Full disclosure: I was raised on the original Mad Max movies. I daydreamed about the barren wasteland of Road Warrior, envied the talents of the Feral Kid, swooned over souped-up, brutalized muscle cars, and raced about the house booming “Master-Blaster runs Barter Town!” in my best Tina Turner impression. Whether all of this was enacted by a child-me is a story for another day (hint: it didn’t), but needless to say, I think you can understand that this was a cornerstone in my film education. It was likely that I could never truly love a Gibson-less Max, and probable that I would resent anything above the indie filth aesthetic of the original trilogy (don’t call it a comeback for Thunderdome – that shit is ill).
So it was a surprise when I actually enjoyed my time with Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fun. It’s design is drop-dead gorgeous and it’s effects, practical and CGI, made me laugh in joy more than once. The vista of Imperator Furiosa driving into the sandstorm actually brought tears to my eyes for fucks sake, and believe me when I tell you few movies have actually done that. Fury Road is fun, it’s beautiful, and it’s a damn good way to spend two hours in a dark room.
But it’s not a Mad Max movie. And it’s not feminist.
The filmmakers have pulled a fast one, promising Max and instead presenting an incredible new female hero: Imperator Furiosa, as played by Charlize Theron. Max (Tom Hardy) is still there, but he’s a backdrop, a catalyst to the plot when it needs a push, the gun at Furiosa’s back when she can’t be everywhere at once. Hardy has perhaps ten lines in the full piece, a psuedo-bookend to the tale of Furiosa. His presence is unnecessary to the film overall, something that could have been carried out by bringing one of the many other characters in Furiosa and Max’s band of misfits to the forefront. And therein lies the problem.
By couching Furiosa’s epic in Max, using him as the catalyst for more than a few of her plans and actions, and focusing predominantly on his backstory, not hers, they cut Furiosa off at the knees, taking away so much of the power that she builds throughout the film. Yes, she is a complete and total badass, leading a gang of women used as ‘breeders’ in a patriarchal dictatorship to a matriarchal oligarchy oasis of hope. That. Is. Super. And sure, it’s more than we see in most action movies these days – but when you watch how and where Furiosa needs help, that’s where the film becomes troubling.
Throughout the film Max controls her actions in small but substantial ways, and you start to question her power, her leadership skills and her critical thinking. Coupling this with lines that are like a giant, flashing ‘feminism’ neons – ‘we are not property!’ the girls cry – makes it all the more insulting, a sucker punch to the stomach when you think about how we could have had a truly feminist action film, had they axed Max, brought one of the other women to the front and just slapped Furiosa across the poster. Fuck, set it in the world of Mad Max so you can keep those gorgeous frankentsteined muscle cars – make Furiosa part of his world, or (dare I say it?) even gender-swap Max, but don’t tell me that a film is feminist, that a film that is Mad Max and give me something that delivers neither of those things.
George Miller can keep saying how he ‘can’t help but be a feminist’ until the war-boys come home, but I will always rejoinder that this isn’t feminism. It’s feminism 101 for men. It’s feminism lite.