David O’Donoghue looks at how Mad Max: Fury Road flips our presumptions about gender in action films on its head.
I came out of Mad Max: Fury Road yesterday and exhaled long and loud, only realising as the credits rolled that I had been holding my breath throughout much of the film, frayed nerves awash in adrenaline and blasting out electrifying impulses like lightning tearing through storm clouds. I got the distinct impression that I had seen something truly unique and different, a film that took the now humdrum art of the summer action blockbuster and truly “re-booted” it, not in the sense of reviving some ancient franchise into a shuffling, pale monster like something out of the re-animator, but in the sense of giving the whole modern action scene a firm kick up the rear end. Just watching the film reveals how very samey that action blockbuster landscape has become in the past decade or so, like feasting on a delightfully varied meal of tapas after years of conveyor belt Big Macs for each meal. The washed out grey/blue tone that hangs like a greasy film over so many modern action films is gone, replaced by a vibrant and varied colour palette. Even though it is set in the gritty desert wasteland, this is a film unafraid of eye-popping colours, from the kaleidoscope lightning strike of a tumultuous journey through a sandstorm to a haunting, chilly midnight blue that overlays a tense scene in a mucky, barren clearing. The film’s action is frenetic and impactful, full of clunking, fiery practical effects and props that have a weight and grit refreshing in the world of airy CGI.
But probably the most refreshing thing about Mad Max:Fury Road, and the thing that most surprised me, was its gender politics. The post-apocalyptic genre has long focused on a celebration of masculinity. The wasteland world beyond desk jobs and variable rate mortgages is a place where savage masculinity reigns supreme. The only force that brings order to chaos is violence and the threat of brutality, bullets and biceps. A great deal of post-apocalyptic media, varying in quality and watchability, asserts this essential truth that the darker and more violent impulses of the masculine nature as exactly the agent needed to scare an orderless world into organisation and safety, that it is the masculine baring of teeth that keeps the darkness out and in line. Mel Gibson’s mad max was a prime symbol of this post-apocalyptic hypermasculinity, with his leather jacket and loaded gun. Even the grease spewing grotesqueries that pass for vehicles in this desert seem to bear out this glorification of the masculine, the traditionally male obsession with cars now turned into the religion of an apocalyptic age.
But Fury Road is different. We first meet our hero not with a shotgun blast and a one liner, but as a frail wanderer, haunted by past failures who is soon captured by the forces of primary antagonist Immortan Joe, a bellowing, brutal warlord who rules over a band of great unwashed masses from his stone tower known as the Citadel. An initial scene in which Tom Hardy’s Mad Max attempts to escape the grasp of Immortan Joe’s pale skinned warrior fiends through the winding tunnels of the citadel is claustrophobic and kinetic, having all the atmosphere of a nightmare where it feels as though you’re running through sand, escaping some unknown predator. Mad Max remains almost entirely inert and at the mercy of his surroundings for much of the first act and in his place it is Charlize Theron’s character of Imperator Furiosa who takes the place of bombastic action hero. We are introduced to Theron’s badass with the prosthetic arm early on and first off as an agent of Immortan Joe, but her true motives are revealed shortly as we discover she is attempting to liberate a harem of young women enslaved to the grotesque Joe. This unexpected twist, as our presumptive action hero spends much of the film’s first act strung up and helpless, is the first in a series of surprises wherein Mad Max uses the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the genre film setting in order to flip our presumptions about gender in action films on its head.
Although the young “brides” of the antagonist Joe appear at first to be mere damsels in distress archetypes, as Furiosa and Max lead the desert warlords in a merry chase across the wasteland, the young women soon prove themselves helpful and resourceful in ways beyond merely being screeching, pretty poker chips for the primary characters to war over. Probably the most refreshing act of female empowerment in the film, however, comes in the form of the matriarchal homeland Theron’s Furiosa is hoping to take the young women to – a dimly remembered birthplace run by nature loving, peaceable grandmothers. It is these characters that impressed me most. The grandmother or elderly woman is a supremely important symbolic character in so much of the world’s myth and narrative yet films usually have a tough time providing strong and complex characters for older females to play. Needless to say, this is especially a problem in the pectoral and patriarchal action genre. Even if an older woman is portrayed as competent in combat this is played almost entirely for laughs, with any older lady ass-kicking portrayed with a tongue lodged firmly in a cheek. But there is nothing wry or ironic about the matriarchs who assist Furiosa and Max in taking the fight to Immortan Joe. They are noble, wise and able women who represent a strength based on nurturing and respect for life as opposed to the hypermasculine death-cult propagated by Immortan Joe.
Mad Max:Fury Road uses its beautifully realised post-apocalyptic landscape of gas explosions and grinding gears as a stage to play out fascinating conflicts of morals, mentalities and ideals. It takes a gorgeously realised canvas and isn’t just content to have a beautiful frame, but also wants to do something fascinating with its contents. Fury Road takes the post-apocalyptic wasteland and shows the hypermasculine impulse towards violence and domination not to be a satisfying necessity but to be the very root cause of society’s collapse in the first place and an agent only of suffering and oppression. In contrast, the feminine impulse of nurturing and protecting is shown not simply as inert and passive but a positive force for creating stability and peace. Fury Road is a film of courage. Not only is its style radically different and refreshing for all those who find the latest milieu of samey blockbusters to be frustrating, but the thematic and narrative weight it brings to the table is a phenomenal and powerful edition to the conversation about gender and genre filmmaking.