Mad Max: Fury Road To Thunderdome and Back Again
The clickerati have been wringing their hands lately over the latest installment of George Miller's Mad Max film franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, discussing the film's status as a ground-breaking feminist action masterpiece or, conversely, as evidence of a feminist agenda seeking to unmake manliness in all its forms. The kerfuffle seems to have started when Aaron Clarey, writing for the website www.returnofkings.com, cited two recent articles describing Miller's consultation with The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. As a result of this consultation, and the relative lack of screen time Tom Hardy as Mad Max receives in the film's trailer, Clarey concluded in a piece posted May 11th, “Alas, I was forced to accept reality. Fury Road was not going to be a movie made for men. It was going to be a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.” The responses to Clarey's piece, from websites like CNN, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and The Guardian, latched onto the notion that Return of Kings is a misogynistic “men's rights” that can't handle a film featuring a strong female character, and, anyway, this guy admits to not having even seen the film.
As is so often the case in these internet disputes, the original pieces got reactions, followed by reactions to the reactions, and the inevitable appearance of everything on Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter streams, comments and diatribes accompanying each passing of the story or the story of the story. That's a lot of noise about a film that is ostensibly a reboot of a three-part 1980s low budget action series. We can imagine that if the film merely retreaded the same worn tires from the original trilogy, critics would be lamenting its lack of originality. Instead, Fury Road attempts something fresh, without really coming out and saying what makes this action film different from the rest.
There's no doubt that Fury Road is a noteworthy piece of film-making. The film is a gorgeous example of car porn, the likes of which is seen in the tremendously successful “Fast and Furious” franchise. Instead of sleek sports cars and souped up classics, however, Fury's cars are apocalyptic monster machines, vehicles welded to other vehicles and adorned with wicked spikes and gun nests. Every exhaust spouts flames, every surface gets a skull. The cars, trucks, and buggies that populate the film speed across the arid landscape against sandstorms and rock formations as naturally beautiful as the vehicles are mechanically astounding. The world of Fury Road is decidedly dry and desolate, a sort of Dune-meets-Wile E. Coyote, and it's wonderful to behold. As stellar as the visuals are, however, the plot is a little pedestrian.
Tom Hardy Bane-voices his way through the movie as Max, a lone wolf wanderer haunted by visions of a little girl admonishing him for his failure. Captured by the War Boys and their leader/father Immortan Joe, Max must breakout or spend the rest of his life as a forced blood donor. Max soon finds himself strapped to the front of a War Boy's buggy, chasing after Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, who has suddenly taken a wrong turn on her way to collect gasoline. Furiosa is using her War Rig to smuggle women selected to be wives and breeding stock away from Joe and toward a mythical “Green Place.” Max and Furiosa join forces, and the road trip of vehicular destruction commences as Joe's forces chase them across the sand. Once Max and Furiosa's party arrives at the spot of the Green Place, they meet up with a group of women, the Vuvalini, who explain that the Green Place is no longer green—it's the sludgy area with the crows a little ways back. So Furiosa devises a new plan: go back the way they came and invade Joe's base while it's undefended. The fact that a sequel has already been announced is hint enough about how successful they are.
During the out-and-back adventure, Furiosa is in charge. She's strong, smart, talented behind the wheel of her War Rig, and a better shot with a sniper rifle than Max. In Clarey's piece, he noted that Theron speaks more than Hardy in Fury's trailer, and her character does speak more than Hardy's throughout the film. She hatches the plans, makes the final wounded but unbent last stand featured in all action movies, and in the film's conclusion, takes on the role of leader and savior. But action films—especially sci-fi action films—have had strong female protagonists before. Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise is the go-to example here, but Sarah Conner and Lara Croft and Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow as played by Scarlett Johansson from the recent Avengers films, are more recent examples. What distinguishes Fury, though, is its handling of the film's world and its portrayal of the film's second- and third-tier characters.
The world of Mad Max: Fury Road is a desiccated wasteland. As such, the primary focus of all the characters we meet is fluid. Water and gasoline, in particular, are the point of the rides into Fury Road, and the dispensation of water to his minions is one of the ways Joe keeps control. Beyond water and gasoline, however, are the bodily fluids that play a role in the film's narrative. In addition to the women Joe keeps as wives and potential breeding stock, he also has a collection of women who are forced to provide milk, attached to devices that make them human dairy cattle. Mother's Milk is valuable in the Mad Max world, a commodity. Women have often been made into property in films, usually for their sex appeal, and the wives continue that tradition. The milk, though, is a type of comodification that feels new. These women are desired less for their bodies, and more for their human factory. The ability to become a mother is a type of factory, to be sure, but before pregnancy, the wive of Fury are first objects of desire. Each of the wives is traditionally attractive. The women providing milk, on the other hand, are less so. Both groups, though, have their value, and are protected and given access to resources that the general population of Joe's people are not.
