In the bad bitch tradition of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, Hollywood has finally found its next great action heroine in the distant, hopeless future.
She is Imperator Furiosa—the one-armed, one-woman army of Mad Max: Fury Road.
We meet her in George Miller’s face-meltingly epic action sequel as Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) does: With her head shaved and her brow inked in the grease-smeared war paint of the Wasteland, Charlize Theron’s tightly-coiled Furiosa has masked herself in androgyny in order to command a squad of War Boys at the wheel of a nitrous-fueled War Rig.
Under the rule of the brutal Immortan Joe, women and children are commodities exploited solely to extend the desperate existence of a dying patriarchy. The only path to survival lies in serving in an elite army of speed-racing warriors who troll the dusty wilderness shoring up the warlord’s resources and protecting his riches at any cost.
What we know of Furiosa, we learn after the fact, and offscreen: Kidnapped as a child and rendered motherless, she was discovered to be barren and therefore of no use in Immortan’s stable of fertile breeders.
“They almost forget she’s a woman, so there is no threat,” Theron explained to EW.
And so, long before we meet her in Fury Road, she’s turned off her femininity in order to scrape her way up the ranks to Imperator status, waiting for her shot at finding a way home.
But like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor before her, Furiosa is a rare creature in the annals of cinematic badassery—a character whose heroism and womanhood are intertwined, each part fueling the other.
By the time Furiosa first locks eyes across a speeding battleground with the feral Max, chained and bound to a War Boy’s turbocharged buggy like a human hood ornament, she has already reclaimed her identity as a woman and a warrior. Driven by compassion and vengeance, she has chosen to risk it all to liberate the Five Wives—the personification of soft, fertile femaleness—and stick it to the Man.
If Max is the tortured antihero who must learn to rejoin humanity as he journeys along the Fury Road, Furiosa is the resolute leader who’s already chosen her path to redemption. She just needs a little help to stay the course as she loses faith, and a lot of blood, along the way.
Director George Miller became so enamored of the Furiosa character that he scripted an entire stand-alone film dedicated to her story. In Fury Road, he deliberately plants her further along in her own hero’s journey than the character the movie is named for.
“We see [Max’s] evolution into a nobler, more reliable man,” Miller has said of the dual heroes of Fury Road. “We see what his better self could be. It’s where Furiosa already is. She’s fierce in her determination. Her heart gets pretty close to being crushed on this journey they take, but together, they find some way to stand against the chaos of the world and find some sort of redemption.”
Other iconic characters have achieved the combination of unrelenting ferocity and soul-baring humanity that Theron does in Fury Road. Many are trained killers pushed to the brink, like Uma Thurman’s The Bride, arguably the best assassin of any gender in film history—and one of the fiercest mothers.
The best of these screen warrioresses are often forged from humble beginnings in some heightened dystopia or another, like Carrie-Anne Moss’s Matrix-bending Trinity or Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, the survivalist princess of District 12. Only the rare action heroine can exist and excel in the real world, like Noomi Rapace’s cyberpunk misfit Lisbeth Salander.
And of course, in the past year alone Scarlett Johansson has breathed life into two lethal action heroines—first as the synthetically enhanced ass-kicker of Lucy, and then as the superhero Black Widow, enjoying her most significant screen appearance to date in the Avengers franchise in last month’s Age of Ultron.
But even the Avengers’ acrobatic resident femme fatale got a controversial amount of short shrift in her biggest storyline. (She doesn’t even get to ride her own motorbike in the merchandising, let alone play with the boys on toy shelves?!)
Which is why, with the indignities of Black Widow fresh in mind—and in a studio landscape that doesn’t know what to do with their female superheroes, or when to do it—Theron’s Furiosa stands even taller as the best female action hero in ages.
She’s Joan of Arc with a mechanical arm, commanding and powerful and on a mission to redeem herself and all of humanity. Even Mad Max knows he’s met his match in Furiosa, and then some; their first meeting turns into an evenly matched mano a mano brawl, two distrustful animals trading brutal blows. Just imagine how things might’ve gone differently if she had two arms.
Later, in one of Miller’s more quietly brilliant moments, Max finds himself with only one bullet left in his rifle and a war party fast approaching. He defers wordlessly to Furiosa, the deadliest shot in the Wasteland, who rests the barrel on his shoulder and fires expertly into the darkness.
For the highest indication that Furiosa’s fulfilling a greater cultural need, look no further than the fact that she’s become Public Enemy No. 1 to the Men’s Rights Activists who’ve become so alarmed by Mad Max: Fury Road’s Eve Ensler-approved feminist themes that some have called for a boycott of the film.
Oh, the irony: The best action movie in years (with what might be a historic Tomatometer rating for a studio-released blockbuster) is too progressive for misogynists.
All the more Mad Max—and Furiosa—for the rest of us.