In May of last year, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was released in the theaters, and it felt like a welcome punch to the face. We had not seen such a fast-pace, thrilling film with heavy substance in a long time. The film is stylish, the effects are largely practical, and its feminist voice rings so clear it would be very difficult to plausibly deny. Since then, much has been written about the film’s commentary on the role of women. This includes the role of women both in the film (Furiosa, her clan of warriors, and the breeders) as well as the women behind the scenes (in regards to Hollywood’s mostly male movie-making machine). Rather than add to the chorus of writing itemizing and idolizing the innate feminism of George Miller’s latest (all of which is richly deserved, mind you), I’d rather take a little time to look at the other half of gender representation in the film. Namely, how does MAD MAX: FURY ROAD construct masculinity?
The very first shot of FURY ROAD introduces us to our titular Max. Max Rockatansky had previously been played on screen by Mel Gibson, but in FURY ROAD the character is depicted by Tom Hardy. Though there is some debate over whether this is the same Max from the original trilogy, I see no reason to pry too far into Max’s mythology. Whether he is merely a character with many actors (like James Bond), or an alias for multiple men, these are not my concerns right now. Max exists outside of the crudely organized society in this post-apocalyptic world, but soon is captured by Immorten Joe’s men. After determining his blood type, Max is used as a living blood bag, and hung from the hood of a car to provide needed nutrients for a recovering war boy.
This cruelty is sadly not surprising in Max’s world, though there is a certain balance to his treatment at Joe’s hands. As we get to know their world, we are clued in to the fact that everywhere people are reduced to their most basic products, and valued only for those commodities. While Max is seen as a producer of blood, we see a whole bevy of women who are nothing but milk producers for Joe and his sons. These topless women are held prisoner in Joe’s lair, with machinery sucking the milk from their teats. The entire notion of treating humans like animals—only valued for their physical products—is stomach-churning, but the fact that men are not immune from these valuations is at least symmetric. While we do see women mistreated in several ways by Joe and his cohorts, there is plenty of pain for men there too. No one is immune from the derision.
Men can be commodities, robbed of their individuality and autonomy, just as women can be in FURY ROAD. What then defines masculinity? To quickly assess this, I’d like to contrast Max with Joe. Together they are the two male leads of the film, and are in direct opposition to one another.
Max is handsome and quiet. He barely speaks throughout the film, choosing instead to let his actions do the talking for him. He is dressed simply, but not at all like the citizens who live in poverty under Joe’s rule. Joe, on the other hand, looks entirely different. He is in contrast fat with long white hair. Instead of a handsome face, he has a silver mask on that mimics a menacing smile. His clothes are complicated. He wears a clear breastplate along with military medals.
Joe and Max also act completely differently. While Max is quiet and self-reliant, Joe loudly barks orders at his many servants and slaves. Joe hides behind rhetoric and calls to his neighboring allies to come to his rescue. Max is a doer. He can work as a part of a team, and knows to pull his weight when needed, but he never treats Furiosa or any of the other women as his servants; to Max, everyone is a valuable equal.
The film is highly critical of Joe’s version of masculinity. His treatment of his citizens, particularly his harem of sex-slaves, is clearly presented as something he should pay for. His inability to treat others as fellows human is additionally shown as a sign of weakness. Joe is feeble, but wears a puffed-out breastplate and keeps slaves to feel strong. These weaknesses are the ultimate signs of Joe’s lack of true masculinity. Max is instead the preferred version of masculinity. He is strong, but quiet strength is more palatable in this world. In one of the more memorable scenes in FURY ROAD, Max allows Furiosa to use the last bullet in their shared gun. Making the shot is the only thing that will save their lives and Max knows that Furiosa has better aim than he. Were Joe in the same position, he would never admit that he was not the best man for the job, but when Max secedes the gun to Furiosa, he displays his strength. Max’s essential masculinity is not contingent on infallibility.
Joe would rather lose his entire kingdom than admit any potential flaws. Max’s real strength lies in admitting not only his weaknesses, but more importantly believing in others’ strength too. Perhaps the strongest takeaway from the established masculinity in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is that it works in harmony with the film’s feminism. Both men and women can be strong and work together. One’s strength is not the other’s weakness, rather, they are stronger when collaborating. When Furiosa and Max join forces, they are unstoppable.