For most of 2012, masks were optional for comic book heroes.
The Dark Knight Rises was as much about Bruce Wayne as Batman.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker sported a hoodie to remind us he wasn’t Tobey Maguire.
And Marvel’s finest squabbled in their civvies long before the Avengers assembled.
Yet, for one man, the mask stayed firmly on.
Flashback to 1995, when Danny Cannon’s adaptation of 2000 AD’s flagship character Judge Dredd kitted Sylvester Stallone in regulation uniform for all of five minutes, before Cannon ditched the mask to maximise exposure for his mega (city) star.
Cue outcry from the fans and indifference from audiences.
Judge Dredd became the benchmark for getting comic books wrong... untilBatman & Robin arrived two years later.
Of course, Batman’s fortunes have since transformed, so it’s no coincidence that Dredd is now ripe for a reboot.
The approach of Pete Travis’ film is straight out of the Nolan playbook.
Trust the source material. Cast for character, not vanity. And don’t be scared of ‘dark.’
Even so, there’s a huge difference between the Judge’s cult appeal and the Caped Crusader’s billion-dollar box office.
Rather than ape Nolan’s mythologising, Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland have been forced by budgetary limitations to go the other way.
And Dredd is all the better for it: a linear, pared-down, old-school blast of a movie.
While Garland sought approval from original creator John Wagner, and the film is full of Easter eggs for the faithful (watch out for the Chopper graffiti, nodding to the character of the same name), no prior knowledge is needed.
Here’s a comic-book movie you can enjoy without five feature-length preambles. Dredd builds its world as it goes along, without ever feeling the need to type out the words origin story.
That’s exactly the right approach, given how many of 2000 AD’s innovations have become pop-culture standards.
There was always a danger of looking secondhand – the same fate that befell John Carter – a danger Dredd sidesteps by not pretending it’s the next big thing.
Instead, it looks back to the dystopian delights influenced by the comic: Mad Max, The Warriors, RoboCop.
With its punky tone, sick humour and uncompromising violence – skinnings, eye gougings, a bullet causing a head to cave in from the inside – it feels like a long-lost Moviedrome late-nighter.
It takes only the opening salvo to nail the title character’s philosophy, as Dredd (Karl Urban) tails a vanload of criminals, biding his time until the perps mow down a pedestrian and he has authority to nail them.
The essentials are in place: Mega City One has gone to shit, and the Judges have absolute powers to sort it out.
From there, Dredd takes on a routine call in a tower block, with psychic rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) in tow. Routine, that is, until they arrest a gang member whose testimony could bring down the operation of Lena Headey’s drug boss Ma-Ma.
The building is locked down, leaving Dredd and Anderson no choice but to fight their way out. Comparisons with The Raid are inevitable, but Dredd doesn’t suffer from them. If anything, it highlights what’s right about the film.
Where most comic-book adaps hit the ‘world in peril’ default, there is nothing at stake here beyond survival – one story amongst the 17,000 crimes taking place every day in Mega City One.
In doing so, it’s free to get the character right.
Urban, a specialist at playing supports in franchises (TLOTR, Bourne, Star Trek), cedes identity to preserve Dredd’s essence. With only his chin visible to unleash his grizzled, sarcastic snarl, he’s utterly convincing as a faceless, ferocious bastard.
To balance his anonymity Thirlby stays mask-less, justified in the plot by Anderson’s psychic abilities but also to provide contrast.
A much-loved character from the comics, Anderson’s touchy-feely instincts allow Garland to interrogate Dredd’s conviction without having to carve open a character arc for the hero himself.
Refreshingly, Dredd doesn’t waver; indeed, the bigger question isn’t whether Anderson will soften up Dredd, but whether his example will harden her.
Some criticism has been levelled at Travis and Garland for a lack of satirical subtext, forgetting that it’s the very premise – an exaggeration of right-wing fantasies invented by counter-cultural lefties – that provides this.
Duly, the film’s real star isn’t Urban but urban, as cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes Mega City One crackle with wicked detail.
The visuals dazzle most whenever the screen is immersed in the rainbow fog of a hit from new drug ‘Slo-Mo’, a smart invention that gives the helter-skelter plot room to breathe.
The junkies’ PoV swaps fast-cut carnage for detailed comic-style panels, but in a way that emanates from the story rather than a Zack Snyder-esque stylistic affectation. Even in doping up and dropping out, Dredd keeps it real.
A shame, then, that it stumbled at the box office in the US, and even its UK number one came on a slow weekend.
Whether due to the task of marketing a faceless hero, or echoes of a troubled shoot (Garland reportedly took control after Travis was locked out of the editing suite), there’s no masking the disappointment that such an authentically gnarly, subversive adaptation didn’t connect.
At home, however, there’s no need to hide; this Dredd is nothing to dread.