Holding Out for a Hero: Mad Max: Fury Road’s new action hero[ine]
“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.” – Max
“You want to get through this? Do as I say.” – Furiosa
Not since Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) has there been such a blissfully misleadingly titled movie as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). In the former melodrama-Western fusion, the titular cowboy is merely the love interest to the fierce protagonist, Vienna (Joan Crawford), who holds her own in gun-slinging duels on the wild frontier of the American West. In Miller’s reboot of his own 1979 cult favourite, Max (Tom Hardy) is more a vessel than a lead. Max is a means to Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) ends. It is she who literally drives the plot forward in her souped up 18-wheeler and supersedes Max’s place as the title hero in order to topple the despotic patriarch ruling the barren post-apocalyptic world that is humanity’s not-too-distant future.
But why this play with titles? Would a rose by another (feminine) name smell as sweet? In the world of genre filmmaking: no. Unlike other genre films that bank on boobs in spandex to lure a certain Axe-body-spray-wearing demographic to the box office, in the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road Furiosa is revealed diegetically to be the narrative force. She isn’t the force that gets bums into seats—that’s Hardy’s feat—but rather the force that keeps them there. This structure isn’t an audience con (though you can leave it to the small minded Men’s Rights Groups to see it this way), but part of the radically simple and multi-layered logic of the Mad Max: Fury Road universe: women, it holds, are capable human beings.
What’s so radical about this logic is that while it’s basic, it’s not a widely held perspective. Women, in action films and in broader culture, are either saved or trained Pygmalion-like by men to save themselves; they’re rarely self-made, self-sustaining characters. That female action heroes so often need elaborate backstories is because, in a world saturated with princess narratives, it seems improbable that women would naturally be able to fend for themselves. With Furiosa this isn’t the case. Here, Miller banks on it just making sense that women know how to survive.
The first layer of the film’s radically simple logic is the world itself, which resembles a sci-fi and prosthetics heaven with its elaborate costumes and rituals. In the future, humans have sucked the earth dry of her natural resources, which has led to devastating water wars. In this era of upheaval, men—lead by the embodiment of toxic masculinity, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)—have seized control of this element in order to control others.
But strip away the men in make-up and masks and it’s by no means a stretch to say Mad Max: Fury Road is playing on the all-too-real knowledge that our natural resources, especially oil and water, are limited, and that the future of this planet is bleak. Rationality in dystopian futurism, of course, is the lynchpin to its resonance. In the face of a world that no longer looks like the present, the hint that it’s a mutation of the present is what gives it credibility and truth. But where Mad Max: Fury Road differs from so many of these kinds of narratives is how it extends this rationality to gender norms. [i] And, by doing so, toys with the action genre’s enshrined idea of the Hero.
Little is known of Furiosa, and nothing of her past is explained in flashback (it’s Max that gets this treatment, as he’s haunted by the people he couldn’t save, including his daughter). Instead, the filling out of Furiosa’s backstory falls to the audience to sketch out her personage through the clues dropped throughout the film: she came from The Green Place or the Place of Many Mothers, a matriarchal society that was crushed under Immortan Joe; Furiosa was taken from the Many Mothers by Immortan Joe’s men as a child; she has tried to escape from him before. Not even the loss of her left arm is ever explained by anything more than a drawing of a skeleton arm, pointing ever forward and onward, on the left door of her war rig. (A sketch that suggests the loss of the arm could have been in battle, shot or shorn off while she was doing what she does best: drive.)
But while Furiosa marks a shift for female action leads in that she doesn’t need a backstory to be a hero, she doesn’t embody the individualistic trope common to her genre male counterparts: that is, Furiosa doesn’t go it alone. Her quest is not only to escape Immortan Joe, but also to free “the breeders,” a group of women who are held captive by him as sex slaves. In this patriarchal world order, dependent as it is on the procreation of future tyrants, these women are another resource to be exploited just like water. (And just like water, they are kept under lock and key.)
