We went to see Mad Max: Fury Road last weekend. I admit, when I first heard that there’d be another movie in the Mad Max franchise, I nodded and went about my day. I was more excited for, oh, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. And then the reviews for both started coming in, and while my enthusiasm for Age of Ultron plummeted (Tony Stark making a rape joke! Black Widow reduced to the viability of her womb! Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner calling Black Widow a slut and offer sorry-ass apologies before Renner went back and doubled down!), my interest in Fury Road skyrocketed. What’s this? Badass women characters who are competent and capable and save their goddamned selves? Nobody getting raped or sexually assaulted on-camera? (Take note, Game of Thrones, ahem.) Goober-gaters and MRAs getting all sadface over all of the above? Sign me the hell up!
Reader, I loved it. It’s a fast paced action movie, with lots of cool cars-turned-war machines, tense chase scenes, and characters being badass. I’m trying to remember the last time I left a movie feeling as pumped as I did leaving this one. It might have been The Matrix.
There are so many things I want to unpack. I keep having to pause in typing these sentences to add an AND THEN to my list of stuff I dug.
Let’s start with what put this movie on my radar:
Imperator Furiosa, the Wives, and the movie’s feminist backbone.
I’m not sure I’d 100% call this an intentionally feminist film. As in, I haven’t read any interviews with George Miller where he states that he set out to make a feminist film. (If someone’s seen one, I’d be happy to correct!) But he did intend to make Furiosa equal to Max, and that’s not a small thing.
Also, because he’s awesome, Tom Hardy is on record not only saying he’s cool with women taking the lead, but that they should.
Anita Sarkeesian, whose work I admire and support, said it’s not a feminist film at all. I disagree on that point, which is okay! I think we’re coming at it from different places, and that’s the beauty of art: people take away different things from it. For me, the movie treated women like people. It gave them agency. It let them make their own choices and do things on their own terms. The women in the film were empowered, and we never once saw them tear each other down. Disagree? Sure. But belittle each other, nope. Lots of people have already commented on the scene where Max passes the gun to Furiosa, because she’s the better shot. It’s a scene that would have played out differently in other scriptwriters’ hands. So overtly, smash-the-patriarchy feminist? Maybe not. But putting women in charge of their bodies and their choices and showing them as a range of different people rather than an interchangeable monolith? Hell. Yes.
One thing that struck me after leaving the theatre was this: never once during the movie did I hear the word “bitch.”
It seems like such a small thing, but I’m so damned used to that and other gendered words being thrown at women to tear them down (Looking at you, Joss Whedon.) A friend of mine pointed out that there’s not a lot of swearing in the Mad Max movies in general. Thing is, cussing comes to me as easy as breathing, but I don’t miss it if it’s not there – I watch enough network TV that I guess I’m used to swear-free shows.
When The Avengers slips in the phrase “mewling quim” during a scene where we’re told Black Widow is in control, I found myself bracing for the inevitable. It didn’t come, and that was damned nice.
Next up, the way the camera does and doesn’t focus on the women’s bodies. I braced myself when Max walks up to the Wives hosing the dust off after the storm. Gauzy clothing + water = what the fuck is this, Wasteland Girls Gone Wild? But it wasn’t that at all. Max wasn’t looking at them; he was looking at the water. The only body part the shot truly lingers on is The Splendid Angharad’s very pregnant belly. It’s not a leering gaze, either: it’s establishing both character and stakes. Here is a woman whose body has been used to make more Warlords, and who, if she stays in the Citadel, will eventually end up in that room with the Mothers. She is taking a huge, brave risk, going with Furiosa. They’re being chased across the desert by War Boys who are none too careful about spraying bullets and smashing cars (even with Immortan Joe’s decree not to harm the Wives.) They’re trusting Furiosa to bring them to the Green Place, which may or may not have anyone there who can help her when the baby comes. Those five seconds of film say a hell of a lot, without making her into an object. Into a Thing.
Likewise, when Splendid is dying/dead and the doctor? medic? is getting the baby out (I assumed it was an emergency C-section, but thinking back on the scene, I think Splendid was already dead) the focus is on the doctor, not Splendid’s corpse. We’re not seeing a woman get carved up on camera. In a movie that has quite a few gruesome images, they didn’t go for the obvious one, and again, it was appreciated.
One more! The Vuvalini in the cage (I think it was The Valkyrie) as the group approached. Naked woman. In a cage. The camera follows entire descent to the ground. Guess what it doesn’t do? If you guessed “zoom in on her breasts,” you win a prize!
And, look, I know these aren’t big revolutionary things. You’d think, in two thousand goddamned fifteen, they’d be unremarkable. But they’re not.
Okay. Furiosa herself.
She’s a survivor. We know that she and her mother were stolen from the Vuvalini, but not the purpose they were stolen for. Presumably to be wives, maybe as slaves, but as things either way. She climbed up through whatever ranks Immortan Joe has, to drive a war rig. Warboys call her “boss,” and right up until the moment they get attacked, the men on her rig never second-guess her. She’s a woman with a disability, but it isn’t (as it would be in another writer/director’s hands) The One Thing That Defines Her. We see her fight with and without her prosthetic, and she’s equally competent. This is a woman who plotted out how to get those women on her rig and away from The Citadel, knowing the risks she was taking, and did it. I don’t think she pulled it off 100% on her own—more on that in a moment—but the majority of this operation hinged on her. She also listens to the people with her. When Furiosa’s instinct is to kill Nux, the Wives intervene and stop her.
