge Dredd, a certified clunker released three years prior, and Joel Schumacher’s two egregiously silly Batman movies.

X-Men hit theaters in 2000 and was the first of its kind to inject social commentary into the narrative by exploring themes of racial intolerance and social injustice. The film opens at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. where a young Jewish boy, who one day will become the powerful mutant Magneto, struggles desperately against Nazi guards while his parents are herded to their certain doom. It’s a memorable, emotionally wrenching scene, and one that clearly indicated director Bryan Singer was attempting to distance his film from the likes of Howard the Duck.

Spider-Man swung into multiplexes two years later and reminded everyone that a comic book superhero movie could deliver massive box office both at home and abroad, webbing over $800 million worldwide. In the collective minds of the Hollywood studio system the genre had been bona fide.

Batman Begins proved that a costumed-hero-drama could not only please the general public but the critics as well when it was released in 2005. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan created an exciting, action-packed motion picture that was also smart and sophisticated, a movie more comparable to “serious” films like The Godfather than say Batman & Robin. And in 2009 Heath Ledger would exclamation-that-point when he posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant portrayal of the Joker in the sequel, The Dark Knight.

Dredd, a superhero reboot featuring wall-to-wall shootouts and graphic violence reminiscent of the kinds of films produced in the 1980s — the golden age of action and sci-fi cinema — was released in September of this year and failed big-time at the box office, grossing less than $29 million worldwide (with a production budget of $50 million according to Box Office Mojo) in spite of the fact that it was a well directed action picture with a decent story and solid performances.

However, Dredd does represent an important evolutionary leap for the genre because for the first time in a Hollywood produced superhero motion picture the character takes precedence over the performer. The title character never removes his helmet — just like his comic book counterpart, thus the movie audience never sees Judge Dredd’s entire face, only his mouth is exposed with the helmet on, never his eyes.

If a major studio like Warner Bros. had produced Dredd instead of Lionsgate, and had cast someone like Brad Pitt instead of the capable but relatively unknown Karl Urban, Dredd would have undoubtedly been a very different movie. Do you think Warner Bros., or any other major, would have allowed Pitt to remain masked for the entire film?

It was an incredibly ballsy decision by director Pete Travis and Lionsgate and most likely a costly one as well. Judge Dredd is no Spider-Man (or even Iron Man), and without a big name actor to help promote the film the box office prognosis was never very good. Apparently Lionsgate read the tealeaves and made the tough business decision to cut their losses and pull back on the ad campaign despite the fact the film had generated some good early buzz at Comic-Con back in July.

Contrasting sharply with Judge Dredd in terms of name recognition and pop culture cred is the Marvel character Wolverine, one of the most popular figures in the realm of comic books today. Other than his retractable adamantium claws and ability to rapidly heal the single most distinguishing physical characteristic of Wolverine is his height, or lack there of. The comic book version is a compact 5’3”, but Hugh Jackman, who has portrayed Wolverine in four films and is readying a fifth, is listed on IMDB at over 6’2”, which is sort of like getting L.A. Laker center Dwight Howard to play Gary Coleman in The Gary Coleman Story.

When Jackman was cast in the first X-Men the technology available today didn’t yet exist (and even if it had it’s uncertain 20th Century Fox would have sanctioned any changes to Jackman’s handsome features and tall, chiseled physique). Now of course any actor can be shrunk down to Wolverine’s true size and reconfigured to his exact body type without hindering their performance.

Although Dredd failed at the box office it succeeded at setting an important precedent that could influence the future of comic book superhero movies. One day not too far from now Hollywood will reboot the X-Men franchise and Wolverine and hopefully they’ll do it right.

Dr. Peter Han