What I Learned from Mad Max Fury Road

I had heard Fury Road was a fantastic film. With the exception of some genuinely absurd complaints, I heard exclusively good things. As a somewhat fan of Mad Max (the old trilogy is fun enough) and a somewhat fan of action films in general, I wasn’t terribly worried about getting to see it in theatres. I have a one and a half year old daughter, and while she’s amazing, she makes it very hard to go see films (which I tend to drag my feet on going to see in the theatre when I could just watch it at home in comfort later). In spite of my lack of interest in catching it quickly and my daughter keeping me quite busy, the stars aligned and my lovely wife and I were able to go watch the film on the glorious big screen.

The movie was brilliant. I knew half of why within fifteen minutes at the start. The other half I didn’t realize until after it was over and we were on our way home. Both halves are very important to talk about. So lets do that.

If God Hand was a game about driving cars instead of punching people, it would be the game of this movie. It has a clear vision of what it wants to be, and executes that with a degree of perfection that most game developers can’t even picture in their dreams. I’m not saying God Hand is a perfect game – it’s got a fair share of flaws. But it is what it wants to be, and that’s exactly why I love it.

This is the action movie version of The Man Who Came From Earth. That’s the highest praise I can give it. I love it for not doing what I expect or even want, but instead for being what it is and doing what it wants to do. It’s a movie about a bunch of mutated, injured, disabled, warped people living in a ruined world, but it is beautiful.

Unlike so many other works of fiction, Mad Max Fury Road is unapologetically and unabashedly exactly what it sets out to be. It doesn’t make excuses. It doesn’t request your permission. It sure doesn’t pander to your expectations or preferences. This is not a movie made to serve what the consumer wants (or is expected to want based on coporate perceptions and statistical sales analysis and focus testing).

This is the core of half of what makes Fury Road a brilliant film. Sure, it’s a dramatic shift from the first three films. Those movies were a lot of fun, and I have fond memories of all of them, but things move on and change. This is a new story. And no, it’s not Max’s story. Max had a whole film for himself at the start, and the second and third movies focused on him quite clearly. This is a story that Max gets swept up into, and any change to focus the film more on him would weaken it irreparably. Max wanders into this story, and plays a notable role in it, but it’s not his tale, and the handling of it as such is part of the brilliance. Everyone that loved Max back in the day gets him again, but not at the cost of an incredible new film.

The second half of what makes the film brilliant is a little harder to explain. As I mentioned, it didn’t even occur to me until the movie was over and my wife brought something up. She mentioned the absurd complaints I hinted at above. I couldn’t even recall what they were at first. My mind simply couldn’t grasp the idea of any criticism of the film. Sure, you may not have liked things in it, but that’s more a matter of your preferences than any failure or error on the part of Fury Road.

I had to ask my wife what the issues were. My reeling mind just couldn’t bring them back from the buried depths. The moment she told me, the gears clicked into place and began to spin out of control.

The number one issue I’ve heard with Mad Max hasn’t been the intense violence (of which there is plenty). It hasn’t been about the weird guitar playing and heavy drumming war-band that’s part of Joe’s warband (it’s just one aspect of the stunning soundtrack). It’s not even about the fact that it’s another dystopian setting (there have been a lot of them in media lately, but there are worse settings to keep coming back to). The number one issue I’ve heard has been that the movie focuses on Furiosa – who is a woman.

It didn’t really occur to me as being particularly important that Furiosa was a lady. I mean, she’s disabled and packing a robot half-arm, and you never hear anything about that coming up (which is also a shame, as it’s a lovely reminder that disabilities do not prevent one from being a complete and utter badass). It didn’t even register on my radar that the lead character (not the titular character, Max) was a woman. The realization that I didn’t have that realization really caused me to make to re-assessments of all sorts of things.

Growing up, I read plenty of young adult books and watched lots of cartoons. It never stood out to me that the overwhelming (almost to the point of exclusion) majority of protagonists were male. I mean, I was a guy, they were guys. Makes sense, right? Looking back, no. No, it doesn’t make any sense at all. There should have been an even split. And I don’t mean there should have been as many shows featuring girls as the main characters. I mean there should have been as many action/adventure shows with girls as the protagonist(s). Segregating the type of show and its protagonists along gender lines should not have been the norm.

Furiosa is a rock solid main character. She has development. She accomplishes her goals. She does unbelievably badass stuff pretty much all the time. The same treatment was given to her as though a man had been placed in that same role. But a man wasn’t. It was the tough as rusted nails in the Australian wastes woman that led that movie out into the desert and back again. It didn’t seem important to me that it was a woman instead of a man because I’m not bothered by/worried about that sort of thing. And that’s a failing on my part. I should have noticed it. It should have been important. Why? Because she is a woman, and there’s not enough of that and it needs to change.

They didn’t sexualize Furiosa. They didn’t reduce her to part of a wedged in romantic subplot (I actually love romantic subplots in my movies, but Furiosa is too badass and too busy for that shit). They also didn’t make her super masculine as an excuse for how awesome she is. She is simply awesome, and she is also a woman. She was treated with respect, and it is a good day for the portrayal of women in film. This is the action film that the world needs: one part unrelenting journey through someone’s vision of what is awesome (spoiler: their vision is 100% awesome, and I mean that objectively), and one part badass female lead given the exact same treatment as a badass male lead.

All of these cascading thoughts should have occurred to me when watching Avatar: Legend of Korra. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me that there was an awesome female action cartoon series star. It should have, as I heard all about the fight that it took to have Korra be female and I remember thinking a lot about how comically insane that was. This all should have occurred to me at the end of Pacific Rim, when they had the guts to not reduce Mako to a love interest finally acquired in the final moments of the film. It didn’t seem like a big deal that they didn’t feel the need to do that.

I’m honestly really ashamed of myself that I didn’t recognize this for what it is. To me, it didn’t matter if major characters were male or female. But it should. We need more major characters that are female and treated in the same way as male major characters. Equality isn’t just about me sitting home and thinking that it’s totally cool and not really relevant if the main character of anything ever is male or female. There are plenty of films and games with a hardcore male lead fighting the good fight. Now is the time to start catching women up. They deserve it, and the current state of things is obscenely unfair.

I mentioned earlier that I have a daughter. I also mentioned earlier that I grew up reading and watching cool stuff as a kid. I want her to have a childhood like mine: one where she can identify with the main characters of whatever she wants to read or watch. I want her childhood to be awesome, and full of incredible stories she can insert herself into. I don’t ever want my daughter to have to think “why are all the cool main characters always boys?” She should get to think “wow, that girl is awesome – I want to be like her.” It doesn’t seem like a difficult future to hope for, but looking at what’s out there now and the state of sexism, it’s a future that I fear is beyond reasonable expectation. It shouldn’t be that way. No parent should be forced to accept that the future for their child is compromised because they are a girl.

I’m not really sure how to end this. I’ve made the same point more times than I normally care to in this amount of space, but it was important enough that it seemed to demand repeating. I guess this is a plea that you pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t be like me before Mad Max Fury Road, a firm believer in equality, perfectly content to see women portrayed in the same way as men (in the exceedingly rare cases where that actually happens). Notice when women are treated properly in media portrayals. Point it out to other people. Open a dialogue about it with everyone you can. And push for more. Always push for more. Reward companies/creators that do well with your money. Go watch Mad Max Fury Road, and fight for a future where there are more things like it. Things that aren’t afraid to be awesome in what ever way they want to be, and far more importantly, things that aren’t afraid to show women the respect they deserve and aren’t yet getting enough of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>