“Can people of all genders enjoy this blockbuster action movie with tons of exploding cars?”
And my answer to both questions is a resounding “YES, YES!” And when these imaginary people who follow me all the time with these questions ask, “But why? But how?” I say (in my head), “Because it’s just that damn good. Now, go see it!”
There’s already a glut of reviews out there touting how great the movie is and how well it handles its feminist themes. But you won’t find another one as spoiler-filled and in-depth as this one. So, get comfy and put your thinking cap on. And do only read this if you’ve seen the movie already.
[If you’re only here for the list of wonderfully crafted feminist elements, jump down below. I’m starting with my brief cinematic appraisal.]
First, my explanation for “Near Perfect”:
The action takes no time to get rolling, and we feel like we’re dropped right onto the back of one of those fire-breathing rigs. The plot and world-building details are unveiled at the goldilocks pace between quick and teasing. It is a straightforward “flee from evil to the promised land” story. There’s a somewhat surprising change of direction away from seeking “the green place” in the middle of the film, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s frequent device of the first-act macguffin. We get some very satisfying payoffs, primarily the knocking off of the main baddies and the final liberation.
Pacing & Action
The film is being called a 2-hour post-apocalyptic chase scene. This is completely accurate, and yet we never get tired of the chase, mainly due to the welcome and pregnant pause in the middle when our ragtag group has to re-assess what to do next now that “the green place” is just a memory. As for the action, it is balls-(or ovaries)-to-the-wall, constantly delivering creative ways for the characters to use car parts, body parts, and flame-throwing guitars as bashing weapons. And while the battles are hyperactive and full of exaggerated marksmanship and combat expertise, the action is still pretty grounded and believable from a physics perspective. The filmmakers even manage to stay true to the chase plot pacing through to the last scene by avoiding a bloated or over-extended conclusion. Mission accomplished -- time for Max to exit stage left.
We instantly identify with the main characters through their strong and clear motivations. For Max, it is run, escape, survive. For Furiosa, the goal is to deliver The Wives from their lives as breeding slaves. Nick Hoult’s Nux needs to prove himself in battle and maybe die a glorious death in the process. Character development is not the intent with this kind of movie, and it’s not a focus of the earlier Mad Max films either. Regardless of the fact that we get very little information about the pasts that haunt Max and Furiosa, their eyes and gravelly voices succeed in the heavy-lifting of convincing the viewer that they really are burdened by something for which they need redemption. Most impressive of all is that each of these three characters is dynamic and shows some kind of change or growth. Furiosa claims her role as a leader instead of choosing the life of a fugitive. Max faces the failures of his past and once again participates in the human race long enough to do some real good. And Nux transforms from a warmonger gloryhound to a person who makes his own decisions and supports the crusade of the oppressed rather than remaining a cog in the hegemony.
Effects and Cinematography
Blissful. YES, YES, YES to the heavy use of practical effects and on-location shooting. Also, the amped up color saturation, while not so realistic, is quite welcome in such a drab landscape. The fight choreography is coherent and easy to follow. And the make-up effects are exceptional as well. Overall, it is the visual masterpiece that I hoped it would be upon viewing that first trailer way back in July at San Diego Comic-Con.
As an action set-piece, there is a lot of reacting rather than acting, but all the line deliveries hit the mark, and the dialogue is true to the world and the setting and doesn’t spoonfeed the audience. Theron, Hardy, and Hoult each bring a unique emotion and gravitas to their roles. Heck, I even loved the muscle-bound Nathan Jones’ delivery of Rictus Erectus’ line, “I had a brother! I had a baby brother, and he was perfect in every way!” Such pervasive and spot-on delivery is owed in part to good writing followed up with great directing.
Place in the Franchise
Some might call it a reboot, but I wouldn’t. It aims high, vaults over the previous films, and sticks the landing. The feel of this film is very true to the others in the series, yet with a great deal more development of the mythology. And it really is hands-down the best film in the series. How many franchises can claim that the 4th in the series is the best one, or even close? Phantom Menace? Rocky 4? Superman IV: The Quest for Crap? Nope. I am so happy for George Miller being able to realize this full vision of his masterpiece.
