I happen to like my fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movies chock full of social commentary, the more nuanced the better. Does that mean that I have many favourite fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movies? No. At this point, I happen to have one.
Enter Mad Max: Fury Road.
What may unexpectedly turn out to be the cinematic star of my summer, Mad Max: Fury Road has shocked me for all the right reasons. I might be partially to blame for letting my assumptions and preconceptions about this genre—one that has only ever offered me anarchy, specifically of the masculine mayhem variety—guide me into believing that I would see an average, mildly entertaining film at best. I thought it would be safe to place my bets on the stale trifecta of blockbuster films: the conventionally attractive, white male protagonist; the manipulative, often sexually abusive male antagonist; and the conventionally attractive, token female love interest.
Truth be told I wasn’t entirely wrong. The main cast consists of two men and one woman. However, the dynamics between them are different from the traditional configuration. The antagonist, Immortan Joe, is indisputably the villain, but the role of protagonist alternates between Max and Impertator Furiosa (henceforth referred to as Furiosa). While I would initially be inclined to say that Max is the main character—the series is named after him, the first two films have starred him as the protagonist, and the narrative opens with his internal dialogue—he takes on a strongly supportive character role to Furiosa. I will refrain from going into specifics for the moment, and save the spoilers for later, but here is what you need to know.
The cast is large in reality, ambitiously large for CGI. This makes the car chases rather intense because Fury Road is not one car going head-to-head with another; rather, it is an army of vehicles equipped to the brim with fire, harpoons, guns, poles long enough to swing soldiers into adjacent cars, and an actual—non-animated—flaming guitar, all chasing after an army rig full of female sex-slave escapees. It can be a lot to take in.
That being said, the cinematography of the movie is actually quite intelligently done, considering the constant and ferociously hectic material of the scenes. The plain, desert landscape facilities the madness without adding excess clutter, and there are a shocking number of creative ways a person can fall off of a vehicle going at high speeds. As an audience member, you’re guaranteed an explosive visual feast. However, the visual effects are not what I and many others are praising this movie for, so we’ll move on.
Out of the entire cast there are sixteen characters important enough to be given names; six are men and ten are women. It is also important to note that there are five other prominent female members of the Vuvalini gang who are active but unnamed. With them I’ll also include the unnamed male guitarist who never speaks but is a reoccurring and noticeable character. Together, these additions culminate in a grand total of twenty-two ‘important’ characters, of which seven are men and fifteen are women. I may be watching the wrong blockbuster action movies, but that is not a common ratio.
What’s even more uncommon is that the bodies in this film are widely varied to include characters who are old, young, thin, fat, pregnant, able-bodied, physically disabled, and mentally traumatized. In every case, none of the characteristics that are conventionally added to make a character sympathetic or to weaken them were used as such. While they were not all capable of performing in the same way, every person was capable in their own right.
Spoilers follow with a deeper discussion of these variations.
Disabilities play a large role in this film, and are addressed both seriously and practically. Furiosa, already discussed as one of the m ain characters—if not the main character—is highly competent both as a driver and as a combatant, and demonstrates her ability to fight with her prosthetic arm or with it detached. Moreover, none of the other characters comment negatively on her arm, or use it as a trite excuse to question her authority, ability, or credentials. The five wives trust her implicitly with their safety, and Max, along with Nux and the Vuvalini, treats her as either a superior officer giving orders or a comrade directly on par with him.
Nux is an especially interesting case in this situation as he begins the movie with low feelings of self-worth that result from his hero worship of the antagonist Immortan Joe. He idealizes the possibility of dying as a suicide bomber, and tries repeatedly to take out Furiosa’s truck and Furiosa herself at the expense of his own life. However, on his third and final attempt, Nux fails before Immortan Joe, who dismisses him as a worthless failure, unfit to enter the ideal afterlife at the crux of their religion. Nux, who has likely been raised as a war dog explicitly for the purpose of serving Immortan Joe and dying valiantly, cannot function after this. It takes one of the wives—whose name, appropriately, is Capable—to find him. Capable understands the similarities between their sufferings—both have been exploited in some way, and both have been indoctrinated into a religion by a man who sees them as less than property. Nux’s mental trauma inflicted under Immortan’s patriarchal regime is directly combatted by Capable’s humanity and the ‘feminine’ prospect of expressing emotion, as well as by the validation of personal agency.
Mad Max: Fury Road offers a great deal to its audience: high action, explosions, car chases, and wickedly fun cinematography, but there are also deep, reoccurring undercurrents of truly meaningful topics. This movie does not back away from the challenge of a visually difficult scene or even of a socially nuanced one; moreover, it is evident by the writing that these ‘feminist moments’ were given a great deal of thought. There are a number of films touted as progressive for having Strong Female Characters or for ‘empowering’ marginalized groups that are fundamentally undermined by the white, male protagonist’s need to be The Saviour.
The truly standout moment of Mad Max: Fury Road is, in my opinion, at the very end. The final scene of the movie depicts the wives, women, and Max return to the Citadel bearing the dead body of Immortan Joe on top of their car to announce the end of his oppressive reign. The impoverished people of the Citadel, always excluded from prosperity under Immortan Joe, join the women on a platform that will take them to the top of the fortress, and as they are being raised and the movie is winding down—there, you see it. Arguably one of the best cinematic shots of the movie. As the platform is being lifted, the camera pans to Max, who is not on the platform but is disappearing into the crowd below. He looks up, and there is a single shot of Furiosa, prosthetic arm off and standing with the women, watching him leave as she rises and the movie cuts to black.
Max is not the Saviour. He chooses to not go on the platform, and this Citadel is not his to reclaim. In its last shot, Mad Max: Fury Road cements that Max was never really the focus of the movie at all—this movie is about people who are easily forgotten and exploited taking back their own lives.
And it is the best fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movie I’ve ever seen.
-contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi