It’s no secret to my friends that I passionately and unreservedly adored Mad Max: Fury Road. It instantly leapt somewhere toward the front half of my Top Ten Movies Of All Time list. I’ve seen it twice already and plan on seeing it a third time in IMAX. I haven’t stopped talking or thinking about it since the day it came out. I haven’t stopped energetically recommending it to everyone I meet. I also haven’t stopped trying to articulate exactly what about this film made it so special to me, and I think I’ve finally found out what that is.
The first thing you should know is that Fury Road does exactly what every other action film tries to do, but better, more earnestly, and more expertly. The entire content of the story is essentially one long chase scene– the tanker chase from The Road Warrior for two solid hours. Every moment is fascinating. The cars are absolutely wild– every time I’ve seen it, the “guitar car” has sent the audience cheering in amazed glee. The crashes are outrageous. The explosions are nearly constant. There are a lot of firearms involved. There is a short shot, in fact, of bullet casings bouncing wildly off a woman’s naked pregnant belly. The characters state their motivations out loud, informing one another that they are looking for “hope” and “redemption.” Little subtext, no tact– just the facts. It is the most Action-Movie-y action movie ever made.
I watch an awful lot of action movies and I have believed for years that I am a fan of the genre. I like explosions, violence, and guns in movies. I like unrealistic thrills. I didn’t know or didn’t admit, however, that I’d been holding myself at a short distance from these films– that I’d never completely embraced or loved an action movie for exactly what it was, no caveats, no hesitation. Mad Max is probably the first action movie that I have felt completely safe to enjoy. It is the first action movie I’ve seen in years which allowed me to relax and just enjoy the fucking ride.
It is not easy for women to embrace and love a genre of film which repeatedly makes them the butts of jokes, the helpless victims of crimes, or the tacit second-class citizens of their high-pressure fantasy worlds. You need to keep a little distance between yourself and a work of fiction that is so consistently likely to abandon or betray you. Occasionally I’ll be enjoying an action movie– like a Marvel film, for example– and I’ll be unconsciously bracing myself for the moment when the sole woman is kidnapped, killed, thwarted, or forced to go running to a man for help. When you’ve got an action movie with only one woman in it, you’re constantly worried that she’s going to end up dead or married. You are enjoying these movies with the unspoken knowledge that they were made by a bunch of people who believe that you are some kind of unintelligible space alien with whom they cannot communicate or sympathize.
Fury Road, on the other hand, very deliberately avoids doing anything to make women as a group seem less powerful or deserving than men, and very deliberately goes out of its way to include women as an understandable, empathizable, worthy group of people in their made-up fantasy universe. It uses the language of action films to remove that frission of separation and mild alienation I’d been unwittingly feeling with almost every other action film I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Fury Road is about a powerful, authoritative woman rescuing a bunch of other brave women from oppressive sex slavery with the help of a bunch of other women… and two men who sacrifice their own priorities to help these women achieve their crusades. (In fact, the men are more interesting for their explicit vulnerability.) Certainly Furiosa, Max’s co-protagonist, carries the entire plot of the movie. It’s her story. Max is a sidekick.
I can watch Fury Road without ever holding myself back or bracing for a sexist gut-punch. It is practically the only action movie I have seen in my life that I can completely and earnestly adore. It is the only high-intensity frayed-nerves heart-stopping explosions gruntfest gunshoot that I can relax while watching, which seems crazy, but there you go. Mad Max involves cars smashing into one another at 100 miles per hour, but I find it positively soothing.
I’ve found myself wondering: is this how men feel about the fantasy and sci-fi films they love?
Great write-up. Chipping in with some Male Voice =)
I loved Fury Road also. I loved it for the same reason I loved Dredd: it knows its place and focuses on what it’s good at. Which is being a mighty damn fine action movie. Characters are tight and subplots dart about: but the simple story is a steaming juggernaut pounding through the desert. It’s always present, always the primary motivation.
Yeah, this is Furiosa’s story, and as you point out Max is a sidekick. For my money, though, it distinguishes itself from the pantheon of action movies not through the heroics of a powerful individual (though it clearly has those), but through the interplay of a team. Playing both on uncertain alliances and common goals, it’s the GROUP which makes Furiosa’s team strong. It’s surprised me since that I can’t think of another film where teamwork is so emphasised. There’s always a moment when Hero A saves Hero B and drops a witty quip – but a whole movie based on that premise, and without the quips? A rare machine.
I think action movies are, and always have been, aimed very much at men. I’ve become increasingly aware of this over the last few years but it’s never really bothered me. Why should it? The movies are aimed at me and I tend to enjoy them – although clichés get boring and token female characters are often an annoyance. And if my female friends don’t enjoy the action movies I do, well, that’s not really a problem, is it? They have films they enjoy, after all, and we’re just talking about cinema. But then I wonder… are we?
I think traditionally and subconsciously, action movies tend to be male power fantasy. I don’t consciously embrace this at all, and I’m not the biggest action movie fan by a long-shot. And yet these films play on tropes and themes which suit me, and are probably deeply ingrained into my psyche. I may find them dull, hackneyed, unnecessary and ridiculous – but I rarely find them uncomfortable. Far from it; stick Die Hard on in the background and the world feels like a slightly more bearable place. These films tend not to be so welcoming to the female experience: in which, at best, a single Strong Female Woman will overthrow expectations until she is captured or killed. Or yes, (and even worse), married. Fury Road provides a really welcome change of pace to all that jazz.
I’ve never known many girls who really enjoy action movies as a whole, like guys do. It’s something I’ve always just tacitly accepted, but why should this be so? I’m always interested in innovation in storytelling and seeing new stories and patterns in films, and better roles for women (and yeah, more diverse roles for male heroes, too) are welcome changes which would improve my personal enjoyment of action films. And mainstream movies in general. But there’s a deeper problem running beneath this – a social issue which says action movies are by men, for men, a subliminal reinforcement of the patriarchy. I’m not so much into that.
Hmm. Well, I think that’s enough Male Voice for one lifetime. Cheers!
Thanks for writing this post. I haven’t seen Fury Road but have read plenty of accolades – at least in byte-sized form – and have wondered how it’s not just another action movie. Thanks for explaining what makes it good.
Yep, that’s the feeling.