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Now, the sword and sorcery genre is a very specific genre of low fantasy that has become increasingly popular thanks to a lot of commercially successful movies from the 1970s and 1980s, such as the animated The Lord of the Rings movies, the Conan franchise, and standalone examples such as Excalibur or Clash of the Titans.
We know that the special effects are quite rudimentary from today’s point of view, but you have to remember that these films weren’t really high-budget flicks as the genre was still evolving and the studios didn’t really want to invest a lot of money in a genre that wouldn’t be as lucrative as some other. Still, despite that, for those standards, some of these movies had pretty impressive technical outings and they helped cement the genre as a fan-favorite fantasy genre for decades to come.
In today’s article, we are going to be dealing with the character of Red Sonja, giving you an insight into her comic book debuts from the 1970s and her cinematic appearance during the 1980s. Red Sonja is a cult-classic fantasy character and although she may not be as famous as Conan or He-Man, she is nevertheless a pillar of the sword and sorcery genre, so she definitely does merit an article.
Red Sonja comic book (1973–1986)
Red Sonja debuted in the 1973 Conan the Barbarian #23, published by Marvel Comics. She was created by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith, and was partially inspired by Robert E. Howard’s characters Red Sonya of Rogatino, although that character isn’t part of the Conan franchise in Howard’s stories, and Dark Agnes de Chastillon, also not part of Howard’s most famous fictional universe.
Still, as she was envisioned by the authors, Red Sonja fit perfectly into Conan’s lore and the adaptations they made to Howard’s original characters were enough to make the character seem like she was, even originally, part of Conan’s fictional universe.
Now, Red Sonja soon managed to become a standout character and has since been the protagonist of a series of her own, individual stories, rather than just appear as a “sidekick” of Conan’s (although she never was one, but you get our point). The character was published by Marvel until 1986 and has been published by Dynamite Comics since 2005.
The original Red Sonja comics from the 1970s were very specific. They were a lot darker than the mainstream superhero comics from that time, since the superhero genre was stilly gradually moving out of the campy clothes of the Golden Age, so the stories, although being darker, could never really be compared to fantasy-themed comics of the time.
What we really liked about these stories is not the violence, although we cannot ignore that fact and the fact that the darkness only added more appeal to the stories, but rather the character of Red Sonja herself. Namely, there weren’t really a lot of female protagonists in the 1970s and Red Sonja, who wasn’t just a protagonist, but a badass protagonist was certainly a refreshment.
Her origins also did a lot for the character, as they helped cement her as a standalone character with a story that was worth telling. These comic book stories made Red Sonja what she is – a very interesting character with a great backstory that is not only worth telling, but also reading. And that is why we liked it so much and why we recommend you read it as well.
Red Sonja movie (1985)
Now, the movie is a completely different story, as far as Red Sonja is concerned. Although we have seen our fair share of bad comic book (or literary) adaptations, the 1985’s Red Sonja movie is certainly among the worst in history. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Lord Kalidor in the movie, said it was the worst film he’d ever done, and the guy appeared in some really horrible flicks, mind you.
Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie was set in the Hyborian Age and is thus considered as a tie-in to the previously released Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. And while we know that these two Conan films aren’t really Oscar-worthy material, compared to Red Sonja they feel almost like Ben-Hur.
Why this movie was even made is beyond us, as its overall contribution to the genre is non-existent. From bad casting decisions (saying that Brigitte Nielsen is a miscast is an euphemism, and why Schwarzenegger was used in a non-Conan role is a complete mystery and bad decision on the side of the producers), via a derogatory depiction of the main heroine, to a story that is a complete failure, Red Sonja was a total flop and it is, deservedly, considered to be one of the worst film of its genre.
There are a lot of negative comments we could list about this movie, but the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy gives a far better summary of this movie: “Morally dubious (Gedren’s lesbianism is depicted as one of her evil attributes) and worse-acted than words can explain, Red Sonja is a great embarrassment.” And sadly, it is. And the Golden Raspberry nominations are proof of that.
Finally, Red Sonja is a film that we wouldn’t watch for a second time, nor would we actually recommend it to anyone. It is a movie that is an embarrassment to both the sword and sorcery genre, as well as the character of Red Sonja herself, especially when you compare this version to the greatly-written comic book iteration. Luckily enough, the movie never received enough coverage to gain any status and is today practically forgotten which, from our perspective, is the best possible outcome.
And with this, we conclude our article on Red Sonja. We hope you had fun reading this and that we helped solve this dilemma for you. See you next time and don’t forget to follow us!