It’s no longer a surprise when an action blockbuster spurs a fierce political debate, but even by that measure, the reception for George Miller’s latest installment in the “Mad Max” franchise, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” has stirred unusual passions.
The movie has a simple story: Max (Tom Hardy) has been captured by the dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules the dystopian Citadel, where he rations the water he gives to his desiccated subjects and keeps a group of young, nubile women enslaved as his wives. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is one of Joe’s most trusted lieutenants until she goes off-route on a run to collect gas for the settlement, and it emerges that she is helping Joe’s wives escape. Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe’s soldiers, or Warboys, is determined to be part of the crew that is sent to bring the women back. Nux is being kept alive by transfusions of Max’s blood, and so Max is brought along on the chase. Cars explode. Alliances switch, and the Citadel eventually falls to Furiosa and the wives, who pledge to institute a new regime.
Before the movie even arrived in theaters, some men’s rights activists declared themselves squarely against it, on the grounds that Max was being sidelined in favor of a woman and that men were being treated like the enemy. Writers from a range of outlets and perspectives embraced precisely those parts of the film that the men’s rights critique disdained. And a third crew of critics sallied forth to claim the movie for a wider-ranging humanism. It’s simultaneously true that they’re all correct about “Mad Max,” but also that none of them are, not entirely.
Watching “Mad Max: Fury Road” feels a lot like observing contemporary feminist debates in particular and many of our debates about cultural politics in general. Both movie and movement are full of arresting images, but as the lens shifts from one to the next, it’s difficult to discern a unifying theory holding them all together. If Immortan Joe is running the Citadel as a sexual caste system, as his wives’ imprisonment and his use of slave wet nurses seems to suggest, how did Imperator Furiosa end up in such a position of leadership? Does her disability (she appears to be an amputee or to have been born without part of one arm) put her outside rigid gender categories? In a similar way, we say we want something more than the stereotype of the Strong Female Character, but what does it mean that in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” both pregnant sex slaves and the desert grannies who become their allies both have to display their action hero credentials?
Director George Miller conceived “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 1998, and a script for a version of it was completed in 2003. After delays, the movie was shot in 2012. It’s a timeline that means “Fury Road” arrived in theaters on a tide of like-minded pop culture misandry – -including sex-crime procedurals “Top of the Lake” and “The Fall” — by coincidence rather than by design. In a way, that frees us to enjoy how “Mad Max: Fury Road” fits into our current cultural conversations without burdening Furiosa’s slim, sturdy shoulders with the responsibility to distill that conversation into a clean and agreed-upon collective statement.
There’s been a lot of discussion about Immortan Joe’s battle guitarist. But to my eye, the most arresting image of hyper-masculinity comes early in the movie. We see a tortured torso, pocked by angry-looking sores, being powdered and pampered. In a moment, we see why: Joe is being prepared to wear a kind of clear plastic armor that molds his chest and stomach into a sharply defined mass of muscle. The shell doesn’t just disguise Joe’s rotting flesh. It transforms his body into something strong and ideal, tough enough to bear the military-style medals that have the illusion of being pinned directly to his skin.
Then there are the Vuvalini, a band of older women who live in the desert, far from the Citadel’s reach. Furiosa grew up among them and has held them in her memory: She believes that Immortan Joe’s wives will be safe with them, and that by returning to the Vuvalini, she will redeem herself so that she’s worthy of living in the “Green Place” of her youth. When the “Green Place” turns out to have become a curdled swamp, Max persuades Furiosa and the Vuvalini to race home and liberate the Citadel. And the older women turn out to be capable warriors who are essential to this dangerous effort.
“IF we were going to do a feminist reading of Mad Max WHICH WE ARE NOT we could talk about how the caravan of wives was clearly meant to represent feminism’s third wave going back to acknowledge and honor the second wave feminist elders they left behind but also to move ahead without them,” wrote the humorist Mallory Ortberg in her chat review of the film, “clearly that was the filmmaker’s intention.”
