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Who Destroyed the World? Exploring Mad Max: Fury Road

furyroad_posterIt’s rare to come across an action film that passes the Bechdel test. For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel test originated in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass this test, a film must 1] have at least two women in it, 2] the two women talk to each other, and 3] talk to each other about something other than a man. So think about the action movies you’ve seen. Die Hard and Sin City both pass (although barely). Kill Bill: Volume 1 passed. Honestly, you’re far more likely to catch a horror flick that passes the Bechdel.

But then I kept hearing about Max Max: Fury Road. It passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. It infuriated pro-patriarchy types because of it’s strong female hero and alleged feminist agenda. And as of right now it has a 98 percent fresh critic rating and 94 percent fresh audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I was intrigued, to say the least.

What’s a liberal feminist killjoy like me supposed to do? Why, go see Fury Road, of course.

So, first I should admit that I’ve never seen any of the prior three Mad Max films. As a rule, I tend not enjoy action films because there’s a basic sameness to them: male hero with a tendency toward breaking the rules and derring-do and a damsel in distress that most often ends up either scantily clad or naked and has no real agency. Boring, despite all the explosions. I expected to see Fury Road and wonder what all the fuss was about. What I did not expect in the slightest was to really love the film.

For starters, it’s a very visually stunning film. The trailer doesn’t do it justice–

As you can maybe tell, it’s a film that happens largely in a desert. You might expect the film to be bland, with wall to wall beige sand, set off perhaps with gray metal vehicles. That’s not exactly how it plays out, though. Everything is crisp and stark. Vox did a nice job of describing the look of Fury Road:

In particular, the film’s use of color is exemplary. With so many current blockbusters looking washed-out and needlessly gritty, Fury Road is set in a world of vibrant, gorgeous color — even though it takes place in a wasteland. Look at the image above to see how Miller uses highly saturated blues and yellows.

In a way, the vividness of the film lends to the viewer being able to suspend disbelief (and in this particular world, it is necessary to suspend disbelief). The Mad Max world is a dystopian nightmare, but the look of the film makes it real. Another thing that contributes to that are the action sequences. Not a ton of the effects are CGI. No matter how good CGI technology gets, there’s always a very tangible difference when the action is, well, actual.

The vehicles in Fury Road, and there are a lot of them, are fun to look at as well. They are hybrids, cars and trucks that are mish-mashes, bits and pieces coming together to form some truly insane combinations, my favorite of which may well be the truck featuring the largely airborne guy with a oversized electric guitar that shoots fire.

fury road

Plot-wise, there’s nothing overly complicated here. And it goes without saying that you should avert your eyes right now because there are spoilers approaching. Last chance to look away.

As I said, the plot is simple: Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a gas run in a giant tanker truck, but she takes a detour to, as we find out, rescue the five wives–referred to as breeders and property–of war-mongering and wealth-hoarding King Immortan Joe; the wives are hiding in Furiosa’s rig, intent on running away to someplace better. Joe and his hoards of War Boys, including the overexcited Nux and his captive “blood bag” Mad Max (a universal donor, I might add, which is why he has been allowed to live), set out after Furiosa and the wives. Max gets loose and reluctantly assists Furiosa in getting the wives away from Joe and the War Boys. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic gist. And, yes, there are a few plot holes here and there, things never explained. But you know what? The film is so tense and crazy and great that I can’t really bring myself to care.

Is the film part of a vast, shadowy feminist agenda? I’m a feminist, and I have no agenda other than to have bodily autonomy, agency, and equal rights and pay. Do I think that some innocent young boy or girl is going to watch this movie and somehow become a raging feminist social justice warrior (which allegedly is a bad thing, but I don’t really see it–what’s terrible about wanting everyone to be treated equally?)? Likely not. After all, who gets their world view from action movies? It’s easy enough just to take this film for what it is: a great deal of intense, loud fun.

That said, when viewed through a feminist lens, this film does have a lot to say. For starters, look at Furiosa. She’s the hero, she’s a strong and kickass woman, she’s not afraid to sacrifice herself for the greater good, and she has a non-normative body: she’s missing half of an arm. Oh, and not once in the film is she sexualized or placed in the position of being someone’s romantic love interest. Did you follow all that? A disabled woman just saved the day, y’all, and she didn’t even have to flash her boobs or pretend to be a weak-willed ninny to accomplish her goals.

That’s huge.

Film Review-Mad Max: Fury Road

There are women who are sexualized in the film (the wives), at least in that they’re reduced from women as whole people to the function of their wombs. Joe wants the wives back–not because he values them as humans, but because they can produce heirs to feed his war machine. One of the wives mentions that they are considered things, and Joe himself refers to them as property. When one of the visibly pregnant wives is grievously injured, Joe is more concerned about whether the baby she’s carrying can be saved and whether it’s a boy. That these wives clearly hate Joe and will risk their lives to escape him–a person who is clearly included in the group of men who destroyed the world (something that is brought up a few times throughout the film)–speaks volumes about their need for hope, their need to believe there is something more for them, for all women. In many ways, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred has the Mayday resistance, and in Fury Road, the wives have Furiosa.

They also have Max, though. And Nux the War Boy, for that matter, who also comes through with help in the end. This is not a film that is anti-man. While Furiosa is protecting the wives, and the wives–away from Joe–have agency of their own, Nux essentially martyrs himself to save Furiosa and the wives and to help them on their journey to reclaim the citadel in a bid to make this world more just. Max overcomes his tendency toward independence/self-reliance to work with Furiosa to save the wives and, later, to work toward the greater good.

Yes, perhaps Fury Road does have a feminist message, but just as strong is the message that in order to save ourselves and society, we–men and women–must put aside greed and war and fear and violence and sexual politics to work together as equals.

What a lovely day, indeed.



Screen shots, poster, and trailer from Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Nicole Wolverton
Nicole Wolverton is the author of The Trajectory of Dreams, a dark psychological thriller (Bitingduck Press, March 2013). Her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and Five Quarterly, among others. She lives in the Philadelphia area.
Nicole Wolverton

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