10 Nuggets of Fury Road’s Feminist Gold:
Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, is not just a woman who’s a badass. She’s a major badass, one who matches, and in some ways exceeds the primary male badass and titular character in terms of prowess. Furiosa seems more knowledgeable about engines than Max, is a better long-range shot with a rifle, demonstrates outstanding bravery and decisiveness, and takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. How many times have we seen the male hero on death’s doorstep after killing the villain only to be saved by the nurturing and healing of the woman, the elixir of love, the antidote delivered, etc? It was so cool to see this reversed in Fury Road. Max and Furiosa are given such equal weight that it is tough to determine if one is the more “main character” than the other. [I know you’ve got an opinion on that, so share it in the comments.]
2. So Many Aspects of Womanhood are Portrayed.
This movies doesn’t just put all of its commentary and empowerment into Furiosa’s character. Not at all. This is not just a woman acting like a typical male action star; if it was only that, I would not be impressed or be writing this piece. The film’s portrayal of women is so multi-dimensional. There is the clear struggle against abuse and objectification, the importance and strength of the womb, “mother’s milk” being vital to survival, and the multi-generational badass survivalist women who haven’t lost their humanity and ability to care for one another and nurture the earth. The elder women more than hold their own in a fight and are allowed by the writers to die in battle right alongside the men. Another female presence is the embodiment of the ghostly girl who haunts Max and keeps him connected to his humanity (a role previously filled by a feral young boy sidekick in Mad Max 2). Movies like Underworld, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil only accomplish #1 on this list and typically don’t meet the Bechdel Test, let alone pass it with flying colors and have a plot that revolves around women liberating themselves.
3. “We Don’t Need Another Romance."
Even though I love “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, I’m glad we didn’t have one in this movie. Men and women get to be partners, appreciate each other, and develop mutual respect, all in the absence of sex or romance. The only time we see a naked woman, it is a cunning device of her own making to serve as bait to spring a trap. Now, that’s what I call using your sexuality in an empowered way, when your girl pack rolls up on their sand dune motorbikes to take out the would-be predator (you know... a perfectly acceptable and necessary tactic in the post-apocalyptic wasteland).
Model-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley isn’t in the film to be a sex object, nor is her character (or any other woman in the film) a prize to be won by the conquering hero. Many will remember Huntington-Whiteley from her debut role walking off the Victoria’s Secret runway and onto the set of Michael Bay’s second Transformers movie, where her role was the typical princess locked away in the tower waiting to be rescued. In Fury Road, her character is an object of desire, but it is the sick and twisted desire of the main villain, Immortan Joe, which is a device to quite overtly tell the audience, “this kind of possessiveness of women is wrong.” You might call George Miller “The Anti-Bay.” In Transformers, we get a prolonged look at Megan Fox’s slender stomach leaning over a car engine, and in Fury Road, Miller introduces Huntington-Whiteley with a lengthy shot of her very pregnant belly. It seems like a very deliberate choice made by the writers to elevate the importance of the womb above that of the typical supermodel-esque damsel. Heck, that womb was so strong it lowered pointed guns when used as a human shield. Too bad it was carrying Creepy Evil Dude’s spawn.
5. Implied Sex Crimes Suffice Just Fine.
Abuse, sex slavery, and objectification are central to the plot of the film, and yet we are spared an obligatory rape scene or a tortuous scene of domination and violence against women. Hallelujah! This George M. has successfully avoided the pitfalls currently plaguing another well-known George M. That’s about all that I have to say about that, except to remind us that the first Mad Max film was pretty explicit with its depiction of rape, so it is nice to see Miller leading the charge of what I hope is a new awareness in Hollywood that subtlety can still have significant gravity.
6. Women Making their Own Destiny.
Of course, this idea permeates the film. You see it from the very beginning when you realize the supply run is really an escape attempt. But more importantly, it is true at the end when the multi-generational force of women, with Max and Nick Hoult’s Nux in tow, decide to head back to the Citadel and claim it. It was great that Max gets to come up with the plan to storm the Citadel and propose it to the group since this is one of his few moments of agency in the film. But it takes the validation of the plan by the elder women to make it stick. This is a nice touch that didn’t have to be included and usually wouldn’t have been, given Hollywood’s typical desire to make the male lead have prowess and seem like a smarter and stronger leader. This device makes perfect sense because it demonstrates a few points so well: 1) just how far the women have come toward owning their own destiny, 2) how comfortable and firmly integrated Nux is with the group now, and 3) it allows Max to be the character we’ve seen from previous films, which is the loner survivalist who helps out the oppressed underdog and then fades back into his nomadic existence.
