I admit it—the main reason I bought an opening weekend ticket for Mad Max: Fury Road was to, specifically, piss off the various men’s-rights advocates angrily telling me that, as a man, I should boycott it for being feminist propaganda. Continuing my life’s goal of doing pretty much the opposite of whatever the defenders of manliness tell men to do, I of course bought a ticket for an opening weekend 3D showing in order to give as much money to my feminist overlords (ladies?) as possible.
Was it the massive triumph for feminism that would finally break the back of the patriarchy that both its biggest haters and boosters predicted it’d be? Probably not.
But it was, first and foremost and above all else, a Mad Max movie. And the most interesting thing about Fury Road is how it reveals that, contra the wailing of Return of Kings’ “resident economist” Aaron Clarey, the Mad Max franchise has always on some level been a feminist franchise. It’s a franchise about toxic masculinity, and how all of us—including the “good guys”—are infected by it, and how there’s no hope unless we can someday build a world without it, which might mean building a world without ourselves.
Let’s break it down, point-by-point:
1) Masculinity is violent.
Linking violence with manhood and machismo is an old, old thread in the Mad Max franchise, too. The first Mad Max starts as a parody of the macho “hoon” culture in 1970s Australia, young men egging each other on into acts of rape and murder for no reason other than to show that they can. In The Road Warrior, this is extrapolated into full-on feudal warlordism with a hyper-macho villain literally named “Lord Humungus.” By the time of Fury Road, this expands into a masculine warrior culture of “War Boys” who, cribbing from Norse mythology, see dying in battle as their glorious purpose in life.
Mad Max has never pretended to not be appealing to a male audience that finds violence exciting and fun. George Miller has said he jumped into making the first Mad Max movie because he grew up enthralled by the adrenaline-fueled world of racing, that “The USA has its gun culture, [Australia has] our car culture.”
2) Violence is hell.
Yes, the vast majority of action movies give a wink and a nod to the moral that violence is bad, but do little more than that. It’s notoriously difficult to make an action movie that actually condemns violence when the purpose of an action movie is to make violence look cool.
But Miller has been open in interviews about his past as an ER doctor, who was on the one hand fascinated by the awesomeness of movie violence (his first short film was entitled Violence in the Cinema) but on the other hand all too familiar with the gruesome physical effects of violence, even in the form of “normal” car accidents.
As a result, his movies have never flinched away from looking not only at the awesomeness of car violence and gun violence in action but also the ugly results they leave behind. We hear and almost feel Max’s bones snapping when his arm is run over in Mad Max, see him still limping and in pain from an old injury in The Road Warrior.
The world of Mad Max is a world filled with scars, scabs, old wounds. It’s a world filled with wreckage and waste, a world that’s steadily getting worse and worse—where even a casual look at the setting sends the message every doctor who’s treated an assault victim knows: that it’s easier to break than build, that what violence destroys, more violence will never restore.
Like the post-apocalyptic genre always should do and all too often fails to, it emphasizes violence as tragedy. It’s a world where the single biggest fight scene, the Great War, happened decades ago and everyone lost.
3) Violent men damn themselves.
In the first Mad Max film, where Max is a member of a police force trying to hold civilization together against anarchy, Max tries to quit his job because he fears he’s beginning to “enjoy it,” that soon the “good guys” and “bad guys” will become indistinguishable. His boss implores him to stay, telling him that he and his fellow cops can be “heroes” that this world needs.
In a reversal of the typical action movie where a rogue cop flips off his rule-abiding boss, Max is right and his boss is wrong. When Max finally loses his family and goes on a vengeful rampage against the gang who killed them, he does not become a “hero” and his shining example does not restore civilization—instead it’s the beginning of the end, the direct segue into the total anarchy of The Road Warrior. Max’s brutality doesn’t fix anything, doesn’t save anyone. He ends up part of the problem—another threat to the fragile outpost of civilization in The Road Warrior who needs to be bullied and deceived into helping people.
Max’s use of violence isn’t a triumphal liberation of self; it’s a negation of self. He starts out a man with a family, a home, a real life—the first Mad Max ends with him losing all these. At the end of every Mad Max film he ends up with less than he had before. At the start of Fury Road he’s been alone so long he barely remembers how to speak.