Part of what appealed to my imagination was the prospect of a meeting between second- and third-wave feminists marked by collaboration and shared mission, rather than bogged down in bitter debates about everything from sexual iconography in culture or the status of transgender women. But that’s part of what’s both great and risky about the politics of a movie like “Mad Max: Fury Road”: it gives you lots of paths to promising destinations, even if the text doesn’t carry you all the way to the end of the journey.
There’s stronger evidence in the movie itself for the humanist reading Maria Bustillos applies to the movie. “The discussion around feminism has meant that so far, there has been little comment on ‘Fury Road’s preoccupation with the evolution of men in recent decades,” she writes. “It’s a movie about how men and women can be not just ‘allies’ to one another, as if our fates were separate, but real comrades, who must overthrow a common enemy and share a common fate.”
That framework also moderates the movie somewhat. Max’s alliance with Furiosa and the wives is pragmatic: He needs their help to get away from the Citadel. And while his time with them bonds the fugitives enough that Max gives his blood to save Furiosa and helps raise her to her feet, it doesn’t forge a permanent alliance. Max’s needs don’t change. At the end of the film, he’s leaving Furiosa to her work and heading off to do his own. Similarly, Nux, the dying Warboy who switches sides during the movie, never really gives up his dream of making a suicidal sacrifice in battle. He just achieves it in service of the wives, particularly Capable (Riley Keough), rather than Immortan Joe.
Politics is a temporary condition, and the alliances in “Mad Max: Fury Road” last the length of the movie, but not more. That doesn’t make them any less powerful. But it is worth trying to grapple with both the idea of a pragmatic alliance of limited duration and with the world in which that alliance’s victory is possible.
The critic Richard Brody, in a smart, enthusiastic dissent to the coronation of “Mad Max: Fury Road” as both the next great action picture and as an important statement of politics, finds rich territory for his critique in the places where Miller’s worldbuilding gives way to the convenience of story.
“Furiosa’s place in the Citadel’s regime is left unexplored; what she knew and when she knew it—the use of women as breeders and men as blood tanks—is never made clear. Her place in the hierarchy, the place of other women of similar martial talent, the means by which Immortan Joe holds sway over the Citadel’s insiders and dominion over the huddled masses below, the passions that rise up—bloodlessly and cheerfully—when Furiosa and Max make their assault (such as it is) on the Citadel, all of these matters, which would render the world-making thicker and the characters more substantial, are left aside,” Brody points out. “Furiosa is never excessively compromised; the residents of the Citadel as well as its oppressed victims are simple, uniform, undivided, without faction or conflict. Miller makes sure to deliver a setup that’s unequivocal, a resolution that’s untroubled. Within its furious action, it delivers surprisingly simplistic gratifications that are no less enervating for the positive feelings that they generate.”
That’s the thing about fantasies: To achieve them, we tend to have to shuck off some of the vexing complexities that prevent our dreams from becoming reality. One of the things that makes “Mad Max: Fury Road” such an appealing action movie is because, as Freddie deBoer notes, “it doesn’t explain everything.” There might well be a version of “Fury Road” that fills in Furiosa’s backstory (coming to us in comics form from Vertigo). There might well be a sequel that explores Furiosa and the wives’ attempts to govern the Citadel now that they’ve liberated it. But these would be very different from the tense, spare chase and race that make “Mad Max: Fury Road” such an effective action spectacle.
If the political discussion of “Mad Max: Fury Road” proves lasting, it won’t be because Miller’s movie, in the parlance of the Internet, “crushed,” or “schooled” or “ended” debates about the way patriarchy damages both men and women. The movie doesn’t commit to a big intellectual argument about gender, and if anything’s clear about the film, it’s that Miller cares as much about the pure machinery of action movie-making as about ideology. Instead, “Mad Max: Fury Road” will be measured as a political movie by the memes it plants in the desert, and by the use we make of its arresting images and dialogue. Conquering bastions such as the Citadel is the work of an action movie. Reforming and governing the world we actually live in? That, we’ll have to do for ourselves.