Men and women of different ages and abilities (but, sadly, not really different ethnicities) work together to bring down the trinity of patriarchy in one fell swoop. George Miller does a wonderful job of building these megalomaniacal tyrants that end up serving as archetypes of the varying brands of evil power-mongering. The leaders of the three major war parties each represent a stranglehold on the major resources of the current economy: water & food (milk), gasoline, and bullets. We have the nihilistic, fat cat gasoline tycoon wearing the 3-piece suit (complete with holes for nipple clamps). We’ve got the warmongering, literal bullet-head who goes down in an uproarious blaze of glory that is quite sublime. And our main baddie represents the demagogue monarch, a cult leader and dictator, who maintains a stark social strata and imprisons and possesses women for his breeding pleasure. When they are all dispatched leaving a vast power vacuum, there is no doubt that the time is right for reshaping the world into a more just place.
8. Men’s Liberation is Intertwined with that of Women.
Nick Hoult’s character Nux is so wonderfully portrayed and we instantly root for him. He serves as a stand-in for the average masculine presence in this new, scorched world and can be viewed as a reflection of the Everyman from our own world. Nux changes from following the orders of the tyrant whom he unquestioningly idolizes, to gaining empathy for the plight of the women escapees and joining their cause. Along the way, he realizes that his struggle to dominate as a warrior has been futile and unfulfilling. He comes to this realization by way of three influences: 1) the gentle care and respect given freely by Riley Keough’s character, 2) seeing another way to be a man as modeled by Max, and 3) actually being valued for his contribution and feeling more efficacy as a gear-head patching up the rig than as a trained killer. In light of all of this, Nux’s journey serves as the allegory for reconciliation between, and among, all genders.
It all comes together in the end. The women return “home,” which is the archetypal hero’s return, a la return of the king, return of the conquering hero, Odysseus and all of that good stuff. And they bring their wombs, weapons, badassery, seeds to grow new food, and new leadership. Even the perpetually breastmilk-pumping women get in on the empowerment at the end when they are the ones throwing on the water levers in the very visual and visceral sign of freedom. The liberation is swift and welcomed by chants of “Furiosa! Furiosa!” (Think: Hermione casting wingardium furiosa on women everywhere). This is one of the points that makes some viewers complain that Max was too secondary of a character, but to that I say, “get over it.” Hardy’s Max is very true to the character; Max isn’t looking to conquer or lead. He’ll help a regime change, but doesn’t want any part of the new one.
10. All this Feminism is Front-and-Center AND Makes Perfect Sense.
Most impressive of all… is the fact that even with all of the feminism put into this summer blockbuster from a franchise long-adored by men, it is so great and well-made that all but a few could possibly be disappointed! The women’s empowerment elements don’t feel obtrusive or shoehorned in because they fit so naturally into the plot and mythology. Essentially, women’s liberation is the plot, including how that is tied up with the liberation of all, so we shouldn’t have any qualms about how much time is given focusing on the women’s struggle or that they get to the be so much the center of the action. Men’s rights activists will complain. Let them. Who cares? And some Mad Max purists might have a beef if they were hoping for more of the “Max Rockatansky as a one-man army, force of nature and vengeance.” Luckily, the series and the character has continued to evolve, and to me, this felt like a very true Max Rockatansky.
I’m sure that there will be varying views on the portrayal of Fury Road’s human populace having such widespread physical disabilities, including Furiosa herself. I, for one, did not see this as a filmmaking gimmick to add window-dressing to a post-apocalyptic world. I felt that the portrayal of the people with disabilities in the Citadel settlement was the opposite of otherizing because they were THE people. They were the people the heroes returned to, the people worth liberating, and the people whose suffering at the hand of tyranny we empathized with and whom we wanted to see claim their rights and freedoms. It is a common trope to furnish a villain that is “twisted and deformed” in some off-putting way, but by avoiding this and, by sheer numbers, normalizing different physical abilities and means of mobility, the audience is ushered towards that place of empathy and oneness.
The movie is not perfect. It won’t be winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards (but who cares about that measurement anyway?). It doesn’t address all of society’s ills. The lack of actors of color is apparent, but to her credit, Zoe Kravitz does engage in some effective scene-stealing.
I think this film sets a new bar for balancing justice issues and raw popcorn-fueled pleasure. Take note, writers and directors. Take note.
Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy piece. Have your own thoughts on the matter? Want to let me know what I forgot, or was off-base on? That’s why we have a comments section.