Last month I saw one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed movies of the summer––Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed and co-written by George Miller, who also co-wrote and directed the original Mad Max films starring a much younger and then unknown movie actor named Mel Gibson, it’s a sort of sequel to the films with actor Tom Hardy now in the role of Mad Max.
The plot of Fury Road is pretty much the same, set in a post-apocalyptic world in a barren desert wasteland, where corruption, totalitarianism, and self-preservation reigns supreme in this grim and harsh landscape. There’s little room, if any, for hope, compassion or goodwill towards men. Max Rockatansky introduces us to this world in the first few minutes of Fury Road’s opening, but the real surprise is when the viewer begins to realize this isn’t really Max’s story. It belongs to Imperator Furiosa. The following post will contain spoilers, so please read at your own discretion.
Played with a balance of true grit and vulnerability by actress Charlize Theron, Furiosa is a woman with a mechanical arm, a massive War Rig, and a whole lot of rage against the system and society constructed and ruled over by Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne). Furiosa dares to defy Immortan Joe by staging her biggest act of rebellion no one has ever attempted––steal and smuggle Immotran Joe’s most beautiful and prized wives away from the Citadel and take them back to Furiosa’s homeland, simply known as “the Green Place,” in the hope of building a better life away from Immortan Joe’s tyrannical dictatorship.
Fury Road has everything you would expect from an action film––fast car chases, insane stunts, and big explosions. While those are fun and entertaining to watch, a true cinematic marvel meant to be appreciated on the big screen, what really makes the film worthwhile to watch and a standout amongst the other big blockbusters that have yet to be released this summer is pushing women into the forefront of the plot with Max acting as a supporting character throughout much of the movie. Yes, it’s still a Mad Max movie and we still see plenty of Max being a major badass, but he’s on an equal playing field with the female characters of the film, sharing screen time with Imperator Furiosa and showing moviegoers how two characters of opposite genders work together to bring down a system that does nothing to benefit anyone except Immortan Joe himself.
When you first meet Max he’s a loner living with the guilt of not being able to save his wife and child. He’s wandering the desert on auto-pilot, not actually living or actively finding a solution to the world’s current problems. Max is running on pure instinct alone, which is to survive. Then his path crosses with Imperator Furiosa’s, who despite the unspeakable horrors and injustices she endured, finds a way to keep her hope for a better life and world alive until the opportunity to escape and liberate the women who don’t agree with Immortan Joe’s vision of the future can be a reality. Furiosa ignites in Max a reason and purpose to do more than just survive. It’s time to fight back and change how the world has been functioning since earth’s devastation.
As the story progresses, Furiosa and crew encounter the last remaining survivors of Furiosa’s clan, the Vuvalini, older and wiser women who wear leather, ride motorcycles, and pack heat. Furiosa expects to walk into the childhood home she remembered––a beautiful, lush, and fruitful oasis only to be informed by one of the clan members that the dead and inhospitable swampland Furiosa drove past was the “Green Place.” The truth of Furiosa’s homeland and what it has become in the years since she remained a prisoner in Immortan Joe’s Citadel is a crushing blow and defeat for Furiosa. She takes the time to mourn the loss of her homeland, but what’s admirable about Furiosa is she gets right back up again. Furiosa could have easily become a hardened pessimist, agreeing with Max when he tells her at one point in the film, “Hope is a mistake.” But for Furiosa, hope is all she has got. This may make her either incredibly naive or insane. Maybe a little of both. In the world of Fury Road, who isn’t a little insane?
Furiosa knows what she stands for and why she fights to survive. Max doesn’t really have a reason for surviving. He simply feels like he has to. It’s strange to have a man like Max, who has lost everything, pushing to survive. Before Furiosa, Max shouldn’t care whether he lives or dies. Spending time with Imperator Furiosa and helping her with her escape plan helps Max undergo a shift in his way of thinking and puts everything in perspective again. It’s in this moment he comes up with the crazy idea of going back to the Citadel, overthrow Immortan Joe, and seizing the Citadel for themselves. What’s great about this exchange between Max and Furiosa is he doesn’t push her to do things his way. He presents a new plan, as crazy and suicidal as it is, and states his case of why taking the Citadel is really her best option. Regardless of what Max thinks Furiosa should do, he leaves it in her hands to make the final decision. Either way, Max is there to help and assist her all the way.
