Mad Max: Fury Road is, as you'd expect, a powerful and frenetic post-apocalyptic action movie full of dusty roads and trackless desert with the occasional fire tornado. It's two hours of bad guys in souped-up vehicles trying to run down the motley gang made up of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), and five tough women trying to escape their lot as "breeders" for the foul tyrant Immortan Joe. If you think that sounds fun—and it does—you should go see it.
To my surprise, Fury Road is also an explicitly feminist movie, with Furiosa and Max joining forces to take down a literal patriarchy. While the point of view largely centers on Max, the protagonist is clearly Furiosa, who with her deadly aim, prosthetic hand, and iron will pulls Max, the other good guys, and all of the many and varied villains in her wake. Later in the movie, we encounter a matriarchal society of badass older women who provide deadly sniper fire and heirloom seeds. Naturally, it easily passes the Bechdel test, although one of my favorite conversations among women is technically "about" men, when an older woman discusses her ability to only use one bullet per kill. In a moviemaking era when the portrayal and marketing of "strong female characters" is increasingly a topic of conversation, especially when it comes to action and superhero flicks, Fury Road stands out as exceptional.
Official trailer to 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)
If all you remember is Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, this type of thoughtful engagement with themes of patriarchy and power in an action franchise might feel out of place. But the first two films, Mad Max and The Road Warrior, are both high-concept movies. I recently rewatched all three films and was struck by the different levels of artistry in the first two. Mad Max, the original, was a leading film in the Australian New Wave movement, its makers consciously adding art and complexity to a movie about car chases and crazed bikers. It's a patient movie: Max doesn't actually get so mad until the last ten minutes of the film, when the revenge plot surfaces. To me, the rest of the movie felt like pre-apocalyptic mumblecore, with quiet conversations about where to go, what to eat, what to drive, and trips for ice cream.
When director George Miller set about making The Road Warrior, armed with a much bigger budget and surprised by the impact of his first film, he invoked Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Max, he thought, could be turned into a universal hero. We encounter Max in the midst of his hero's journey, the stranger from the wasteland arriving in what's left of civilization, protecting it and learning lessons from those around him, and ultimately continuing on his way back into the wasteland at the end of the film. Unlike Campbell's archetypal hero, however, Max never gets to go home again, because home is gone.
Trailer to 'Mad Max' (1979)
Beyond Thunderdome had a different kind of impact. Many fans of the first two movies still feel that their artistry was betrayed by the big-budget mess of the third, but plenty of others—especially decades later, associate the phrase "Mad Max" with "Two men enter, one man leaves." And then we cut to Tina Turner's MTV video, which topped charts around the world. The movie may not have the kind of auteur's depth of the first two, but it certainly helped establish Mad Max as a cultural touchstone, even for people who never saw any of the movies.
And then we waited 30 years for Fury Road.
Over the intervening years, and amid consistent criticism, strong female characters have sometimes appeared in major action films. Some of them are martial arts masters; others use magic, shoot rifles, or fly spaceships. But when a character's only function in a film is just to be attractive to the male characters (or the male audience), to get into danger and be rescued, or to remain passive or deferential to a male protagonist, that's not feminism. When social scientist Katy Gilpatric researched violent women in action films from 1991 to 2005, she found that while there are plenty of tough women, they are mostly relegated to submissive roles and romantic entanglements. Such characters continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes, even if they know kung fu.
There are a few films, though, that serve as notable precursors to Fury Road. The Alien series, for example, not only had the iconic Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and super-marine Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), but a plot based around mopping up the failings of patriarchal culture in both the military and corporations. In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), she of the awesome biceps, is surrounded by men who don't believe her. Meanwhile, she teaches the eventual male savior (her son John) everything he needs to know by being a strong parent, and still finds the time to fight the robot apocalypse.
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The most direct parallel, because it's inspired by movies like Mad Max, is Tank Girl. Not only does it feature Ice-T as one of a pack of genetically-modified kangaroos, but Lori Petty plays a sexually liberated tank-driving heroine of the post-apocalyptic era. She defeats the bad-poetry quoting villain Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell) and his evil company Water and Power. The common thread to all three of these movies is the nature of the enemy—male, corporate, and scornful of the female hero in ways that feel chauvinist—and the clarity with which these female heroes plan and execute their assault. There are no accidental feminist action movies.
So, too, with Fury Road. Director George Miller asked Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, to come meet with the cast and crew, and especially spend time with the women playing the escaped breeders. Miller wanted the actresses to learn about exploited women around the world, and work with Ensler to better replicate the characterizations and dynamics of such a group. Immortan Joe's sexual exploitation of women is, moreover, only the most obvious consequence of patriarchal tyranny. In Mad Max: Fury Road, everyone is just a body part—wombs and breasts for women (the bad guys drink a lot of human milk), muscles or blood for men.
Patriarchy may seem to empower masculinity, but in truth it limits men to their (often self-) destructive roles. Some of the warriors in Immortan Joe's army fight in the hopes of dying in battle and reaching Valhalla, while others are mere "blood bags," their body fluids used to keep the more useful fighters alive. (At the beginning of the film, it's Max's status as a type-O universal donor that makes him especially coveted.)
I worry that some people might get turned off the movie by knowing the feminist context. That would be a shame, because the movie is fantastic, calibrated perfectly to appeal to fans of the action genre in general and the Mad Max franchise in particular. Moreover, it's these themes that bring meaning to the insane stunts and preposterous war engines and make us care as the characters suffer, struggle, triumph, and die.
So, enjoy the movie. And don't let the F-word scare you.
Mad Max: Fury Road arrives in theaters on May 15.
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