Men, Max included, are not safe from the comodification of bodily fluids. Again, this is not new. The 1980s-era professional wrestler Roddy Piper was sought for his semen in 1988's Hell Comes to Frogtown, and to some extent the comic book series Y: The Last Man discusses the role of men in reproduction. While their ability to play a role in reproduction is important, and sometimes threatening, men's bodies are more often comodified for their physical labor—as soldiers, as slaves, as gladiators—allowing for a certain triumphant glory that women are rarely allowed. Women are usually depicted as a vessel. It's the men who are given something important to do. Fury, though, shows Max in much the same way as it shows the women being milked. Upon his capture, the War Boys run some tests and learn that Max's blood type makes him a universal donor. They hoist Max into a suspended cage, plug an IV into his neck, and turn him into a “blood bank.” There he waits until someone needs a refill. Of course, the plot requires an escape from the suspended cage, but it's a good long time before Max is detached from the IV. We are reminded later of his donor status when he performs an impromptu transfusion to save Furiosa, which perhaps proves that we are not quite ready to completely deny a male hero's chance to use his body triumphantly.
Max's world has been brought to the point where liquid is life. We never learn exactly what's happened to the planet—we get snippets about poisoning and conflict, but no clear answers. Assigning blame to the current state of affairs leads to some of the most-powerful moments of the film, as characters ask several times, “Who killed the world?” While it's probable that previous events will be unpacked more in the sequels, this film never pauses long enough for the answer to matter. What matters is the now, and the next drop of blood, the next bowl of milk, the next tank of gas.
If we are to proclaim Fury as the new feminist ideal of action movies, a point of emphasis should be the film's handling of its secondary characters. In action films we have our hero, then a few honored allies, an antagonist with a henchman or femme fatale henchwoman, and an assortment of lesser-knowns on both sides of good and evil whose roles are usually to die in a fall or an explosion on the pointy end of a well-thrown knife, faceless, nameless, and without glory. These characters, little more than body-fodder for the most part, are almost exclusively male. To wit: the Stormtroopers who stumble through doorways for Star Wars rebels to blast, the pit fighters in Gladiator who unceremoniously take spears to their chests, the fighter pilots who aren't quite as talented as our guys in any number of war movies, so many ninjas. The currency of death in action movies is provided by the B- and C-level characters whose lives are lost with little or no impact on the film's plot. They merely provide the body count, a trope parodied in the 1993 Charlie Sheen vehicle Hot Shots! Part Deux.
For the most part, these characters are quickly forgotten in favor of bigger explosions for the hero to walk away from in slow motion. In Fury, though, these characters are different. Some are women. This is a small change from the normal action film approach, but when taken as a part of the film at large, it's a notable shift. Because if we are asking for truly feminist action films, which means a film that treats men and women to a large extent equally, then we must be comfortable with female characters falling victim to the same action film brutalities as their male counterparts. Fury truly shows its feminist leanings, then, not because a woman gets more lines than a male hero figure, but as some of the Vuvalini die in battle as quickly and without pomp as the War Boys. Equal rights is the equal opportunity to end up underneath someone's wheels. In our world, we are just beginning to struggle with the realities of women facing equal peril as men on the battlefield. In Max's world, women die just as surely and as brutally as the men, without a care for gender. The film is notable for how un-notable it makes these deaths.
It's not surprising that Mad Max: Fury Road has garnered the attention of the folks who pay the bills by attracting eyeballs to their websites. When the lights stay on thanks to clicks, pop culture artifacts that somehow deviate from the norm are mana from Hollywood. Click-bait critics thrive on the churning of reaction and re-reaction. Most of the discourse, though, has moved away from an important point: Mad Max: Fury Road is a pretty good film, worthy of our attention both for its perceived political leanings and its cinematic accomplishments. It's unlikely that Fury marks some sort of a turning point in film-making, however. Rather, Fury is indicative of a broader trend in movie houses that features more films well-made and angled toward a more traditionally female audience. The first week of its release saw Fury beaten at the box office by Pitch Perfect 2, a film that features a predominately female cast under the auspices of first-time director Elizabeth Banks. This is not to say that Fury is anything but a guy-flick action movie, but it's heartening to see a guy-flick action movie take its work in a new direction. The same stories told over and over get boring, even when they have heroes walking away from explosions in slow motion.
Jason Kahler earned his PhD from Wayne State University, and he is now an Instructor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, where he teaches Composition. His other interests include motion pictures, comic books, zombies, and Great Lakes lighthousekeepers.