DC’s First Great “Elseworlds” Movie Had No Heroes At All
Remember when comic book movies didn't have to star superheroes?
It’s jarring to see the DC logo at the top of Red, but it is technically a comic book movie.
In 2003 and 2004, Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner released Red, a three-issue graphic novel about grizzled CIA veterans forced out of retirement. The comic was published by a DC Comics imprint, but complex legalese meant the star-studded 2010 film with nary a superhero in it gets the same studio tag as Batman Begins and Green Lantern.
Red isn’t a comic book movie in the way we think of them now, even if it bears the same features. Like most blockbusters, it has a tame PG-13 rating, and its witty, sardonic script, credited to brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber, feels presciently aware of the coming trends that would be standardized by Marvel’s house style. But like Men in Black and Road to Perdition before it, this obscure comic becomes a better-than-you-expect Hollywood caper that’s only aged better in the 13 years since it graced theaters.
Red, streaming on HBO Max, is featherweight fun where familiar faces chew up dialogue and spit out silver. In it, ex-CIA black ops agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a designated RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous). Frank lives a quiet, boring suburban life while harboring a crush on a pension call center employee, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, during the apex of her fame in Weeds), herself yearning for adventure. Frank is targeted for assassination out of nowhere, so he goes on the run with a very reluctant, very kidnapped Sarah while sussing out who wants him dead.
Joining Willis and Parker are Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, and Richard Dreyfuss. Karl Urban, in a far cry from his role as Butcher on Amazon’s Emmy-nominated superhero satire The Boys, plays William Cooper, a young, hungry agent tasked with taking them all down. A better, more serious movie would emphasize Red’s compelling subtext, that Frank and William are creatures of the same species separated by time. But everyone and everything in Red takes a backseat to the comedic, mismatched pairing of Willis and Parker, in a rom-com that’s contorted into an action movie about killing the Vice President.
Red wasn’t the smartest or the sharpest blockbuster of 2010; that year had stiff competition in Christopher Nolan’s cerebral sci-fi Inception, Sly Stallone’s nostalgic ensemble The Expendables, and Takashi Miike’s brutal 13 Assassins. But Red was passable in an era that now feels precious and fading, when movie stars were the currency that sold movies.
Red is fun not because of its worldbuilding and potential for sequels (it got one, in 2013) but because it features Bruce Willis as a cranky retiree — an archetype Willis has always had the scowling face for — and Morgan Freeman, betraying his image as a dignified thespian to play a hilarious perv. Thankfully, director Robert Schwentke knew enough not to stand in the way of his senior A-listers having a ball as government-trained serial murderers who, in their retirement, have no healthy way to siphon the remnants of their killer instincts.
The dominance of superheroes today has forced movie stars into extinction, a fact even Marvel star Anthony Mackie observed in 2018. Watching Red now, it’s easy to appreciate it as something that just doesn’t get made today, at least not for theaters. Today, Red would be a streaming exclusive that gets dumped on a Friday and forgotten by Monday. While no one considers Red a classic, it at least exists as an exemplar of Hollywood’s status quo before everything was irreversibly changed.
DC Studios is hot at work trying to rebuild the DC franchise. There are grand plans for a tightly-woven saga, with connective tissues delicately placed across projects with bonkers titles like Creature Commandos. In doing so, the brand has created a designated “Elseworlds” sub-division, where anything that doesn’t fit into James Gunn’s story is set in other universes. Red was the first real Elseworlds movie, a DC comic book movie that didn’t care about its source text and wasn’t obligated to expand its canon. It only knew how to get the job done.
Red is streaming on HBO Max.