When Furiosa escapes with the women, this sparks an all-out, high-octane chase led by Immortan Joe and his brothers, and backed up by his minions, the War Boys: ghoul-like youngsters who dream of dying for their leader and transcending to Valhalla. These boys live and die for Immortan Joe alone. Unlike the War Boys, Max lives a solo life as an outsider who attempts to evade Joe, but unlike Furiosa, he has no interest in anything but his own survival. Max, as he says, is “a man reduced to a single instinct: survive.” But for Furiosa, survival means taking others with her: “You want to get through this?” She asks the breeders. “Do as I say.”
Furiosa and her women then represent an alternative model to the Hero and to the enshrined ideal of the Individual—two literary and philosophical concepts that are gendered “male” as much as the genre of action film. It’s not just Furiosa’s gender that represents a challenge to this, but more importantly her collective mindset—in this story there will be no lone figure riding victorious into the sunset. Crucially, Furiosa’s character doesn’t just represent this challenge to the patriarchal order of The One to the idea of a collective, but her character causes others to change as well.
Furiosa’s collaborative survival tactics do change Max, and even a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who finds himself on the side of the women when he’s abandoned in their war rig after a battle. When both these uber-masculine men experience Furiosa’s “new” way, they fall into line as her allies. (When she finds the remaining Many Mothers, they express suspicion of the men; Furiosa assuages the Mothers by saying of Max and Nux: “They’re reliable.” She doesn’t need them, but she can work with them.) Neither man attempts to take the wheel from her as one might expect—in fact, they only ever get behind the wheel of the war rig with her permission—and offer what they can to her cause. In this way, Mad Max: Fury Road is never about altering one’s being in totality but is about a process of morphing. It’s never about Furiosa becoming “more male” or Max “softening” (other common action genre tropes) but a process of transformation and fusion. It’s not about a world that denies men or denies difference, but instead is a picture of a universe where collaboration, not individual rule, opens up new conceptions of what a hero looks like.
When Furiosa finds that the Place of Many Mothers has been reduced to sand dunes, and the clan of powerful women dwindled to a handful, she decides that all that’s left to do is ride across the salt flats with the hope of finding life. Max initially decides to part ways with the group at this point, but seeing (as Furiosa does) that this is a fool’s quest, he shares with her an alternative to sending the women (and Nux) off to their inevitable deaths: take back the water supply from Immortan Joe.
This exchange is a revelatory moment for Max, who for the first time doesn’t just think of himself—he becomes an ally and a collaborator who knows when to speak up but will happily accept his role as part of the whole and not necessarily as a leader of it. More powerful, still, this moment foreshadows the film’s final gender transgression: in a final battle to kill Immortan Joe, Furiosa is gravely wounded. Bleeding out, Max becomes the giver of life, the traditional female role, by supplying her with his blood. [ii] During a makeshift transfusion on the road (this car chase never stops), Max fills Furiosa with his lifeblood, just as she has filled him with a renewed sense of life, or as it’s put in the film “hope.” It’s fitting, too, that in this moment of giving life he finally recognizes his own and tells Furiosa his name for the first time.
Returning victorious with Immortan Joe’s dead body, Max first steps out of the war rig to cast the corpse at the feet of the ruler’s empire, for all to see. At first, it looks as though he will take the credit and glory. But then, out comes Furiosa and her women, who take their hard-earned and proper place on top (figuratively and literally, as they rise above the crowds chanting Furiosa’s name). There is no doubt that Furiosa is the hero– but she’s also a new kind of one. Her ascendance marks the coming of a new order, which has done away with male lineage and done away with despotic dominance. The film’s final sequence of cross-cutting between the shot of Furiosa ascending on a platform and Max’s face in the crowd below only reinforces the world to come: it acknowledges Max’s part in the victory, but doesn’t relish in it. It’s true collaboration.