After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road for the second time, I like it even more. I want to go see it again. I am seriously considering pre-ordering it on Blu-ray to minimize my wait time for it once it comes out (release day delivery on Amazon is like anti-anxiety meds for the anticipating fan). In short, I really like this movie.
I know: me and the rest of America who aren’t writers for Return of Kings. It’s a popular movie. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s grossed over $280 million worldwide, $115 million in the U.S. alone. It’s been in the top 5 movies each weekend since being released. Granted, it never topped the box office, but we still live in a culture where moviegoers, by and large, would rather stick to safe cinematic territory. Comedies such as Pitch Perfect 2 and disaster films (insert joke here) such as San Andreas will always outperform visually weird and conceptually bizarre films such as this one, even if they are part of an established franchise. It doesn’t help when the last entry in said franchise was released when its target audience was in day care.
The true victory for Mad Max: Fury Road is that it will long be remembered as a quality film. It’s being praised for its amazing stunt work and satisfying non-stop action, the depth of its world-building, and—as you may have already heard—its sincere and grounded feminine perspective, to the point of being called (both pejoratively and complimentary) a movie about female empowerment and agency.
It is more than that, however. While women are treated with respect and dignity and are the true narrative leaders in this movie, at its heart Mad Max Fury Road is very much so a movie about male empowerment, just in a positive way that we’re not used to seeing.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
The female characters in this movie each have distinct, realized personalities. None of them are cliches, and even the warrior princess archetype that we usually associate with Strong Female Characters is in short supply, with all forms of strength and courage on display—be it combat readiness or the ability to calm and nurture a person who was just moments before a hated enemy. That alone is enough to convince audience members that this is a movie meant to promote girl power, especially when you throw in the overt vilification of out-of-control manliness.
You can’t throw a dead cat into this movie without hitting an example of toxic masculinity. From Immortan Joe’s monopoly and commodification of his subjects’ femininity to the death cult that is the War Boys, this film shows what happens when constant assertion of authority, displays of masculine symbols, aggression, and sexual entitlement runs rampant: you get an oppressive dictatorship and a dead world.
In all of our excitement over actually seeing a movie with both likable and diverse female characters and explosions, we’re overlooking the fact that its the male characters that experience a full character arc.
It’s easy to write Max off as a supporting character in his own movie, simply there to move the plot along, serving whatever auxiliary task is needed so that the main character can shine (you know, like the Female Sidekick usually does). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Max Rockatansky is an intriguing character with a unique story to tell, far more so than he was in the previous films. Yes, he’s a man of few words. No, he does not get to have many Big Damn Hero moments (in fact, the one time he does do something totally implausible and awesome, it happens off-screen). But he winds up in a different mental and emotional place from which he started out.
In the beginning of the film, Max is a loner with a severe case of PTSD, suffering hallucinations made worse by stress and panic (which makes his wanting to be a loner even more sensible). As soon as he is free from the bondage of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, he immediately sets out to forge his own path once more, showing little regard for the safety and well-being of others. He forges an alliance with Furiosa out of necessity, and when given a chance to make his own path again, he takes it—until the images and voices come back. Upon my second viewing of the film, I came to realize that the moment when Max is standing on the dune overlooking the salt flats that he has an epiphany: like Furiosa, he is seeking redemption, a chance to amend his failures in the past, to balance out the lives he failed to save by bringing hope to others. I like to think he was inspired by Furiosa and that it was their growing friendship that made it easier for him to realize this.
Let’s talk about Nux, probably my favorite character. He’s less complex than Max, but he’s still a complete character who goes on a dynamic emotional journey. Nux starts out as one of the War Boys, obsessed with a glorious death and enthralled to Immortan Joe. When his chrome-painted moment of glory is denied to him three times over, he sinks into an emotional fit, suddenly no longer part of something greater than himself and without purpose. It’s when Capable shows him genuine empathy and positive attention—valuing his feelings and letting him express them without demanding he put himself in danger to prove his worth—that he comes to realize that there is a more noble cause than pursuing a glorious death, and that is preserving and protecting a glorious life. This is fully-realized when Nux sacrifices himself to secure the escape of his new companions, getting his wish of a worthy death, but instead of in service to a warlord who is out for selfish ends, he is offering up himself in service of an entire civilization (that of the Citadel, who will no doubt enjoy great freedom with Immortan Joe no longer in power).
In both of these characters’ arcs, the heroines are catalysts, but the growth and maturity is all due to Max and Nux each realizing their own desires and seeking them. This is indeed a welcome change, with the female characters not being carrots on a stick but meaningful vessels of personal reflection and self-awareness—equally refreshing is that there is no overt romantic interaction between Capable and Nux (in fact, her relationship to him is more maternal, and not in a fetishized way), and not even a hint of romance between Max and Furiosa. In less capable hands, this movie would have ended with the two leads embracing and kissing to the cheering crowd; instead, we get Max walking away, letting Furiosa have her victory, the two having earned each others’ respect and both having discovered their unique purpose.
While women play a key role in this movie, it is ultimately about the redemption of men who have lost their way. Max is a wanderer with no loyalties or regards for life, running away from his fears and emotions. Nux has thrown himself into a culture that is obsessed with physical dominance and barbaric ideals, ignoring the beauty and opportunity of life and replacing it with a heavy-handed single purpose. By the end, they have both confronted their inner demons, made peace with them, embraced their failings, and accepted the support and guidance of other people.
How welcome is this from the typical alpha male posturing of the Hollywood action hero? Yes, Max and Nux both accomplish their (even noble) ends with guns, fists, power tools, and big gas-guzzling vehicles, but they do so while getting in touch with their emotions. They have escaped the bonds of toxic masculinity and have chosen communal good over personal gain, and thus have found peace. Much like the brides, Max and Nux have come to realize that they are not things, and in doing so are free.
If that’s not a story of male empowerment and self-realization, I don’t know what is. Yes, the women in this movie are the chief agents of change and the narrative focus. But they start out assertive and independent and able to work for a greater cause in the service of others; it’s the two main male characters that have to work to arrive at that place, and in so doing they serve as examples that we do not have to be chained to ideals or deny ourselves emotional healing.