Mad Max: Fury Road has received immense praise from critics like few films, both of its type and in general, have ever received. With an astounding 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a long and difficult production history, it’s the kind of movie that I would say was easily worth the wait, had I actually realized it existed prior to opening day. Even then, I didn’t even see the movie until a week later, when half the people I follow on Twitter repeatedly sang its praises and articles talked about just how well-executed a film it is, visually, conceptually, and in terms of narrative.
This would normally be the point where I throw in a “however,” but I really can’t. Mad Max: Fury Road lives up to the hype and then some, even to someone like myself whose only knowledge of Mad Max is that it’s a heavy influence on Fist of the North Star. As a newbie to the Mad Max universe, I was taken in by a story that’s fun yet profound, the creative action sequences that give a true sense of continuity as well as cause and effect that never leaves you confused as to what’s actually going on (no shaky cams here), and a cast of characters that are surprisingly largely sympathetic. Mad Max: Fury Road leaves a lot up to the audience to read between the lines, but gives enough so that interpretations aren’t shots in the dark.
One major aspect of this movie that’s gotten quite a bit of attention is that its story can be interpreted as being quite feminist. On the surface this can be surprising, given that the aesthetic of the Mad Max world is centered around machismo cranked up to 11. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast argues that Mad Max has always been critical of violent, belligerent masculinity and that the greater presence of female characters able to take a broader perspective on history in Fury Road is what finally make this directly obvious. Again, I have no experience with the franchise so I can’t agree or disagree, but along these lines I think there’s an additional component to the movie and its use of female characters that gives the movie a kind of feminist foundation.
The world of Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where water and other supplies are scarce and death is a common sight. In Fury Road, the antagonist Immortan Joe is the cult leader of a religion that combines emphasis on vehicles and technology with Norse mythology, and the result is a bunch of pale zealots spreading violence and destruction wherever they go. Deserts, blood, and bullets are what make up the environment, and what Fury Road does is say, “Well, of course women can be gritty, seasoned veterans of a war-torn Earth.” In this way, it’s kind of like how the anime series Precure assumes as a matter of fact the immense power of its female characters, though Mad Max: Fury Road takes it a number of steps further by removing much of the glamor, and being very deliberate in where the remaining bits of beauty and eroticism come up.
Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is just as much a fighter as the eponynous “Mad” Max, and the elderly female nomads who appear later show their decades of experience fighting both people and their harsh surroundings. Even the five wives of Immortan Joe, characters crucial to setting off the main conflict of the film who were locked away and are highly sexualized (what else would women selected by a cult leader specifically to bear his children be?), but they also show their desire to learn more about the world they were hidden away from, and the fact that their skin is so perfect and their clothing barely hides anything is more a contrast with the world than the sole image of women in the film. The film features women participating in this classically hyper-masculine setting as men typically would, and in doing so argues that it need not be considered a “man’s world” at all.
Another interesting point about the five wives is that, while their original purpose was to be sex slaves, this also affords them the power of knowledge: outside of Immortan Joe’s own family, they are the only ones who know that he is not an immortal god descended from Valhalla, but merely a weak, decrepit old man whose seemingly powerful appearance is a lie. Vulnerability is a persistent theme in Mad Max: Fury Road, from the fact that Max is haunted by the memory of his dead daughter, to the fact that one of Joe’s fanatical followers, Nux, keeps ending up in different situations that force him to confront his own identity even as he struggles to please his god-king.
The story on the internet is that men’s rights advocates are upset at Mad Max: Fury Road, and while I don’t know how far that stretches even within that particular community, I can see why it might be a cause for alarm in that world. The film utilizes a setting that classically exploits women and views them as play-things (though that’s not to say such stories are inherently bad), and flips it on its head. All the while, the sheer sense of action and excitement is of a level higher than probably any movie in recent memory, so it’s not like focusing on female characters detracted from the presentation. If anything, it’s made Mad Max into something that can bridge generations.