Why Dredd 3D gets women in comics right

For a popcorn blockbuster, the gender politics of Dredd 3D are extraordinary, writes Laura Sneddon.

Minor spoilers for Dredd 3d follow.

The last few years have seen comic books become the go-to source material for cinema, from Blade and X-Men right through to The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers. Most have featured women characters although those that focus solely on our favourite heroines are better forgotten in comparison to the glut of popular movies based on leading men. Team titles too have been hit and miss with women generally being judged for their looks before their character, although Helen Mirren and Angelina Jolie have both stolen the show in Red and Wanted respectively. Still, it was annoying for many fans to see Black Widow waving her ass in posters and always with that zipper down, despite her greater than expected screen time. Now one film has single-handedly bucked that trend, passing the Bechdel test, and with the best portrayal of women in an action film I have seen in years: Dredd.

Put simply, and this is extraordinary, there is no difference between the portrayal of male and female characters in this film. The women are not sexualised, weaker, shown less, or more emotional, and their wardrobes are genderless, but neither are they simply rendered as personality devoid hard-asses... The women characters are excellent characters who happen to be women.

Judge Dredd. Britain's favourite hero, dispensing the law in a future police state, satirising the very real and ever increasing threat of authoritarianism to our lives. Brutalised in a previous Sylvester Stallone movie that turned him from seriously stern Judge to camp crusader, Dredd is back with a grim and gritty film that harks back to his earliest strips.

Judge Anderson. A long-time friend of Dredd's, a tense friendship at times, Anderson is a female Judge with psychic powers. In the film we see Anderson as a rookie, sent out with Dredd on an evaluation run. Her outfit, her armour, is near identical to Dredd's - the singular difference being her lack of helmet, to better allow her psychic abilities. Anderson is portrayed as being more sympathetic than Dredd, but then again, so is just about every other Judge. In the comics, Anderson has been around since the early days and proved so popular that she headlines her own spin-off series, Anderson: Psi-Division.

Ma-Ma. The villain of the piece and a complete psychopath. This woman runs her criminal gang with an iron fist, torturing and killing anyone who disappoints her or stands in her way. Her domain is the Peach Trees 200 story tower block, housing those who are sworn to her, and others who live in fear. Ma-Ma does not slink her way around or use her womanly wiles; she is fucked up, brutal and efficient.

We open on Mega-City One, a massive city-state holding hundreds of millions of citizens in squalor on the east coast of North America, the result of an explosive population problem and a nuclear war that has devastated the surrounding environment. The low budget ensures that this is a near future, banged up cars and fashion not hugely different from our own; at one point a sole iPhone captures an event amongst the poverty of those around. Dredd (Karl Urban) is commanded by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to take a failed rookie out on assessment. Due to her exceptionally high psychic abilities, it is hoped that Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) will pass, despite Dredd's disapproval of this second chance.

We're told how few crimes the Judges can actually respond to, despite their numbers, and Anderson picks a triple homicide at Peach Trees: a warning shot from Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who first skinned her victims, then fed them Slo-Mo - a drug that slows the perception of time to 1% - before tossing them from the 200th floor. The two Judges arrive, apprehending Kay (Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma's leading gang members as Anderson detects his guilt in the skinning, before the block shuts down, giant blast shields trapping all within. It's unfortunate for the remaining film that The Raid came first as comparisons with Evans' film are inevitable, but the 3D lends Dredd an extra edge: the Slo-Mo drug provides a narrative reason for the 3D to take place, transporting you into the head of the user, frequently before violence occurs in beautifully ugly detail. Bullets shred people into meaty chunks, distort faces before bursting out through teeth and skin, while others fall to their deaths across the viewers vision, exploding upwards and outwards in shining arcs of flesh and blood.

As the Judges drag their prisoner behind them, Kay threatens Anderson with what is likely to happen to her, a pretty woman, when caught. Realising she is psychic he thinks of her in violent sexual situations with him, in a horrific moment almost targeted at those audience members wishing for more sex with their violence, shown their desires in its non-glamorised fucked up reality. Later Anderson interrogates him by stepping into her mind and Kay delights in tormenting her, only to find that she is the one with all the power. He imagines oral pleasure and instead finds his penis ripped from his pathetic body; coming to, he pisses himself. This particular trope happens a few times, with someone assuming they have power over Anderson only to find themselves very wrong, or very dead.

Ma-Ma is a different story. While Anderson is shown to be no more weak than her fellow male Judge, Ma-Ma is shown as being far more intelligent and sadistic than any of the men in her gang. She is utterly terrifying and cold, and it is perfectly easy to believe that the entire block is far more frightened of her than they are of the remote and isolated law. This is no prancing villainess in a bikini or split open dress; Ma-Ma is a blood soaked killer who always has a long term plan. There is even a scene with her in the bath which is completely non-sexualised, a level of welcome restraint that seems incredible. When Anderson is brought before her there is no flicker of emotion either way, she orders no torture not out of female solitude but because she can still see a way of coming out of this intact.

Original Dredd creator John Wagner was on hand as consultant throughout filming for writer and producer by Alex Garland, and nixed a scene where Anderson and Dredd kiss - Judge Dredd doesn't do romance, and neither does Anderson. Anderson does however show more empathy than her colleague at certain times due to her ability to see inside the minds of the perpetrators. She sees one of the gang members as having been tortured and kept there against his will and bases her judgement of him with that in mind. Earlier however, when hesitating over killing a man who begs for his life, she shoots. Sitting behind me at the cinema was long-time Judge Dredd artist Cam Kennedy, who nodded, "that's my girl!"

The satirical nature of Dredd as a character, that extrapolation of a future grounded in the frightening conservative politics of today, has meant that while Dredd has lived a long and prosperous life in the UK, he has never been welcomed in the US. The film needs to make budget to be granted a sequel, and it will be a crying shame if Anderson doesn't get a second outing alongside Joe Dredd.

Dredd is low budget but very ambitious and ultra-violent fare, an action thriller and, most unusually for a comic film, an 18/R certificate. There will be those who say this isn't the Dredd film we've been waiting for, that Urban isn't growly enough, or that his helmet isn't exactly as it should be. To me though, this is exactly the film that early Dredd strips deserve: the leaner, younger Dredd with the heavy violence and pressure cooker environment that the police state dictates, and the complete lack of sexism and misogyny that makes Dredd always such a great read. The cast, in their entirety, have nailed the restraint of characters living in this world.

And on top of all that, it's an action film where women are equal.

This piece was originally posted at Comic Book Grrrl.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) kicks down a door while Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) covers him. Photograph: Lionsgate Pictures

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era