Review contains spoilers
The beauty of the 2015 reboot of Mad Max is that it is not really about Mad Max. It is the tale of a woman called Furiosa fighting to validate her conscience against the post-apocalyptic hell in which she’d been a villain until now, and how she is helped on her way to redemption by a lonely, damaged sidekick called Max.
The post-apocalyptic wasteland is governed by violent hierarchical fiefdoms, whose hegemony rests upon two pillars of power. The first is motorized war bands of hyper-masculine warriors, endlessly competing with one another and driven to acts of insane violence against rival gangs (or each other) by a social structure revolving around the need to the impress each other with a stupid but highly ritualised code of heroic masculinity. The second is extreme inequality, in this case, King Immortan Joe’s total control of a water supply that he occasionally releases upon the famished proletariat below for a few minutes while warning them that they “should not get addicted to water”. Immortan Joe is quickly established as the capitalist leader who tells his people that they must ‘live within their means’ to lead a moral existence, whilst actively starving them.
The austere setting is embedded deeply within the characters themselves. Fury Road does away with Mel Gibson’s macho slobberer-over of fast cars, with his ill-defined insanity thrown in to make him a bit more edgy than your average 1970s/80s action hero. The Max of 2015, played by a stoically fragile Tom Hardy, occupies a heavy masculinity that he does not appear to enjoy, and is quite plainly suffering from serious PTSD. Aside from the flashbacks that haunt him even at moments crucial to his survival, Max’s madness – his trauma – makes him anxious, paranoid, someone who prefers muttering over talking, and silence over muttering.
It is also deeply personal this time around. Where the madness of Gibson’s 1979 Max manifested itself in handcuffing a man to a burning vehicle and giving him the option of sawing off his own hand to escape, Hardy plays Max as the greatest victim of his own mental illness. He is an action hero in a very pared down sense of the word: he’s got big muscles, he can drive, shoot, fight, and possesses a suicidal courage, but that courage is seen more as a symptom of a man suffering alone from intense pain, rather than as a conduit of ‘pure’ manliness as had been previously characterised. Max’s bravery is suicidal because he is always contemplating suicide.
With the eponymous hero thus established as a directionless would-be patient in dire need of care, the real protagonist can introduced: Charlize Theron’s implacable Imperator Furiosa. Kidnapped by Immortan Joe’s slavers as a child, she had proven herself at some point before the film and had risen to become a powerful raider herself, leading Joe’s war bands into constant resource skirmishes against the neighbouring territories of Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, whose social structures appear similarly militarised and unequal.
Furiosa’s story begins as she betrays Immortan Joe by helping his five wives to escape from the Citadal at the centre of Joe’s kingdom, in an act of solidarity that seems no less sudden to her than to the audience; her treachery may be well planned, but her reason for wanting to commit it seems to elude even Furiosa for the first hour of the film. It transpires that for all the climbing of the ladder she had achieved throughout her life, from slave to slaver, her political allegiance to that system has run out.
The Five Wives are sometimes referred to as ‘Breeders’, and we occasionally see shots from within the Citadel of women tied to machines that milk them. As we learn more about Immortan Joe’s motives, he often refers both to his obsession over ‘healthy’ children (most people at the Citadel appear to have visible nodes of cancer, even the ruling class), and to his unshakeable belief that the children he will have from his wives are ‘property’.
In other words, Furiosa is making the jump from corporate feminist to actual feminist, having realised that the hegemony to which her hard-won privilege is owed is stolen from the bodies of women, from whom all future labour is necessarily appropriated. The oppression of women as breeders with no agency is portrayed in the film as a hidden but crucial aspect to the political economy of the Citadel, so Furiosa’s role as liberator of systematically oppressed women separates her starkly from the Hillary Clintons and Louise Mensches of our world, whose personal career fortunes are mere extensions of the will of Wall Street. Furiosa will ‘lean in’ no longer.
Charlize Theron’s role as the central character of the film (she has far more dialogue than the mostly-silent Max) does not, as some have commented, steal the show. The show belonged to her all along. With wiry muscles, a shaved head and missing half an arm, Furiosa is immediately believable as a woman who has no time for the ridiculous femininity of your average female action hero like Black Widow or Lara Croft, yet she also skilfully avoids reacting against that by being unnecessarily harsh or falling into cliched Amazon/huntress archetypes of butch forcefulness.
Not just for Furiosa, the generous deconstruction of ‘the’ female body is a major political theme of the film, insofar as it is never critical of any woman’s body. The Five Wives are slender supermodels whose conventional beauty and feminine forms become increasingly irrelevant as the plot advances. Of course they look like that – it is obvious that the patriarchy of Immortan Joe demanded it – but their true agency comes from realising themselves as part of the escape plan and, later, the fightback against Immortan Joe, where they transform from victims of the system to participants in its downfall.
This is true not just for the Five Wives themselves but the reaction they get from other women central the plot. Furiosa’s leadership of her supposedly feeble and fearful cargo is steely to begin with, but she cedes more agency to them as and when they lay claim to it through volunteering, taking part in running the War Rig across the desert, handling weaponry and so on. Later, when they encounter the Vulvanini – a group of kindly but fearsome biker grannies – the reaction to their appearance is brief surprise at their soft femininity (Mutters of “what are you?” and “so clean!”) followed by immediate acceptance from the rough-handed, leathery old ladies on their desert motorbikes. Their alliance as women of different gender performances all struggling against the same patriarchy is natural, logical, and instantly radical.
