“Intangible assets primarily consist of intellectual property based on the ‘Star Wars’ franchise with an estimated useful life of approximately 40 years,” Disney declared in its Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Financial Report and Shareholder Letter. “The goodwill reflects the value to Disney from leveraging Lucasfilm intellectual property across our distribution channels, taking advantage of Disney’s established global reach.”
In plain language, that means Disney is looking at four decades of “Star Wars” movies, television shows, comics, books and whatever other forms of entertainment are invented between now and 2055 or so. And while there isn’t similarly long-view language in the shareholder letter about Marvel, it’s easy to see a scenario in which Disney keeps telling superhero stories for decades to come, considering how many Marvel characters it has yet to put on screen.
Now, it’s not as if long-running franchises are an entirely new thing. Clint Eastwood played Harry Callahan for the first time in 1971, and four more “Dirty Harry” movies followed, the last in 1988. Bruce Willis has donned John McClane’s iconic white undershirt five times in the “Die Hard” movies, most recently in 2013. Sylvester Stallone has been in two of these projects: the “Rambo” franchise, which ran from 1982 to 2008, and the “Rocky” movies, which returned for their seventh installment in 2015 with “Creed,” which starred Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky Balboa’s longtime nemesis and ultimate friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
Like “Creed,” the “Mad Max” movies got a shot of life last year from switching main characters. In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Max himself is played by Tom Hardy rather than Mel Gibson, who originated the character, and Max supports — in both acting and action terms — Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) when she decides to try to free the wives of the vicious dictator who employs her.
There’s no question that “Star Wars” and Marvel movies could take lessons from these major movie franchises, both in terms of how to move the same characters forward while hitting the same, crowd-pleasing marks and when to introduce new main characters to keep things fresh. But telling continuous stories over a 40-year period is still a daunting challenge. And it’s here that the Judge Dredd comics could help Disney figure out a path forward.
2000 AD introduced Judge Dredd in 1977 as a satire on the American fascination with characters like “Dirty Harry” and has been publishing stories about him ever since. And unlike Marvel (and DC Comics), which periodically has hit the reset button on its most popular characters and superhero teams, the Judge Dredd stories have been running continuously ever since. Peter Parker may turn back into a teenager once a decade, but Dredd — a super-cop in a dystopian society where police officers fulfill the combined roles of judge, jury and executioner — gets older, gets health problems, learns new information and changes his mind.
“A lot of Dredd’s evolution has happened in a seat-of-the-pants way (there are lots of creative decisions that happened in the first couple of years of the strip that everyone’s had to live with ever since),” Douglas Wolk, a comics critic who has also written Judge Dredd stories, wrote in an email to me after I asked him about possible points of comparison. But he suggested that “Star Wars” could learn some lessons from 2000 AD’s world-building.
“The characters’ environment changes as they do; things change radically, and don’t change back,” Wolk noted. “We know that Dredd’s going to die someday, and that Mega-City One has already all but collapsed entirely. Seen from a distance, the story is about the decline and structural failure of a nation-state that keeps addressing its immediate problems with stopgap solutions that make things worse in the long term. That’s something that strikes me as a missed opportunity about the new ‘Star Wars’ movie; there’s no sense of how its setting’s culture has changed over 38-or-so years, or what the Rebel Alliance’s victory in Return of the Jedi meant in the long term. It’s just the same players (and their inheritors) fighting the same fights.”
2000 AD has also developed a colorful cast of characters to surround Judge Dredd, a choice that Wolk acknowledges “may be an accident of their main character having almost no interiority.” Could Marvel, in particular, do the same? Fans have been craving a stand-alone Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) movie for years and lamented that Marvel has generally been slow to develop new shows and movies based on beloved female characters and characters of color, though 2015 brought us both Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” series and more details about the forthcoming “Black Panther” movie. Wolk acknowledged that desire but suggested that it wouldn’t always be easy for Marvel and “Star Wars” to emulate the approach Judge Dredd has taken with characters like Judge Anderson, one of Dredd’s colleagues.
“Comics-making is also much more flexible than movie-making; if people respond well to, say, the cinematic Black Widow or Captain Phasma, it’s not nearly as easy to have a movie focusing on them in theaters four months later,” he wrote.
And as Marvel moves into new territory with its plans for a Doctor Strange movie, introducing magic into a world that has largely been dominated by technology — be it human or alien — Judge Dredd might have some inspiration, too. One of the great Judge Dredd enemies is a group of supernatural figures called the Dark Judges, who have taken the great power of the Judges to its logical and dangerous conclusion and declared that because all crime is committed by the living, life itself must be a crime.
“I kind of love that the paranormal elements in Dredd stories are generally ‘things that defy normal explanation’ rather than ‘instant plot solutions’: they’re inexact and unreliable, and the characters who can make use of them tend to be pretty badly messed up by them,” Wolk wrote. “Worldbuilding, though: that’s hugely important if you’re doing a big story involving things that are so different from our world that they would change it radically. Marvel’s actually been pretty great at doing that over time: events from one story having ramifications in another character’s story was one of Stan Lee’s great innovations fifty years ago, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been taking cues from that. More broadly: figuring out the consequences of a story is always more interesting than figuring how to hit the reset button.”