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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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses