The furious road to feminism: a review of Mad Max

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CW: Sexual violence, femicide

The Mad Max film series is mostly excellent but undeniably weird. The first in the series, Mad Max, is a cheaply, yet inventively, made exploitation film starring baby faced Mel Gibson and featuring eye-popping vehicular stunts. Its sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, is unremittingly badass at every opportunity, topping the previous film with features such as a back-flipping feral kid who murders fools with a boomerang. It defined the punk aesthetic post-apocalyptic imagery that is now commonplace in the genre and is accurately cited as reaching peak Maxitude (at least until this year). The third in the series is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which is, unfortunately, a disappointment. It’s haphazardly structured with an odd family friendly tone, only benefiting from the visual brilliance in its lavish sets and from starring Tina Turner. She is every bit as awesome as you would expect and arguably sets the precedent for great female characters in the series.

George Miller directed all of these films (well, Thunderdome was co-directed with George Ogilvie) and, like the series, he’s kind of weird too. He made his name with violent action but has re-defined himself by making children’s films such as Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2, as well as Babe 2: Pig In The City (which, by all accounts, is a brilliant if inappropriately dark sequel).This is a hell of a left turn from making awesome car crash-centric action extravaganzas – which is fine, artists evolve and change – but one could wonder if we’d ever see a fourth Mad Max and if George Miller would be the one to bring it back. Luckily, this year, after a lot of hype and excitement, Mad Max: Fury Road burst onto the scene, once again with Miller at the helm.

It’s no surprise to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is awesome. Miller had been trying to get this going since Mel Gibson was young enough (and not insane enough) to be playing Max, so he has had plenty of time to refine the concept, making Fury Road a finely coiled, spring loaded mechanism of a film. It’s an absolutely astonishing experience, with Tom Hardy as the new Max being propelled along in a gloriously simple yet polished adventure. The story and characters are explored richly and yet efficiently through the action, the world-building is effortless and fun, and the technical aspects; the shot-choice, editing and cinematography, have raised the game for every other blockbuster this year. If it wasn’t for those pesky Raid films, it would certainly be the best action film of the decade. As it stands, Mad Max: Fury Road is a close third and a brilliant statement from a 70 year old director, saying “This shit here – this shit – is how it’s done”.

While its success was somewhat predictable, the feminist element of Fury Road has been surprising. Everyone was expecting action and sweet stunts, but Miller raised his game in this respect: although all films, all narratives, should have a thematic basis, Fury Road makes the cool choice of presenting itself as a feminist fable, transforming itself into an action film that is not just awesome, but also socially conscious.

How is the film feminist? Firstly, the most dominant character in the film is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Fury Road is essentially her story and it’s her goals that drive the film (a bunch of idiots have been whining that Max is a hanger-on for his own film, clearly forgetting that the same is the case for The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. In fact, the only film that follows Max’s personal journey is the first one). Furiosa is as extreme as her name and what’s interesting is that at no point during the films is she ever sexualized. A lot of supposedly badass action heroines are undermined due to the camera’s fascination with their anatomy (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil), but this is never the case in Fury Road. Theron is exclusively visually defined as an action hero, the camera focusing quite rightly on her intense stare more than anything else. She is also one of a very few disabled characters in action cinema not defined by her disability. She has taken her missing arm and turned into a strength; the film doesn’t dwell on it or try to justify it, it just presents it, shows it in action, and moves on.

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In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa decides to help a group of women escape from the clutches of lunatic religious dictator, Immortan Joe. The women are referred to as Immortan Joe’s “brides” and “breeders” interchangeably, and pointedly repeat the motto, “We are not things” in their escape. Immortan Joe and his Warboys, a cult following of sick and manic young men, give chase, with Immortan Joe screaming, “My property!”, and generally being a giant, psychopathic dick. Once Furiosa and team go as far as they can, battling Joe and the Warboys on the way, they meet up with another band of fighting women, united in the knowledge that men and the patriarchy destroyed everything in their path. As asked rhetorically by Rosie Huntington-Whitely (on excellent form), “Who killed the world?”

These beats show us that the patriarchy dominates even after it has turned the world into a burnt out husk. It exists strongly in the dictatorship of Immortan Joe, where women are perceived as objects solely for breeding or producing milk. Such corrupt and unjust systems are not easily surmounted.

Of course, there are people who will whine that the film demonises men, which is frankly bullshit. There, at the centre of it all, is Max. His arc starts with him being outright hostile to the women (through a desire to survive, not out of maliciousness), then progresses to him joining with them reluctantly out of mutual need, and ends finally with him understanding their plight and deciding to help them. What this shows, through the misty power of metaphor, is that feminism helps men as well as women. It’s far more important to do what’s right for everyone then to try and hold onto certain behaviours in order to preserve an antiquated sense of “masculinity”, and Max demonstrates this when he gives up a sniper rifle to Furiosa simply because she’s a far better shot.