Compassion. It’s a thing she’s allowed to have—that all the characters are allowed to have—and it’s not presented as a weakness. It’s not a thing that comes back around to bite them on the ass.
I feel like I’m defining this movie in terms of what it doesn’t do, but there’s a reason for it. I’ve been watching genre movies for as long as I can remember. Maybe I need to clarify that, in general, they’ve been American-made genre films. The vast, vast majority of them have certain universal beats. Sometimes following those makes for great storytelling. Sometimes it’s the writer/director/whoever doing the tried-and-true things that ratchet up the tension or the emotion. It’s an interesting feeling when they do something different.
It’s kind of like this: a few years ago, I went on a trip to Disney World with my friends. I am Not a Fan of rollercoasters. Usually they’re a big ol’ NOPE for me. Splash Mountain is about as daring as I get, so that is pretty much my whole experience with them. And yet, my friends somehow convinced me to go on the Everest ride. It wasn’t bad! But when we hit the big drop at the end, because I’m used to Splash Mountain’s right-hand turn at the bottom of that drop, my whole body was braced to go right.
Everest’s turn goes left.
Brain and body both were like whaaaaaat?
I got that same feeling all through Mad Max: Fury Road, and it was exhilirating.
And The Wives!
You guys, that moment where Immortan Joe’s about to take the shot at Furiosa and Splendid swings out to block him. Yesssss.
I loved how fully realized these women were, how brave and strong, and… If something needed doing, they did it. “Someone needs to watch in the back.”/”I’ll go.” Count the bullets, unhitch the whatever, climb along the undercarriage with the ground speeding past beneath. DONE. Again, so many other scripts would cram these women into the corner, terrified. There’d be moments of I can’t, I’m scared, help me, and those were, with one notable exception, absent.
The moment of weakness comes early on, when Cheedo the Fragile tries to set out for the oncoming caravans, saying Joe will take her back, will take all of them back. (I’ve only seen it once, and things were happening so fast it was hard to catch names at that early point, so if it wasn’t Cheedo, someone holler.) And that moment is completely understandable. It doesn’t turn her into a simpering wreck for the rest of the movie. She’s afraid, she sees things coming to a bad end, and at that point, for her, going back to life as a thing is a better alternative than death out in the wastelands. She’s a victim of abuse trying to return to her abuser, and that is a thing that happens every day here in the real world. But it’s her friends, her sisters, her community, that pull her back and keep her with them. That moment is also setup for the battle on the way back to the Citadel, where she climbs out onto the rig and begs Rictus to take her back. It’s a ruse, and she knows exactly how to play it because only a day or two before, she was saying it for real. Brilliantly done.
The Vuvalini! Badass biker women of the apocalypse who did their own stunts! Who have built up a community away from people like Immortan Joe, and even though it’s grown smaller by the year, even though their green place dried up and the water went sour, they’ve continued on. Who offer these young women hope despite odds that appear impossible. They risk—and in some cases, give—their lives to get everyone back to The Citadel and set not only the wives, but everyone who lives there, free. Because there are so many women in the cast, their deaths were heart-wrenching, but not cannon fodder. The Keeper of the Seeds was your gut-wrench, which y’know, I’m not going to complain about too loudly. I wish they’d all made it to the end, but hi, its’ a genre film, you’re going to have a body count on the heroes’ side, too. Stakes. Losses. Actions having consequences. That’s on the storytelling side of things, which, well…
Okay, uh. This is over 2,000 words and I still have a million and ten things to say about the storytelling itself. Looks like we’re breaking this into two posts!
A couple of final thoughts. Smart people have pointed out that the movie could have done loads better with POC representation. Zoe Kravitz, Courtney Eaton, and Megan Gale were amazing, but the apocalypse is still pretty pasty. And Hill and I were discussing post-watch that there’s not a lot of diversity of body types, either. I can see, story-wise, why they couldn’t rescue the Mothers: those womens’ absences would have been missed almost immediately. Still, they were the ones who released the water at the end of the movie, and that’s given me a new headcanon. Remember above, when I said I don’t think Furiosa could have planned it all alone? Clearly she had the help of the women she took with her, and Miss Giddy, who stayed behind.
But I think the Mothers must have been in on it, too.
I believe they must have helped plan the Wives’ escape. Listened for whatever information they could glean from their guards’ conversations, because those women were probably near-on invisible outside of what they were providing. Who’s going to watch their tongues around them? On escape day, they kept their goddamned cool, acting like nothing was going on, when they knew there were five girls in Furiosa’s war rig getting the hell out of town. Because this is a movie about women helping each other, damn it, and you can’t tell me those ladies weren’t among the first to convince the girls WE ARE NOT THINGS. Maybe that was Splendid’s line, but somebody planted that seed. Somebody told those girls they didn’t have to resign themselves to that life, and why not have that person be a Mother, dreaming of a better world, a better life, for her children?