Have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet? … Seriously? Have you not been on the Internet at all? Are you not aware of how universally praised this film is by (almost) everyone? I want to discuss why there’s a parenthetical “almost” there, but I think that’ll work best if you’ve seen the movie. So turn off your browser, saddle up, and head to the cinema.
Okay. Back safely?
WAS THAT NOT AMAZING?
“We Can Do It (Furiously)” by HugoHugo
I think it’s safe to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of the series George Miller has been responsible for over the course of the last three decades. It is, in no uncertain terms, the Platonic ideal of the lone nearly-silent protagonist in a post-apocalyptic wasteland getting drawn into adventures not of his own making. It’s Fallout with less nostalgic music or Americana kitsch, more bizarre muscle cars and screaming guitar riffs.
(Was that rig with the suspended guitarist whose axe had a flamethrower not the BEST?)
Mad Max has spoken to fans for years and years. The lone adventurer in the desolation of the devastated Outback, wheeling and dealing for gasoline in the midst of outlandish bandits and barely-alive survivors really speaks to the independent streak in young men. He’s tough, taciturn, capable, and above all, crazy enough to do wicked cool and highly dangerous stunts and get into fights out of his weight class. At least, that’s how Mel Gibson played the character.
Tom Hardy certainly brings the tough, taciturn, capable, and crazy as well, but he also brings an element that, to me, Gibson had a tendency to overlook: humanity. Max is haunted by his failures. He’s withdrawn because of people he’s let down, family he’s lost, friends he’s seen hurt or killed. If he hadn’t already established himself in things like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and above all, Bronson, I’d say this is a star-making turn for him. Max is also smart, especially in the way Hardy plays him, and I really appreciate that despite this being the fourth movie in this series, Max shows growth and a difference in understanding from where he is at the start to where he is at the end.
Despite the title and the performance, however, this movie does not belong to Max. It belongs to Furiosa. It belongs to the women.
The first time we actually see all of the wives fleeing the clutches of Immortan Joe and what have to be incredibly gross and unconsented kisses, they are hosing each other down and using bolt cutters to remove the metal belts Joe slapped on them to keep them “his.” I remember clearly, as that tableau was presented, some dude behind me in the theater uttering the word “Nice.” I felt my stomach turn. Thankfully, as the movie continued, it was clear that his sort of attitude was the very one these women were not only escaping from, but actively fighting against.
You see, while the wives are very attractive, and clad in varying degrees of white clothing that might be meant to be alluring, at no point do any of them feel like pawns in a greater game, like things to be pursued or saved. These women are saving themselves. Yes, Furiosa is the means of their salvation (and I’m getting to her, trust me), but these characters conspired with one another intelligently, planned their escape methodically, and even take up arms to defend the freedom they’re struggling to attain. Max and Nux appearing are incidental things. Yes, they prove to be helpful in the cause, but they are not the agents of change in this story. The women are.
I cannot stress enough how important this is. This is a 21st-century Hollywood blockbuster. This is a tough-as-nails gorefest breakneck action flick. This sort of thing is designed to pull in audiences that are predominantly male. And yet, smuggled in under the explosions and gunfire and nitrous injections and fistfights is a very strong, very clear message: Men are not the only heroes. Men are not the only saviors. Women do not always need to be damsels in distress; they are more than capable of saving themselves, thank you very much. As much as each of Immortan Joe’s unconsenting wives personifies this, the focal point of this mentality is clearly Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa.
Not only is Furiosa a woman who is clearly an equal to every man she encounters, if not superior in skill, tenacity, strength, and cunning, she thoroughly and consistently proves that she is the driving force (pun somewhat intended) of this story. She overwhelms Max in a fight. She drives as well as Max. She’s better shot than Max (and, in one scene, he demonstrates that he knows this. I literally squee’d). She helps the wives escape, gives them a destination, and dedicates herself to protecting them along every mile of the Fury Road. Oh, and did I mention she does this with a disability? We never find out how Furiosa lost her arm, but between the prosthetic (which is, in and of itself, pretty badass) and her general levels of skill and guts (also badass), that loss does not slow her down one bit. If this isn’t role model material, I don’t know what is.
From the moment this aspect of the film became clear, word began to circulate that so-called “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) were livid about it. “Mad Max belongs to men!” seemed to be the common rallying cry. “Action films belong to men! Hot chicks in movies get saved by men!” So on and so forth, to ever-descending degrees of disgustingness. The truth, of course, is that these arguments are ignorant and baseless. Good artists, be they filmmakers, authors, painters, or musicians, make art for everyone, even if everyone might not be into the art being made – not everybody can get into the music of Philip Glass or the films of Takashi Miike, for example. George Miller is a good artist, and he made Mad Max: Fury Road for everyone, at least everyone over the age of consent, given the blood spatters and deformities and drug use and violence and whatnot. Male, female, or anywhere in between, I’d like to think that everybody can admire Furiosa, root for the wives, and chuckle along as Max finds a way to help in the righteous cause he’s been searching for and finally found in the frightened but determined women huddled together in the back of the War Rig.
This is not an easy road to walk. The ideas of feminism and equal representation and triumph in the face of adversity, disability, and the partiarchy get opposed even in the relatively enlightened days of the 21st century. Indeed, Immortan Joe is a personification of the patriarchy, demanding the devotion of the young men under his control and expecting everyone, especially women, to bend entirely to his whims. Nux, one of the War Boys and the soul to whom Max is bound (literally, for the first hour), shows us not only how such control affects a human being, but that said being has the ability to overcome it. When we meet him, Nux is living only for himself and the approval of his paternal figure; by the end, Nux is living for people who, by the standards of the figure he so highly esteemed, aren’t considered people at all. There’s so much in this film that belies its simple, action-flick nature, and it isn’t easy to walk the road of making sure everyone knows it, and knows that the sort of “male gaze” bullshit that has dominated films and stories like this for centuries cannot and will not persevere.
I’m going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, in cinemas if possible, to walk this road as much as I can. And I’d like to think that, if you are reading these words and understanding their full meaning, you’d be willing to walk it with me.