The same degeneration applies to Max’s enemies. Maybe the most disturbing aspect of the first Mad Max film was the character of Johnny “The Boy,” who is indeed boyish, likable, even innocent-seeming—except that his whole life revolves around proving his worth and strength to his fellow gangsters, which leads to him becoming a rapist, a murderer, and finally a charred corpse at Max’s hands.
Fury Road recapitulates this with the character of Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, a War Boy treated as a disposable asset by his master Immortan Joe—played by the same actor who played the gang leader, Toecutter, in the first Mad Max. Like Johnny, despite his likable qualities he’s a monster, a pawn in someone else’s game; so fucked up by his environment he can’t see a purpose to life beyond murder.
The only difference is that unlike in the first Mad Max, this kid finds a way out of toxic masculinity, a path to redemption. Because of the plot element that was missing from the first Mad Max but is present here: The Wives.
4) The only escape from violent masculinity is to start over without it.
To the extent that Mad Max: Fury Road does something other movies starring Strong Female Characters kicking ass doesn’t, it’s not because of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, even though she is an awesome character. It’s because of the women she’s “saving,” Immortan Joe’s Wives, who see the potential of a better world beyond fighting and killing. It’s because of the reappearance of people in the Mad Max universe who aren’t warriors and demonstrate a way to live that isn’t war.
The Wives have lived a “high life” in Joe’s harem, a bubble of separation from the ultra-violence of the rest of the world. It’s come with high costs, as the Wives’ gauzy harem-wear and the pregnancy of two of them implies, but it’s given them the luxury of being the only characters who take a view beyond the immediate here-and-now, beyond Max’s dictum of “Survive” and Nux’s belief that his life has no purpose but to “die glorious on the Fury Road.” The messages graffitied on the walls of their prison before their escape show them thinking about the future—”Our Babies Won’t Be Warlords”—and the past—“Who Killed the World?”
The most surprising event in Fury Road is the redemption of Nux—a character who in any other film, including any other Mad Max film, would be just another faceless bad guy to blow away. Max, who spends the first half of the film literally chained to him, wants nothing more than to kill and discard him, as he does every other entangling relationship in his life.
But the Wives argue against killing him once he proves to be harmless—their values, unlike the values of everyone else in the movie, demand “No unnecessary death.” The world they’re running away to—the mythic “Green Place” out in the desert—is a place of nurturing and empathy, a place where weakness is embraced and protected, not ruthlessly weeded out.
They give Nux a chance for the same reason they give Max a chance, despite Max being a dangerous unknown entity who first comes in contact with them by threatening them at gunpoint—because to make a better world, you have to be a better person.
When trying to convince Nux to abandon Joe’s army they shout the slogan to him, “Who Killed the World?” No, Immortan Joe didn’t personally drop the nukes or use up the oil to kill the Old World, but he embodies the spirit that did—the spirit of bad people, mostly bad men, who only knew how to make their mark on the world through conquest and domination.
To un-kill the world, our heroes need to break that cycle. Someone like Max or Furiosa out-badassing Lord Humungus or Master Blaster or Immortan Joe won’t do it, it’ll just create a new warlord with a new ridiculous name. The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome presented escape as options—fleeing into the desert to the coast, getting in a plane and going to “Tomorrow-morrow-land.” Maybe if we go into a new, virgin territory where the men tainted by violence have never been—the North Coast, the radioactive ruins of Sydney—we’ll be able to start over.
Well, Mad Max: Fury Road takes that option away. If the biggest surprise in Fury Road is elevating an enemy henchman to a hero, the second biggest is the climactic twist that the former “Green Place,” home to a utopian matriarchal society, no longer exists, having been destroyed by pollution long ago—and the only option is to go back to the hellhole they came from, to confront and kill Immortan Joe rather than running from him, and to build a new utopia on the ruins of his dystopia.
