What If 'Judge Dredd's' Biggest Problem Was Judge Dredd?

What if Sylvester Stallone wasn't the only hurdle 1995's 'Judge Dredd' had to deal with?

For followers of long-running British science fiction comic book 2000AD, 1995 looked as if it was going to be a watershed year. Judge Dredd, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle based on 2000AD's flagship strip, was to hit movie theaters that summer, finally taking the character from cult appreciation to the mainstream. It didn't, of course — but perhaps the problem was larger than the fact that the movie wasn't very good.

After all, by this point, we've had a second movie version of the character — 2012's Dredd, starring Karl Urban as the no-nonsense future cop in a postapocalyptic America — that has similarly failed to convince U.S. audiences that Judge Dredd is something that they're interested in. It's not only the movies, however; attempts at original comic books for the American readership from both DC Entertainment (in the 1990s, to accompany the Stallone movie) and IDW Publishing (currently ongoing, but coming to a close this summer) have met with apathy in the marketplace. What if Judge Dredd's failure 20 years ago wasn't Sly Stallone's fault, but Joe Dredd's?

The appeal of Judge Dredd is a surprisingly complicated one to explain, after all. On the surface, it can be read as a straightforward science fiction story about a particularly brutal lawman in a future United States, but Dredd, as a property, has always been multilayered. The world of Mega-City One has been home to as many satirical takes on contemporary popular culture — the prescient take on reality programming with Otto Sump, for example, or the overconsumption of the Fatties — as it has straightforward adventure stories like "The Apocalypse War" or "Mechanismo."

As the series has continued across the decades — with John Wagner, the character's co-creator (with artist Carlos Ezquerra), remaining its primary writer — it has become an increasingly more political strip as well; the fascism inherent in the system behind the Judges has gone from subtext to text on a number of occasions, with the failure of democracy as a workable model being the subject of a number of stories throughout the years. "America," a story arc from 1990, is arguably the finest example of this trend: a tragedy about terrorism, democracy and the power of the state that only becomes more powerful — and heartbreaking — as the strip continues to use ideas and characters introduced in the arc in subsequent years.

In fact, that is another strength of Dredd in comics — the ability to play the long game in terms of narrative. Characters will return after multiple years' absence (Dredd exists on a real-time basis, unlike most long-running comic strips) providing a rhythm for the reader that feels organic and realistic, in addition to allowing for characters to change and grow.

The problem is that movies, the primary format by which American audiences have been exposed to Judge Dredd, aren't built to show off any of this to its best effect. Multilayered storytelling that creates a complicated, believable world by combining comedy and adventure, exploring political and cultural satire, and exploiting the benefits of long-form storytelling across years? That's simply not what most movies (and especially comic book movies) are made to do. At best, the limitations of the cinema format mean that only a small part of that can be represented — but to strip Dredd of any of this is to make it seem a smaller, lesser thing than it actually is.

None of this is to suggest that full-on Judge Dredd is necessarily an easier sell to American audiences; beyond the difficulty of "No, really, 30-plus years of comic strips and it's a masterpiece" as an approach, you're left with a series that exists in part to satirize and question large parts of American culture and society. Try telling someone that they'll enjoy a joke when in many ways, they're the butt of it.

But to return to the earlier question: Does this mean that the failure of the 1995 Judge Dredd movie was down to the source material, and not the movie itself? Ultimately, no. Even if the movie had gone for just one aspect of the comic, it could have been a successful movie ("merciless lawman of the future" is a great hook for a movie, even without everything else that Dredd is as a comic series). The movie failed because of the quality of the movie, in the end.

Unfortunately, in doing so it might have sealed the fate of Judge Dredd as a larger mythology for a wider audience. In the end, 1995 might have been a watershed year for Judge Dredd, but in a manner entirely the opposite of what fans had hoped to see.