Fury Road is a stunning action film, two straight hours of relentless pursuit, spinning tires, sandstorms, and blood spatter, but the immediate plot is fairly simple, although set in such a well-established dystopic wasteland that it’s easy to immediately feel immersed and invested in the plight of the protagonists.
The virtues of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, as a fearless, cunning, resourceful, and definitively badass War Rig driving heroine, have been extolled in various reviews. She’s a woman who uses her rank, command of (male) underlings, and access to resources to smuggle five young women, selected to be breeders and kept in chastity-belted captivity as wives of the leader Immortan Joe, out of the Citadel and on a mission to freedom.
Along the way they team up with Max, who has escaped from also being held captive as a human blood bag for sick War Boys in need of transfusions. After a terrifying stint chained and manacled to a pursuing vehicle’s hood like an ornamental figurehead, simultaneously transfusing blood to its driver, he survives, becomes free, and meets the group of women.
While Tom Hardy’s Mad Max is a skilled fighter and a useful ally, he is not a savior and he does not drive the action. Max does not rescue these women – it is not his plan to lead them to safety, and even when he joins the effort, he does not approach them as a paternalistic protector rising to some inborn duty of helping the helpless.
Furiosa is far from helpless. When Max first crosses paths with Furiosa and the five wives, during a brief respite from being pursued by Immortan Joe’s vast vehicular army, he is afraid and distrustful. Having been alone, taken captive, branded and tattooed, enslaved, and hung upside down for blood, Max is scarred, desperate, and focused solely on his own survival. Even when he gets control of the War Rig and tries to drive away, leaving Furiosa and her gang in the desert, he doesn’t make it far – she is too clever, too well-prepared, and has rigged the vehicle to shut down if she’s not driving. With no other way to flee, he is helpless without her knowledge and skill.
So Max, while a great action character, never falls into the formulaic trappings of a machismo-fuelled warrior-saviour. He can fight, he can shoot, he can drive, and he makes an excellent co-pilot. During the opening title credits, Hardy’s and Theron’s names appear simultaneously – while Hardy plays the titular character of this well-known franchise reboot, it is clear, from marketing posters to trailers to opening credits, that Theron’s Furiosa is an equal, or more important, hero figure.
And while the wives are scantily clad in gauzy, billowy, white rags (this is a movie, after all), this rather titillating costuming can be justified considered they have just been smuggled directly from life in a tyrant’s sex cave. Furiosa, on the other hand, isn’t sporting short shorts (no matter how much Tomb Raider tried to convince us they were practical for archaeology and ass-kicking). There is no bare midriff, no conveniently misplaced bra – Charlize Theron is gorgeous even (especially?) with a shaved head, a face covered in axel grease and a mechanical, prosthetic arm, but Furiosa isn’t here to look pretty.
The wives aren’t helpless either. Considering they’re half naked, were kept in captivity, and (at least) one is pregnant, they earn their keep on board the War Rig and do their part during battle-chases.
Without any significant spoilage, just when you think you couldn’t enjoy the film’s depiction of female autonomy, resilience, and power any more, you stumble across a motorcycle gang of militant matriarchs in the desert – the Vuvalini/ Many Mothers. They are old, they are fierce, and they are women.
This is important. Reviewers and critics analyze female action heroes in film and television a lot. We have teenage to early 20s Buffy (the Vampire Slayer). We have teenage Katniss Everdeen. We have (somewhat) older heroines like Alien’s Ellen Ripley (like, before she goes into cryosleep and lives a million years) and the Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor. We have the horror/action/sci-fi likes of Alice (Resident Evil), Selene (Underworld), Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, a whole bunch of X-(Wo)Men and a scattered Avenger. What do they all have in common? They are young. Even if they aren’t teenage or depicted as particularly young, they are usually of indeterminate age and rarely depicted as “old.”
Men, on the other hand, keep on fighting into old age. Male action characters, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to James Bond, can be older. Gandalf gets older, almost dies, and only becomes more powerful and awesome. Liam Neeson has vitalized the “dad” action hero.
Movies like The Expendables are completely premised upon older dudes (characters and actors) continuing to fight, blow shit up, and have wild adventures while being older. Sylvester Stallone was like “I’m old and still wanna be an action hero!” so started a new film franchise for him and his buddies. Not unlike the situation for women actors generally, as women age the roles are fewer and different. Action and related filmic genres certainly haven’t maintained or developed roles for older women. We need to see strong, awesome women on screen, and we need to see them continue to be strong and awesome at later ages.
While the Many Mothers clan is not the focus of Mad Max, its warrior women are important, notably aged (for the most part), extremely wise, skilled in battle, and integral to the movie’s culminating battle-chase. Although I’m impressed with the actual portrayals of women characters in Fury Road, what strikes me as more significant is the fact that the action pivots around a story about freedom, specifically, women’s freedom. Women aren’t just depicted as strong and self-reliant, their actions drive the entire film.
So there you have it – a film chock full of post-apocalyptic car chases, brutal violence, and explosions, but the underlying driving plot revolves around a woman rescuing women, previously treated as object/possessions for the sole utility of sex and spawning, from a tyrannical patriarch. She steals his wives and liberates them. Furiosa literally fights the patriarchy.