When MAD MAX: FURY ROAD premiered this past May, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. The film, directed by George Miller, was much better than a reboot of a decades-old franchise had any right to be. It featured a strong feminist backbone to go with the mind-blowing action choreography and breakneck pace. FURY ROAD was declared an action masterpiece, distinguishing itself from other blockbusters where female characters were props or damsels.
“Mad” Max Rockatanksy (Tom Hardy) gets caught up in Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) plan to rescue the wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and take them to the Green Place, where Furiosa was born. The wives, held captive as tools for breeding, are Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Their journey gets complicated when one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, his army of malnourished sons obsessed with reaching Valhalla, dedicates himself to recapturing the women. The War Boys are depicted as malnourished, hyper violent young men following Immortan Joe as a false God. He dangles rewards for their work, and has them compete. They are blind to his manipulation.
One of the best things about FURY ROAD is that it features six women in leading roles, with about a dozen others in supporting roles. These characters all have diverse personalities and strengths. While most summer blockbusters only feature one or two women in large ensembles, FURY ROAD stands out. And some of these women are damsels, some of them warriors, some of them are good with weapons and some of them are not. FURY ROAD features a large group of diverse women, presenting multiple perspectives, opinions and archetypes. It’s important for women in film to represent all kinds of women, not just keeping the characters in any kind of box.
Having a female character be a bland, determined savior is no credit to feminist filmmaking when she is just as cardboard as a damsel in distress or romantic prize. But in FURY ROAD, the female characters are fully formed, with different motivations and opinions. Thanks to the post apocalyptic wasteland setting, much of the character work is subtle and without exposition. When these women fight back against the patriarchy of Immortan Joe, they do so realistically and believably. The women fight back as a team, sometimes disagreeing with each other. By having so many women talk to each other, the film doesn’t force any one female character to represent her entire gender, like Black Widow’s role in the Marvel films. Audiences can latch on to any character they connect to because the film offers a wide spectrum.
An interesting detail about the film is how Max fits into all this. Most blockbusters with this premise would have Max join the gang as a protective male savior. Stirred by their stories of rape and captivity, Max would choose to help them because that’s the manly thing to do. But in FURY ROAD Max helps Furiosa because she leaves him no real choice and because he too was captured and used by the War Boys. He wants to destroy Immortan Joe’s reign but not solely because he feels that he has to protect women. Max’s archetype is a subtle character choice for the film but it makes a world of difference. Furiosa does not lose her agency or her position in the film when Max joins her. They work together as equals.
Sometimes when women talk about how harmful patriarchy is for women, guys like to return with “patriarchy hurts men too.” In some situations, this is an attempt to refocus the conversation on men, ignoring women’s issues. However, it does apply here. FURY ROAD is not content to paint all men in a negative light. This is not a black and white situation. The film becomes an insightful criticism of toxic masculinity culture and how patriarchy spreads its harmfulness all over.
Nux is the key character here. Nux gets out and he sees the world for what it is. He opens his eyes—there’s no Valhalla out there for him. He’ll live, he’ll die but he won’t live again. His character growth emphasizes the possibility of change and how the liberation of women also leads to freedom for all. Oppression has many forms, even if people believe they are benefitting from it.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was a surprise for viewers during the summer release. Not only was it a riveting, impeccably crafted action film but it achieved these standards without marginalizing women. The film features little exposition, throwing the audience into this desert chaos with no parachute. FURY ROAD is visual treat, offering insightful themes of oppression and toxic masculinity culture, and fresh gender politics to make the film stand out against the conventional blockbuster.