by contributor Jonah Hewitt
First, It’s really hard to see what all the fuss is about, either from its supporters or detractors. It was a good show, not great, but good and entertaining. Is it one endless mind-numbing action sequence as some suggest? Not true at all. It rises and falls and has lots of movements like any rousing work of action, with some pauses, and some distinct character sequences, and a lot of action sequences, some large, most grandiose. Overall, It works. The action was more ol’ school instead of revolutionary, but maybe in the days of CGI, ol’ school is revolutionary. It was nice to be able to follow the action for once instead of being overwhelmed and having the senses assaulted constantly by shaky cam and frenetic pacing. All well done, but still, it’s only the third best of the Mad Max movies out of four. (Sorry original Mad Max fans, but it’s really a nihilistic film apart from the other three.) Though from what I remember from my metalhead friends in High School I highly doubt the Heavy Metal album cover aesthetic will persist much into the post-apocalyptic era, but who wants to watch a film with the look and feel of small town Idaho?
Tom Hardy is good, but he’s no Mel Gibson. I think Gibson does crazy better. Plus, It’s not the radical departure from the previous two at all as some had led me to believe. Mad Max is a typical reluctant hero, a tight-lipped Western drifter haunted by a barely hinted at past grafted onto a post-apocalyptic landscape. A hardscrabble, but ultimately softhearted hero that finds himself unwillingly enlisted in the cause of the underdog. That was true in Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome and it’s true in Fury Road. Even the addition of Furiosa and the wives is not all that different. Max is the facilitator of others’ stories, the strange loner that sweeps in, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, determined not to lose the people this time, and when the action ends, the villain defeated, he wanders off, still a loner. Furiosa and the wives are just Max’s charge this time around. I suppose he will have another in the next one and I think we can be assured there will be another one. This ending was more or less to type. It’s pure formula. It’s hard to imagine anyone familiar with the Mad Max saga being overly upset or surprised by anything here. Which brings us to the elephant in the room.
Is it some cypto-feminist assault against the patriarchy? An undercover femi-nazi infiltration of a beloved male genre? In a word?…no. A very emphatic “no.” I’m sorry, and I may shock people here, but I think that outside of Master and Commander, it’s just about the most pro-masculine movie I’ve ever seen. Let me explain.
A lot has been made of Charlize Theron’s kickbutt character. She does indeed kick a lot of butt, but since when has a tough female butt kicker ever invalidated a story for men? Boudica, Hippolyta, Atlantea, heck, we’ve always loved us some kick ass girls, from Perpetua all the way up to Ripley and Lara Croft. So her presence here doesn’t make this any more feminist than Aliens, for example. Also, intriguingly, aside from some crones who get off some decent shots with their muskets, she’s pretty much the only example of the female arse kicker. The breeder wives are played as mostly worthless and (surprisingly for a film hailed as feminist breakthrough) eye candy, and some of them are even borderline treasonous and want to go back to their sex slavery. Far from a “Grrrl Power” epic, it more or less affirms some basic human facts that run counter to most feminist narratives: that women are valuable precisely because they have uteruses and are often sheltered from the harder realities of life, like killing. One of them when confronted by one of the “Mothers” they spend most of the movie trying to reach is surprised to find out that the Mothers are okay with killing, saying she thought they would be “past all that.” It makes the wives seem more than a bit naive.
So while Furiosa is undoubtedly awesome, she mostly acts as a protector to the wives and not much more, it is not her movie. And so whose movie is it? You can answer that by asking the question “Who is Furiosa’s protector?” And that’s simple. It’s Max! Like Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, Mad Max is the stranger who comes and facilitates Furiosa’s plan, and let’s face it, without him, she and the wives would have been toast. Time and time again, Max saves the day. Furiosa starts with a rather desperate and most likely not fully formed plan, to liberate the evil Immortan Joe’s wives and breeding stock away from his stronghold to a safe “Green Place” where live the “Mothers.” She does this by hijacking a war rig on a fuel run (brimming with the chief baddie’s henchmen, called the “War Boys” no less.) Absent a timely sandstorm this plan probably would not have ended well. Max gets dragged along in pursuit as a “blood bag” in a set of coincidences too arcane to recount. Suffice it to say, he finds himself going from one disaster to the next and winds up in Furiosa’s company. In her first encounter with Max, she pretty much gets her ass kicked, even though Max is chained to a mostly unconscious War Boy and she has five other women who could have helped her. Getting your female lead’s head handed to her by one guy is not really fodder for smashing the patriarchy is it? From there, Max is mostly in charge. Although Furiosa gets her chops in a few times, in nearly every crisis or situation it is Max, and even more surprisingly, the tag-along War Boy Nux, that save the day or make the major decisions that move the plot along.