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There’s also Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who arguably has the most transformative arc in the movie as he journeys from misguided villain to hero. In the final moments of the film, he takes his own life in order to rescue the others – it’s a wonderful conclusion and a lesser film would have had one the female charcters killed off in order to “motivate” Nux or Max. In fact, another filmmaker might have killed off Furiosa, in order to propel an embittered Max into Fury Road 2 or something similar, but instead Furiosa lives to the end as Max disappears back into the wasteland. The final shot is of Furiosa rising up on a platform, her future as leader of the community heavily implied.

A lot of the whining about Fury Road came primarily from the website Return of Kings, a site run by a bunch of stupid and evil misogynistic lunatics who are bitter that feminism features in a Mad Max film, probably because they have a deep, dark void where their social existence and morality is supposed to be. They’re boycotting Fury Road, but I’m sure Warner Bros aren’t going to worry too much about the lost revenue from a small bunch of cry-baby man-children, especially seeing as one of the writers of the boycott articles also wrote a mind-shatteringly fucked up article about the “benefits” of legalising rape in the home. But enough about those losers, because other people have concerns regarding Fury Road’s feminism, and those people actually deserve to be engaged.

Not everyone is convinced that the film’s feminism is legit. Mark Kermode, on his immensely popular radio show/podcast with Simon Mayo, offered criticism of some of its less feminist aspects, particularly the scene where Max first meets the women and they are being hosed down with water as the camera glides over them. The camera is on the edge of leery in this scene but works in service of a minor joke; the “leery” shot is from Max’s point of view and while it first appears that he’s lusting after them, it is then revealed that it’s the water he’s after. I can see the criticism in this scene, but it is truly one of very few moments in the film like it, and subverts a common trope.

Another critic who had something to say was Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the great Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games. Anita, who I’m a big fan of, felt that the movie wasn’t feminist because using violence against others isn’t feminist, and that we should be striving for better ways of communicating power (other than driving cars really fast and punching people really hard). I see her point but I have to disagree, using violence isn’t a part of feminism, but it is part of the action movie; a genre that is, to a certain extent, based on violence. As an example, werewolves aren’t feminist. I can’t think of a single feminist I know who, if asked to make a list of things they thought were most feminist in the world, would put werewolves near the top or even on it, but a feminist horror film does not become less feminist due to it featuring a werewolf. The werewolves in a horror movie don’t undermine feminism, just as violence in an action movie doesn’t undermine it in Fury Road. Sarkeesian makes the mistake of thinking that Fury Road is attempting to define feminism, rather than simply showing its car mayhem through a feminist viewpoint.

Sarkeesian‘s other criticism is that the villains are unreal monster versions of misogynists and that the real world features more subtle and damaging forms of misogyny faced every day by real women. That’s true. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is not presenting the real world, it’s presenting a dystopian version of the world and dystopian films often make their points using exaggerated versions of real-life issues. There is a place for films about everyday misogyny, but those films shouldn’t be big, goofy action films. It would undermine those important discussions if you put them in the same film as an awesome yet ridiculous fight utilizing an electric guitar and bungee cords. Mad Max’s world is cartoonish and over the top, so it requires cartoonish and over the top monster versions of real-life evil.

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It’s okay that people don’t agree, and I would argue that it’s actually a point in the film’s favour. Whether you think Fury Road is a great feminist work, or an awesome action movie with a slight feminist spin, or you think it doesn’t have any feminism to it at all, the point is that you’re talking about it. Yes, people talk about feminism anyway, but attaching and including those themes in a big blockbuster movie widens the net of conversation considerably. Some action movie fans who might never have considered concepts like the patriarchy before might suddenly now think about it. And if someone was teetering on the edge of being a Men’s Rights Advocate, then they might consider changing their mind, after both seeing a film with female characters like Furiosa and reading the lunacy of Return of Kings’ argument. This can only be a good thing.

Best of all, the weekend of Mad Max: Fury Road‘s release was marked by discussion of what would win the weekend box office, Fury Road or Pitch Perfect 2. Effectively, it was a competition between a feminist action movie, and a film starring mostly women directed by a woman (Elizabeth Banks). Change is often slow, but weekends like these show that the paradigm is definitely shifting. Mad Max: Fury Road shows a bleak view of the future, but hopefully ours can be a little better.

Callum Birrell