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Review: The (welcome) feminist emasculation of ‘Mad Max’

Written By | May 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, May 22, 2015 – A lot gets missed in what’s likely the hottest cinematic debate of the approaching summer: Is “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a feminist film or not? And is it intentionally emasculating men?

As a critique, the first part of that is a lot more interesting than the second. That’s mainly because it involves actual, interesting film criticism rather than airing the gripes of a bunch of whining men. But even this approach encourages turning the film’s characters into tropes and trampling over the story’s concept.

I’m not really here to discuss the obviously pro-feminist aspects of this film because that’s not really my place. And besides, there many better informed people on that subject who are capable of dissecting it better than I ever could.

What I am concerned about and would hope anyone critiquing this film will focus on − before they delve into the usual lit-crit clichés like “what this film is really saying” − is that “Mad Max” is first and foremost about its characters and their personal journeys, both individually and collectively as a group.

The film’s writer and director, George Miller, makes it abundantly clear from the start that he cares very much about his nine primary and secondary protagonists, namely Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Max (Tom Hardy), Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), his Five Wives and Nux (Nicolas Hoult).

Each of these characters has his or her own defining and empowering story arc, no matter where they eventually end up by the end of the film. That’s especially true for Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who sacrifices everything because of how much she cares for her sisters-in-arms and because she believes so strongly in Furiosa’s quest.

In an effort to get her story as well as those of the other wives right, Miller made the effort to bring in Eve Ensler − creator of “The Vagina Monologues” − as a consultant because he refused to chance making any of the wives anything other than uniquely individual characters.

This is the biggest innovation Miller makes in the film’s narrative. A lesser writer-director would have used the five wives as interchangeable wallpaper background for the marquee adventures of Max, Furiosa, Nux and warlord Immortan Joe, reducing them to cheap macguffins for the principals to fight over. Instead, Miller painstakingly gives them each highly different and distinctive personalities and motivations for doing what they do throughout the film.

This is also true when it comes to how Capable (Riley Keough) reacts and cares about Nux − even more when she reacts to Nux’s fate with acceptance rather than sadness. In a similar vein, we observe Toast (Zoë Kravitz) as she becomes Furiosa’s second, learn how Dag (Abby Lee) finds purpose when talking with the Nomads, and observe how Cheedo (Courtney Eaton) deals with and ultimately overcomes the wives’ collective trauma.

Miller never negates that collective trauma. But, importantly, he doesn’t singularly define them by it, either. Instead, he employs it as a common platform, a jumping off point for illustrating how all five women grow and move past this trauma in their own ways, with each coming to her own conclusion as to what, exactly, the concept of freedom means to her.

These are five distinct characters placed in a genre that rarely sees this kind of development even with its main characters.

The care Miller takes with character development extends even further than just the five wives in this film, obviously encompassing its main protagonist as well. The original “Mad Max” film that helped make Mel Gibson a star came out nearly 35 years ago. Though it gradually became a cult classic, it wasn’t widely noted at first, perhaps due to its somewhat puzzling central character.

Yet Max is not really a hard character to understand. He’s all about survival and embracing a righteous cause, even in a world that seems eager to destroy itself. Even when he has the option of turning his back on Furiosa and the five wives, he ultimately chooses to remain. That’s because their cause and their freedom is a cause he finds worthy of self-sacrifice.

Again, however, Max is not a complex character. His straightforward character traits in this remake of the original are easily identifiable from the word go. That’s a big plus for an actor like Tom Hardy, who is probably able to do more with less than perhaps any actor working today.

Unlike the original, however, this movie isn’t really about Max. He and his character might get top billing as the title character. But that said, this 2015 film squarely rest on the shoulders of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa.

All of this film’s dramatic tension begins and ends with Furiosa. From her daring attempt to free the Five Wives to her relentless search to somehow find redemption for the countless atrocities she has committed as driver of the War Rig, to her drive to exact revenge on Immortan Joe − this film’s continuity is clearly focused on who and what she is and who and what she will become. All of this is put to the test when she makes her fateful decision to follow through with the plan Max comes up with near the end of the film.

But again, this is her decision. Time and again through this two-hour film, everyone looks to her as the one to make a decision. True to her inner character, at no point does she shrink from taking on this responsibility.

This is the role Furiosa has long sought, and it’s why the movie revolves around each of her choices. This point is no more obvious than when she requests a rifle from Max. Reflexively, he hands it over without a moment of hesitation. She doesn’t have to prove anything to the other characters in the film, for she thrives as its center.

George Miller is a rare talent, even more so when he’s given the chance to direct an action film like this one. Instinctively, he hits all the high points that fans of the genre or veteran fans of of the original “Mad Max” are waiting for. In fact, given how film technology has advanced in three decades, he exceeds expectations, taking this remake many steps further than creators and directors of comparable films.

The character development and beats upon which he hinges his story are joined at the hip to the interconnected action set pieces in this tightly packed two-hour thrill fest. Every sequence owns its own emotional core, building on the way Miller develops each of his characters.

For this reason, those characters are not 2-D cut-outs as they so often are in action films. The audience for this one gets ample reason and opportunity to care about whether Furiosa, Max and the rest survive each ordeal they confront. Not surprisingly, each hair-raising moment is given more depth and consequence as a result.

It’s not entirely clear whether Miller was setting out to make a statement in this film. In his comments, he talks almost exclusively about survival, the major theme of the original “Mad Max” franchise as well as that of the updated franchise this film’s producers hope will follow. Other diverse and sometimes critical interpretations of this film have begun to appear. But the film itself seems to leave it to its audience to discern what it means on their own.

Likely the reason this edition of “Mad Max” is being widely discussed and debated revolves around the question of whether it’s really a pro-feminist film, unlike most action features, in that it focuses so much of its attention on giving multiple women motivation, agency, and a distinctive voice.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, it’s clear that as a writer and director, Miller cares most about character. But, as some may remember, he was also the man who even created a sympathetic pig named Babe. So what would anyone expect from the creator of “Mad Max: Fury Road”?

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.