When the final trailer for “Mad Max: Fury Road” dropped back in April, I questioned if George Miller was secretly giving audiences a feminist action movie.
There”s nothing secret about it. “Fury Road” is two hours of high octane action that is also a giant middle finger to every sexist action movie trope that has come before it. From the moment Imperator Furiosa takes a hard left into the desert to the second the end credits rolls, Miller is not interested in the status quo whether it comes to stunts, storytelling, or stereotypes.
It is the most subversive action blockbuster in existence and it is glorious.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” BELOW.
#1. It”s a story about escaping sexual slavery with zero sex in it.
I”ll be honest. When I first heard the plot of “Fury Road” involved five women escaping from Immortan Joe”s harem – and that the film was rated R – I considered skipping it. To me, it was obvious shorthand for “We”re going to abuse women on screen for your entertainment.” And in a lesser movie, that would”ve been the case. But not for George Miller. Miller skips the preamble; audiences don”t meet the Wives until they are free of Immortan Joe. Everyone is left to use their imagination as to what it would be like to be the “prized possession” of a man like that – locked in a gilded cage and on-call for breeding against their will. The concept is horrific enough by itself; no one needs it spelled out with cowering women crying in a corner.
#2. The Wives being supermodel attractive makes narrative sense.
Nothing is more irritating than watching a dystopian movie where all the men are covered in grime and somehow the women are still cat-walk ready. In the trailers the Wives seem to fit this mold, but the reality of their lives at least gives context to their luscious locks and baby-smooth legs. They are the coddled and “beloved” pets of their master, Immortan Joe. They”ve never been subjected to manual labor or even excessive amounts of sunlight. In a world where the War Boys can figure out Mad Max”s blood type, surely there is a fleet of slaves at the ready to wax, primp, and wash the Wives for Joe”s pleasure. In fact, the Wives are such a rarity in this harsh new world that at one point a character exclaims in disbelief, “This one still has all her teeth!”
#3. George Miller opts for “show” over “tell.”
The amount of lore about gender packed into “Mad Max: Fury Road” is so dense it”s practically a singularity. Immortan Joe”s misshapen brothers and sons (note that Joe is clearly not interested in girl children) run his little fiefdom, lording over the irradiated and deformed masses. There”s the Mother”s Milk that sustains the elite instead of water. There”s an entire religion based around gasoline, cars, and Valhalla. There”s a matriarchy surviving in the wastes, Miss Giddy covered in tattoos, the roving bands stealing healthy girl children for breeding, the day-to-day rituals in a world gone rotten. There”s Furiosa”s insanely cool mechanical arm. On and on it unfurls. And yet…there”s no narration. No voiceover. No character is holding the audience”s hand and vomiting exposition. No, George Miller trusts the audience to connect the dots. And if they don”t? Too bad for them.
#4. “Fury Road” passes the Bechdel Test a 100% times over.
For those who don”t know, the Bechdel Test is a film litmus test. To pass, a movie must have two female characters, with names, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. It”s not perfect but it helps illustrate how utterly underrepresented women”s voices are in film. “Mad Max: Fury Road” passes on a level heretofore unheard of outside “chick flicks.” There is a moment late in the film when no less than twelve women – seven of them named – are talking together. On the one hand I am mortified this is cause for celebration. On the other hand, it”s a decisive victory worthy of a fist pump.
#5. The movie rejects the “macho manliness” stereotype of action blockbusters.
“Who killed the world?” is the question plaintively asked during “Fury Road.” The answer is obviously toxic masculinity – the idea that Real Men act a certain way, are violent and aggressive, and never, ever have “feminine” emotions. From the Rich White Men™ running Immorten Joe”s empire down to the disposable War Boys indoctrinated to think life only has meaning if they die in glory, Miller doesn”t shy away from showing how this mindset is destroying what is left of the world. Then along come the Wives – unwilling to kill Nux (Nicholas Hoult) despite his fervent attempts to capture/kill them – to show another way. They aren”t afraid to kill, but all those books Immortan Joe let them read filled their heads with ideas. Ideas about what would make a man turn into suicide bomber and how redemption is always a worthy goal.
#6. Max”s “Lone Wolf” status just about gets him killed.
Action movies have a tendency to overlook the ramifications of being a lone man against the world. The world outnumbers you and – barring superpowers – it will win. Max behaves admirably in the beginning of “Fury Road.” He bides his time until the opportune moment, he escapes using his wits and his surroundings, and he beats the snot out of nameless War Boys. But in the end, it doesn”t matter. One man can only do so much against the horde. It”s not until Max teams up with Furiosa (and later the Vuvalini and Nux) that he stands a real chance for survival. And Max is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT okay with this. If someone is a better shot than you? Max doesn”t care if they have ovaries. He”s not emasculated when he momentarily becomes a living sniper stand. Survival situations mean there”s no time to wring your hands over the reproductive organs of your cohorts. Get the job done.
#7. We are not things.
This is the theme running throughout “Fury Road.” The Wives are not things to be put up on a shelf until Immortan Joe wants another heir. The Wives” unborn children are not things to be raised and molded in a cruel society. The War Boys are not things to be disposed of in a never-ending struggle for dominance. Max is not a thing to be drained dry so another may live. The Vuvalini are not things, but they will prey on those who would think otherwise. In a truly rebellious moment, Miller uses the only instance of nudity in the whole film to harken back to a time when women were sacrifices only to reveal “the bait” is a world-savvy woman using her body as a weapon to lure the unwary to their doom. Even the faceless minions are given moments of humanity to remind us they are monsters, but they are also men. Every moment of this film is defying the universe and the audience, refusing to reduce ANY of the characters to things.
Whether George Miller set out to write and film the first feminist action blockbuster at this point is moot. He”s fundamentally changed the game. The bar hasn”t just been reset for future films, it”s been forcibly dismantled and reassembled in the middle of a gauntlet of sand and blood.
Now it”s up to the rest of Hollywood to reach for it.