Max gets them through the canyon with Furiosa’s help, but when one of the wives goes under the wheels of the chief baddie’s monster truck, the wives want to turn back, though it would be foolish to do so. Max makes the decision to move on, to keep the others safe, and Furiosa backs him up. When the rig bogs down on a mudflat with the “Bullet Clan” bearing down on them, it’s the War Boy who thinks to use the winch and a dead tree to get them out. When they do get to high ground, low on ammo, Max tells them to take it a half a click on, while he deals with the Bullet Clan behind them. When Furiosa exclaims what if he doesn’t come back? Max responds with the laconic, “Then go.” In other words, he was prepared to die for them. No chatty beta males here. We only see the explosion in the distance, but it’s Max who returns, hauling back a boatload of much needed ammo and weapons, covered in the Bullet Clan’s blood. Even Furiosa looks impressed. How freaking masculine is that? We don’t even need to see it it’s so frickin dead butch.
Perhaps the most amazing reinforcement of masculine virtue however happens when they actually find this mythical band of “Mothers” only to discover there’s only a few (remarkably hardcore admittedly) crones left, and that the “Green Place” has long since turned to wasteland. Furiosa is a long lost daughter to this matriarchal tribe, but only when the fridge logic kicked in did I begin to wonder where her dad came from. Maybe that’s why the one woman was “bait” which is just…ew. Here, in near total despair, they decide to take the Mothers’ motorcycles and head out on a 160 day journey across a salt flat with no promise that there’s anything out there, whether water, green space or friendly people on the other side. Max is the one who turns them around and formulates a plan. With the Immortan Joe’’s forces all drawn out in pursuit of them, the baddie’s fortress, called the “Citadel” where there is food and growing green plants and uncontaminated water, is undefended. Mad Max, aware that their situation is futile convinces them to turn back, and fight. Martial valor is still a masculine virtue last I checked, right? What follows is another chase/action scene, where many of the bit players get to play heroic roles before checking out, but the most amazing is the one performed by a dude, and it’s not even Max. It’s the tag along War Boy! He sacrifices his life by turning over the rig in the canyon to block the pursuing war party so that Max and the women can escape. But there’s one last heroic masculine act to perform. In the chase, Furiosa has been seriously injured. Max steps up with a blood transfusion, and even though I was screaming in my head “Blood transfusions don’t work that way!” it was still an emotional moment to see Max work to save her with his own life blood. Max knows the new re-established colony will need its leader, and he’s ready to sacrifice his own to keep her and the wives alive.
Fury Road has some great action sequences and probably introduces one of the best female action heroes I’ve seen in a while, brought to life by Theron’s performance, but it’s hardly a feminist manifesto. In fact if anything, the kick ass girl, is a masculine trope because when a woman takes on the role of protector it reaffirms the fundamental a priori masculine virtue, which is the willingness to sacrifice yourself so that others might live, which the men in the movie demonstrate time and time again. I have no idea what Eve Ensler, who consulted, or the director George Miller intended, but on the screen Fury Road is not much of a feminist movie, but is far and away, a masculinist one, because it contrasts two visions of masculine behavior or the patriarchy. There’s the evil patriarchy of Immortan Joe, who only sees women as property, and the good patriarchy that holds to the – dare I say – chivalrous notion that women are inherently valuable and need protection. Without women, there is no future, no next generation. It argues that women’s lives, their dignity, and their freedom exist because of the sacrifice of…men. Not terribly feminist if you ask me.