Furiosa may still be optimistic about finding another piece of land to settle and inhabit in, but riding in the direction of the salt mines hardly makes sense when there’s nothing else out there. No food and no water. The Citadel is equipped with everything they need to survive and one of the Vuvalini women manages to maintain a bunch of plants and seeds in the hopes they can be planted in a place where it can eventually grow and thrive. The women agree with Max’s plan and they make for the Citadel in a final do or die mission against Immortan Joe and his army of insane followers.
The film has been lauded by critics and moviegoers alike for being not only a fun popcorn flick, but doing something we haven’t seen enough of in films yet––stronger depictions of female characters who aren’t two-dimensional caricatures to serve as a vehicle for the male gaze. We’ve seen female characters in popular media whose only purpose is to be nothing more than the damsel in distress or the sexual object. We may occasionally get films that allow women to wield a gun or punch a guy in the face, but often they’re either a minor supporting character who help propel the male protagonist’s story along or they’re a woman wielding a gun in scantily clad clothes. It’s hard to take a female character seriously when she’s too busy kicking ass in her underwear or skintight clothes that hardly seem comfortable to be fighting in to be believable.
The Vuvalini women, although their screen time in Fury Road is short and happens towards the end of the film, are striking in how these women are represented. Instead of Furiosa meeting a group of young, sexy biker babes we get women who look like your mothers and grandmothers, fierce and no wilting flowers. They’re tough and capable women who know how to survive, fight, and shoot a gun. They even ride in on motorcycles! This is one of the best surprises of the film when I watched it and I couldn’t be happier.
I can’t recall any movie I’ve seen in recent years when the clan is not made up of hot, young women. The Vuvalini could have easily been that sort of clan, but George Miller decided to have this clan be made up of mothers and grandmothers. I don’t know about you, but if I was living in a post-apocalyptic world like the one in Fury Road, I’d want my mother and grandmother being brave in the face of danger and staring down their enemies behind the barrel of a gun. It is by far one of the coolest moments of the film, especially when you see them in action going up against Immortan Joe and his goons. Max is even saved by the clan women on more than one occasion, so these ladies sure know how to handle themselves. This isn’t your housewives or nursing home grandmas. They know what they’re doing and they aren’t going to let anyone push them around.
Surprises like the Vuvalini women enriches the story of Fury Road. It grounds the narrative in a what-if scenario and I find it hard to believe that the only women fighting back are the ones who are young, beautiful, and sexy. Who doesn’t want to have their mothers and grandmothers able to take care of themselves as they bust in guns blazing to overthrow a dictator? I want my mother in this scenario. It also gives us a diversity of characters and their experiences. Even the wives aren’t just standing around being pretty, helpless, and doing nothing. They act as diversions to help Max and Furiosa in some way or they learn how to load a gun. Maybe they aren’t as interesting as Furiosa or the Vuvalini, but they do more than just default into the stereotypical damsels in distress.
What many moviegoers don’t expect when they watch Fury Road is how the movie is largely about Furiosa’s story and less of Max’s. Critics have pointed out that Mad Max serves as the entry point into the introduction of Furiosa and then takes a backseat to allow Furiosa to shine. While this may be true, I think the movie’s main focus is showing Max working on an equal and level playing field with Furiosa. They support and trust each other. They need and save each other equally. There’s also this sense of neither of them trying to one up the other. There’s no power struggle or egotism here. They join and work together to rid the region of a terrible person. This relationship they forge on the road becomes extremely important throughout the story and critical to their success to defeat Immortan Joe and his band of merry insane men. I doubt either Max or Furiosa could have done what they did alone.
Fury Road is a balanced movie with balanced characters. It’s the type of movie that offers something for everyone and equal representation on all fronts. We have women who refuse to be victims of circumstance and rise up against it and rebel. We have men, like Max and Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult), who join the women to disrupt what has been the status quo for so long and actually dare to change it, instead of merely surviving or accepting things as they are without questioning it. If more films give us better and stronger representations of women and show how women and men can work together toward common goals without one acting they’re better or more right than the other, we have plenty of reasons to be excited to make a trip to the theaters.