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?