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

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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