That’s a really radical message for an action movie, even a “feminist revenge” movie—that we can and in fact must aim higher than escaping society, that we can rebuild society. That Immortan Joe’s Citadel—still staffed with half-grown War Boys who grew up steeped in Joe’s cult of rape and murder—can be redeemed into something better. That the frenzied enthusiasm with which Joe’s crowd of downtrodden peasants cheered his war parties can be redirected to cheering Furiosa’s mission of growing green things and rebuilding the Earth. That we can build our Green Place where we live.
5) Does a world without violent masculinity have any place in it for violent men?
Aaron Clarey isn’t really a Mad Max fan.
This is pretty clear already given that his viral rant about Fury Road doesn’t betray much knowledge of the franchise at all—he doesn’t seem aware that “the director of Fury Road” he reviles is, in fact, George Miller, the director of the entire Mad Max franchise. He calls one of the most iconic Australian cultural exports of all time a “piece of American culture.” He boldly states “No one barks orders to Max!” when, in fact, all three previous Mad Max films feature Max taking orders from someone (Roger Ward’s Captain Fifi in Mad Max, Michael Preston’s Papagallo in The Road Warrior, Tina Turner’s Auntie Entity in Beyond Thunderdome).
But the single biggest sign Clarey doesn’t know the first damn thing about what George Miller or Mad Max is his triumphalist line: “When the shit hits the fan, it will be men like Mad Max who will be in charge.”
Mad Max isn’t in charge of anything throughout the Mad Max film franchise. Max is emphatically not the archetype of the badass hero who gets the girl, gets the crown, and rules as a patriarch over society as is his due. He’s a fucked-up loner who isn’t fit to live among civilized people; who begins each film alone, wounded, broken, and who ends each film in the same state or worse.
The angst that surrounds each Mad Max film is that, Moses-like, his battles may lead to the creation of a better world, but it’s a world with no place for him in it. The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome both end with characters telling his story in a future rebuilt society where he himself is absent.
Fury Road repeats this ending. With our heroes on the cusp of building a new world, all Max can do is silently walk away from it back out into the desert. His origin story is one of driving into the desert never to return once he realized he’d ceased to be a man of law and became a man of blood.
Nux, a lesser reflection of Max, similarly can’t make it to the Promised Land—he’s already poisoned, physically and spiritually, by the mutations that made him a War Boy, already dying of cancer, and the best he can do is flip from his birthright of heroically sacrificing himself to protect the status quo to heroically sacrificing himself to destroy it.
This is a tragic ending. All the Mad Max films have had tragic endings, and if you don’t grasp that this is the tragedy at the heart of Mad Max (and the gritty Westerns and samurai films Mad Max emulates) then you don’t get Mad Max. If you think Max has an awesome life and we’re supposed to wish we were him, you really don’t get Mad Max.
Audre Lorde’s famous quote is that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; a road warrior can’t settle down to a life of peace.
One of my own male role models, Kurt Cobain, said, “Women are the only future in rock and roll”; I’d apply that to culture in general. Not that women are genetically or inherently superior, not that there’s nothing wrong with our culture’s idea of femininity—but the most toxic behaviors, the ones that killed the world and continue to kill it? They’re all packaged together in the culturally approved madness we call masculinity. And our best hope might be handing the reins to the half of the population that wasn’t raised to call that madness their birthright.
In Fury Road, Furiosa might be, as her name implies, filled with rage, but she’s not mad the way Max is. She remembers a better way to live, the Green Place, the Land of the Many Mothers; all Max remembers is the screams of the dying. She can be both a hero in war and a leader in peace. A hero is all Max knows how to be.
Far be it for me to compare an armchair Internet warrior like myself to Mad Max (though I’ve already compared myself to the Hulk, so why not). But I’m not the only radical guy I know who instinctively analogizes activism to war, who sees interactions with political opponents as fights, who carries the baggage of toxic masculinity even when trying to fight toxic masculinity, who sees political conflict as a zero-sum Thunderdome where “two men enter, one man leaves.”
And Mad Max, of all places, came out with a message against that nonsense 30 years ago, with Beyond Thunderdome—which is when Clarey should’ve started writing about Miller as a betrayer of manhood, assuming he was old enough to read and write then—when Tina Turner, a strong female leader figure 30 years before Charlize Theron, sang a song that sums up activism, feminism, and the problem with male allies in one line: