I went into Mad Max: Fury Road a little bit too strong. Looking back now, it was 100% a nerd territorial thing. In 2015, I loved the idea of Mad Max, despite that I’d only truthfully enjoyed about five-twelfths of the existing films: let’s say half of Mad Max, three-quarters of The Road Warrior, and zero of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But along with John Carpenter movies and the Verhoeven scifi trilogy, it was part of the canon of the science-fiction cinema I loved dutifully. So much so that I excused the rape scene in The Road Warrior, simply because it was part of my identity to have said “this movie is important to me,” like others did.
The fourth Mad Max is announced with the same director at the helm, and this was the year of Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the mood had shifted. Old properties back from the dead were exciting, and Mad Max stood apart from Terminator: Genisys for being rated R, and looking absolutely unbelievable. Granted, both did, but for different reasons. Fury Road looked to boast set pieces from out of this world, the kind of thing only the returning veteran would dare.
The earliest conversation regarding the movie was probably about whether or not Mel Gibson should be replaced as the non-speaking Max Rockatansky. Ironically, today, we’re still wondering if Mel Gibson should be replaced, in general, but back then, people were happy with a post-Nolan Tom Hardy. The next thing I know, the news has shifted, also. Headlines either celebrating or decrying that the new Mad Max was feminist, headlines celebrating the decrying, and so on. Apparently, Charlize Theron’s part was significant, despite the name “Furiosa” in a movie subtitled “Fury Road.” I mean, that’s some Riddick shit.
I immediately went into shut down mode. No more trailers, no more news. This is the new Mad Max movie, and it’s feminist. That’s all I need to know, in an era before I understood that the question “is this or is this not feminist?” is dumb.
Fast-forward and I’m in the theatre with my buddy Lester, a new school genre fan who audibly invited my oral history of the series and enjoyed being so enlightened. You weren’t there. The movie spools up and goes and goes and goes. Off to a rough, Thunderdome-esque start, some boring post-apocalyptic scene-setting. Sure, sure.
Next, sex slaves, bondage, escape. What? Now I’m paying attention.
About halfway through, we have the pivotal scene: the fistfight between Max and Furiosa. Ever since the Star Wars prequel movies, my enjoyment of all movies has been impacted by a running score: the food chain. Who defeats who, and if that’s okay. Let’s say, going into Episode II as a spritely kiddo, “Jango Fett” is the most coolest guy. So Jango Fett, who kills a surprise woman bounty hunter, is in turn killed by Mace Windu, who is in turn killed by the Emperor later on. Note, the Emperor was killed by Darth Vader years before, in Episode VI. Jango Fett is least best, despite my own investment in his being best, and the Emperor is just some old guy in a cloak, so his transitive theory superiority to Jango Fett means Episode II is bad.
This is an almost subconscious procedure, but nowadays becomes my measure for whether or not the woman action character is fairly or meaningfully portrayed. In The Raid 2, Hammer Girl is on the border. Does she give Rama the same challenge as Baseball Bat Man? Not quite, as she dies first, and I don’t like Rama’s reaction to when she connects that one time, tantamount to “Owie!” But she does massacre those guys on the train, and that was pretty *chef emoji.*
So point-for-point, I watched the fight in Mad Max very closely, and by the metrics of the fight, Max is affirmed as “best.” That’s fine, I mean, he’s the title character. Next time, there may very well be a Furiosa movie, and perhaps she could be atop the food chain.
That was disappointing, but the real problem was everything which followed. All the big, signature chase scenes, blown up to an extraordinary level, with cars crashing, people flying. Movement and color, energy and gritted teeth. Part of my brain registered that what I was seeing was incredible entertainment well beyond the American action movie standard, but the rest of me wanted to walk out. Were it not for Lester, I would’ve been gone. The dramatic engine, so to speak, of these amazing chase scenes was the deeply unsettling consequence of savage men grabbing and dragging women back into the darkness.
So in this blog, the next line is: “It was difficult for me to enjoy the action because the fail state was sexual bondage, and that hung over the women like the sword of…” and this is something I repeated and recycled to anyone who’d ask me about Fury Road in its immediate aftermath. And soon, egged on by the online swirl that Mad Max: Fury Road was Tumblr-ready feminist, as well as the adverse by women critics I trusted, I’d begun to label the film as “sexist,” or rather, as “in fact, sexist.”
Soon, I was stalking through the Internet like a shadowy thug, concealing my scathing critique of your favorite 2015 film under a cloak but ready to strike at even the briefest threat of enthusiasm. People’s various celebration of the movie was almost as triggering to my media crit mind as people’s monolithic dismissal of the Matrix sequels. That’s another sad story, but being upset by celebration ought to prompt at least some self-reflection.
And to my credit, I was wracked by self-doubt pretty much the entire time, thinking I should maybe watch it again, and it won’t be as I remembered. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, a lack that fueled my creeping anxiety I was wrong. Which has happened before, I’ve been wrong about things, but it comes as such a surprise each time.
So the shadowy thug slipped off into the night, and I merely broiled with anger whenever someone even mentioned Mad Max: Fury Road, never mind voiced a favorable opinion. While this doesn’t sound healthy, it was better for my reputation as “passably likable” that I stay quiet. Besides, I had Game of Thrones to jab at.
Instead, I should’ve just asked somebody or done some research. Because what I later deduced is that Mad Max: Fury Road is like a funhouse mirror, plus the fun. The apocalyptic scene-setting that put me to sleep and the introduction of the wives’ plight that so unsettled me had invited others to identify. Others who were themselves victims of abuse, and so an escape from societal bondage was personal fantasy made bold and spectacular.
It’s in line with a theory I have about why Metroid Prime is so popular, in part spurred on by this personal account, where all I see is an impossibly bleak, lonely “adventure” on a desert world dotted by the ruins of a dead civilization. For others, the world in which they don’t game is exactly that bleak and lonely, so they can identify with Samus and immerse themselves behind her visor, where she can toggle missiles to reshape that world, and has a grappling hook to better transverse it.
And as far as Furiosa goes, it’s not so much the physical measure of her strength that ultimately matters, but the nature of her heroism. She’s a rebel and a liberator, more Leia than the Major Motoko Kusanagi, whose job is to oppress people anyway. But this is something I couldn’t appreciate, as my paradigm for heroism was not only limited, but limited to what male action heroes had done in the movies I watched growing up as a kid, as discussed in this earlier post.
As my understanding of heroism was influenced by a male paradigm, so too was my definition of what constituted a feminist work of media. While I’m still waiting for female equals to the Punisher*, I need to accept that other kinds of women are strong, too. For me, that lesson came with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where the notions of strength and weakness barely apply, rendering them a pretty old-fashioned framework.
Opinions are valuable both in aggregate and individually, so the problem with my initial response to Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t of wrongness, but of being inconsiderate. Once I understood why the movie was so important to some people, I felt it wasn’t important to share that opinion anymore. And while the resulting questions of “Does this opinion help anyone,” “What’s the purpose of its expression,” shouldn’t lead to a pass/fail or post/don’t post fatalism, they are questions we should always be asking, even for something as seemingly innocuous as reacting to a movie.
*While close, 2017’s The Villainess wasn’t it.
Originally published January 7, 2018 on The Utopia Blueprint