What makes Mad Max: Fury Road a truly excellent template for radical feminism is the way it handles the role of the male ally. To begin with, it reverses some of the most tedious action movie masculinity tropes without feeling forced or awkward. Max may be the silent type, but the obvious frailty brought on by his PTSD makes him far from strong. Tom Hardy manages to use the same hulking physicality of Bane to create a performance of masculine strength that takes no joy or triumph in its application – manly bravado would have utterly ruined the subtlety of the suffering Max of 2015. When he fights, drives, hatches plans under pressure, it is always urgent and sparing, and whatever exhilaration the audience might feel at the righteous violence he inflicts on his foes, Max himself is never caught showing off, enjoying himself or looking calm.
Gone too is the police exceptionalism of the original film, with Max’s roots as a cop only being referred to once at the very beginning. Gibson’s maniacal bloodlust against the Australian gangsters of the 1979 original was partly justified because he had the force of the law behind him, which gave his crazed antics the automatic legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence. Fury Road, by comparison, has no choice but to ground Max’s right to dish out pain in nothing except the nobility of his cause: when he first meets Furiosa in the desert and attacks her to try and steal her War Rig, we are not compelled to side with Max, certainly not on the flimsy grounds that he is a white male with a film named after him. It is only when he chooses to ally himself with Furiosa and the Five Wives that his aggression, given a purpose, has any legitimacy.
The rights of the male ally were explored in a different direction by Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult. Nux starts the film as a War Boy, one of Immortan Joe’s raiders, sickly but still just as nuts as the rest of them to die in battle and impress his mates before the cancer kills him. From the outset, even as Nux is portrayed as a true believer in the cult-like dudebro competitiveness of the Citadel’s complex and stupid political culture, in his idealism he is vulnerable.
After spending half the movie pursuing Furiosa’s escape party he eventually joins forces with them, at first out of necessity. But what begins as a survival instinct becomes something more existential when he shares a moment of warmth with Capable, one of the Wives. Where Fury Road deviates from standard supporting cast tropes is that while Capable shows emotional kindness to Nux, the act contains neither the promise of sexual favours from her, nor any visible expectation thereof from Nux.
In their separate development as supporters of Furiosa’s mission there is a stark absence of an economy of sexual favours to entice the male allies. They are soothed instead by their rejection of the insane masculinity of the Citadel, where Nux’s reward for allying with the cause is to be free from his cell of insecurity and forced courage in the prison of capitalist patriarchy, while the hope and solace that Max finds in the face of his mental illness is located in a space of feminist struggle absent of competition with other men.
The men might align themselves with Furiosa’s cause out of brute necessity rather than high ideals, but their automatic lack of expectation of sexual reward and sense of personal fulfilment in supporting the cause elevates them to a model of male ally that is deeply moving in its basic nobility. It is why any man should want become a feminist.
It is worth ending by recognising the elegance with which the film fuses women’s liberation with economic class struggle. The final act begins when they are stood on the edge of the endless Salt Flats, calculating that they could ride motorbikes out there for 160 days before running out of gas, in the hopes that they could maybe find a new land. Max’s counsel, really the only significant strategic offering he makes in the movie, is instead to turn back around and recapture the Citadel.
When they decide to do so, there is no clever speech from any character, no invocation of glory or some other typical macho bullshit; simply a grim assessment that riding into the Salt Flats would be hopeless, and that turning back and stealing into the Citadel while Immortan Joe was away would provide the best place for a new beginning. They must seize the means of production from the patriarchs, or die of thirst – the coming revolution is an algebraic necessity, where x equals tearing the face off the patriarchy on flaming wheels of pure awesome.
In an interview, director George Miller admitted that he didn’t originally intend for the movie to have ‘a feminist agenda’, but he explained his reasoning for writing Furiosa’s strength, the Five Wives’ realisation of their own agency, and Max and Nux’s support for their liberation as being simply rational – in the desert, “why would Furiosa have long hair?” The political telos of the plot logically depends on smashing not just The Man but The Patriarchy; if the women do not win, nobody wins. Miller has accidentally recreated the not-without-the-women revolutionary spirit of Born in Flames (1983), and it is this same sense of incidental necessity that is shot through Furiosa’s economic struggle to control the water supply – it just makes sense.
Their departure from the Salt Flats and back to the Citadel must be a powerful moment for anyone concerned by the pitiful withering away of 20th century social democracy. To run away from the all-powerful capitalist patriarch with no real hope of survival is akin to accepting austerity-lite in the false hope that Wall Street will stop tearing our social fabric apart, and like austerity, both the greatest victim and greatest hope for revolutionary respite is women.
Situating women at the heart of the revolt against militarised inequality is the true triumph of Fury Road, where it is only through alliance with feminism that Max is allowed to believe in the radical notion that even in an age so much thirstier and more violent than our own, there is still enough to go around.