It’s been many years since I watched the first Mad Max movie. Honestly, I don’t remember it that well. I recall it as a low-budget revenge tale in a quasi-dystopian urban landscape (unlike later movies, government and law enforcement still existed, society had not collapsed.) Max Rockatansky as played by Mel Gibson has such a strong accent he is almost unintelligible, and women are largely absent except to be rescued, raped, or killed at various points in the story. At no point in this tale do women have even the tiniest bit of agency — they’re victims, period. Most of the time, they don’t even have the dignity of proper names.
My main impression of that first movie is how stunningly post-apocalyptic it was NOT. Where are the crazy outfits, the mad nomads in the desert? Mad Max isn’t a lone ronin wandering the wastes, he’s a highway patrol cop with a boss yelling at him to do his paperwork. I think it can be argued that the first Mad Max movie is a kind of cinematic prologue, an origin story, but not properly part of the main series at all. Mad Max is a prequel that just happened to be shot first, a warm-up exercise for the movies that follow. This isn’t what we think of when we think “Mad Max.”
That is the second movie.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is so iconic to the flavor of the series that I know a lot of people who mistakenly believe it IS the first movie. This is the movie that establishes so many of the tropes we associate with Mad Max: the complete collapse of government and society, the scarcity of resources, the roving bands of increasingly violent and tribal gangs who dress in the most outlandish S&M outfits (in fact, many of the gang members for this movie were famously played by members of the local gay bondage community, who brought their play costumes to the set.) Everything is dirty, distress, recycled. There’s rape here too, and very few of the women have speaking roles. In fact, very few women have proper names; one of the larger female roles with a speaking part is actually titled “The Captain’s Girl.”
And yet…we can’t talk about this movie without talking about Warrior Woman. Warrior Woman (yes, that is her official title credit) is played brilliantly by Virginia Hey, and she is a stand-out in many ways. Not only is she a major character, but she is in almost all ways indistinguishable from a male in the same role. She is never raped, threatened with rape, never used as a sexual plot device, never killed off to further Max’s story. She isn’t there to train Max. Unlike Max, she goes on the final road trip knowing it’s a suicide mission, and she willingly (and heroically) sacrifices herself to save her community. Her death has nothing to do with him, and it’s entirely her choice.
That sounds suspiciously like ‘agency,’ doesn’t it?
That brings us to the third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, where this whole ‘female agency’ thing sneaks into the movie so quietly most people didn’t even notice. Now don’t get me wrong: Beyond Thunderdome still has problems (it would fail the Bechdel Test, for example, as would the movies that came before it) but unlike previous movies, there’s not a single instance of rape and the women actually merit proper names (or in the case of Auntie Entity, proper nom de guerres.) Auntie Entity (played by Tina Turner) is fabulous and over-the-top, in much the same way that Lord Humongous was in the second film. She is female, black, and anything but set dressing — she’s one of the main plot drivers. More so, and hold on to your hats for this, by the end of the movie everyone in charge is a woman. Auntie Entity runs Barter Town (or presumably will once she gets the riots back under control,) Savannah Nix leads the Tomorrow-morrow Land kids after they’ve settled in Sidney. This is never called out as anything surprising or unusual. It’s not an upset of the natural order. Their right to be in these roles may be questioned (certainly Master didn’t much like Auntie Entity’s power grab) but it’s not because of their gender.
Both The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, by the way, use myth and legend as a narrative device: both movies are in fact oral histories being told around campfires years later, with the narrators people who claimed to have met ‘The Mad Max’ himself — Feral Boy in The Road Warrior, and Savannah in Beyond Thunderdome. This takes the stories and pulls them out of a strict chronology, turning Mad Max into a mythic figure similar to how the Greeks must have told stories about Hercules or some African tribes told tales of Elegba’s exploits. Which is important, because George Miller has refused to say exactly when in the time line the next movie takes place. From a mythic point of view, does it matter? It’s a Mad Max story, the same way we might have a Conan the Barbarian story or a James Bond story. It happens a long time from now. We hope.
Now we have the fourth movie in the franchise, Fury Road. It’s the first movie to not star Mel Gibson (which is fine: the storytelling dynamic of the series means that any man could star as its lead, just as any man could star in a film as Robin Hood,) with Max being played by Tom Hardy, and it is very nearly a non-stop continuous car chase. It’s also unabashedly feminist, if by ‘feminist’ you mean that some of the people kicking all the asses in it are also female (but note how that happens all the way back in The Road Warrior, mmmkay?) Regardless, I’m surprised (okay: not that surprised) by people who seem to think that the feminism of the most recent Mad Max movie is something new.
In point of fact, it should be obvious by now that George Miller has been working towards this for decades.
The plot of this movie doesn’t just skirt the idea of feminism, but tackles it with all the subtlety of a fiery exploding car crash: fertile women (that is women who can successfully bear non-mutant children) have joined the ranks of water and gasoline as scarce limited resources. Those women in turn are understandably not too happy about this turn of events when the Warlord leader of the Wasteland gathers five of these rare flowers together so he can breed perfect heirs to his empire. They want their freedom, and (in at least some cases) would rather die than be the mothers of his children. To this end, the women recruit one of the Warlord’s Imperator generals, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to smuggle them across the Wasteland to the Green Land where Furiosa grew up as a child, and where they believe they can live free of ownership.
Which means: the entire movie is a giant car chase exploding special effects fight for the rights of women to control their own bodies.
Never thought you’d live to see the day a Mad Max movie tackles the same themes as the Handmaid’s Tale, did you?
Now, this latest entry to the Mad Max franchise does depart from its predecessors on at least one point: the campfire storyteller narration with the voice over by one of the survivors has been dropped as a framing device. Also, the criticism that the movie is more Furiosa’s story than Max’s has some merit, although given that Max is just as much the wasteland wanderer here as he ever was, I can make the argument that Max is a man who will always be tangled up in someone else’s story.
I have to mention also that a lovely thing happens when you have as many women in a movie as this one does, something we hardly ever see in films that are supported by a single women in a cast of men: suddenly women are allowed to be different from each other. They can be cowardly or brave. They can be young, old, and everything in between. They can be peaceful or blood-thirsty. They can be flawed and cynical or they can be perfect and innocent. The depth and diversity of women in this film is wondrous and rare, not just for a Mad Max or Post-Apocalypse themed movie, but for ANY movie.
There were also explosions, fire tornadoes, and mutants playing guitar with electric flamethrowers while standing on top of a moving truck of amplifiers and kettle drums. And, as always there was a group of people trying to leave something terrible and make a new start, and as always, there was the Mad Max, the Psychopomp of the Apocalypse, there to escort them through the jaws of Hell to the gates of the Promised Land.
That should be all anyone needs or expects from a Mad Max movie. This one delivers on that promise with skill and fire.