Mad Max: Fury Road has been divisive of public opinion. One faction wants to see it as an emasculation of their iconic wasteland epic by feminist forces in Hollywood. The other wants to glorify in how it seizes themes that seem near and dear to the causes of female empowerment as if George Miller himself was taking a stance in the combative zeitgeist of the post-Gamergate era. Neither, I think, are grasping the core message of Mad Max and the audience it speaks to: all of us.
Is Mad Max a feminist film? Arguably. But that’s missing the greater point, where Miller makes an aggressive critique on the state of environmentalism, on the disastrous trajectory of humanity, and challenges us with the solution. Max may not be the “hero” of the story, but he is the most important agent in Furiosa’s character arc, which underscores the movie’s message, and that’s why the its title is a worthy namesake to his character. Max, despite his personal insanity, is a beacon of the true but trying path. Before I continue, consider this critical question:
What is the single most pivotal moment / decision of the film?
THE SLOW DEATH
We’ll come back to that. First, let’s recognize that the Citadel represents what’s left of the world, the consequence of the sins of previous generations. In it, you have a cult who worships the ritual of hunter-gathering in the form of taking war vehicles into the wasteland. They pray to their “V-8” god with steering wheel, don shamanistic spray paints, desire the reward of afterlife in Valhalla.
It’s all ironically similar in fashion to our own pagans who worshipped their gods of bounty. Replace the superstition of technology with that of harvest, and you have a very agrarian tone to it all, where the men are even called “bullet farmers”, are adorned in the fetishes of their scavenging, desperately toiling at the maintenance of their vehicles as if technological refuse was a metaphorical fertile soil. Some of their vehicles are even armed with “harpoons and plows”.
The women intuitively understand this corruption: “Angharad used to call them anti-seed” they recall as they talk about guns, “plant one and watch something die.” Still, Furiosa’s troupe spends significant screen time tending to these dying machines that store “produce” in their metal bellies, i.e. milk, water, and oil. Even “breeders” know how to tend weaponry and tools. Survival comes from husbandry of barren machines, but as machines can only deteriorate, theirs is a doomed world. An interesting twist is that the man who works with the “blood bags”, living people, is credited as the “organic mechanic”, further emphasizing the reversal of human and machine.
The Citadel is pre-occupied with the idea that survival lies somewhere out in the Wasteland, and that these machines will bring back sustenance. Thus the means of travel in the Wasteland is the most valuable resource, and so a vehicular cult evolved. The problem is that these resources, once brought to the Citadel, suffer mismanagement and despotic control at the hands of Immortan Joe, who embodies the idea of short-sighted, self-destructive policy.
As both political and religious leader, his concern is the breeding of his own kin at the expense of the freedoms of his people. The Splendid Angharad isn’t his wife, she is merely property used for bearing his children. Fertility in the wasteland, maternal or otherwise, is secured under lock & key, like the chasity belts on the “breeders”, or the milk matrons. Kidnapping is referred to as being “stolen”. Women experience the lion’s share of the trauma.
Imperator Furiosa, on the other hand, embodies the rage and survival instincts of the victimized. What’s sad is that we’ll never know how much of Furiosa’s personality was born to her, and how much is the inevitable product of abuse. We should not see her rage as a strength, but as a scar. She uses it to attempt escape, but beyond that, there is no providence in its lack of imagination. While it’s tempting to see her as empowered, her rage alone isn’t able to save people. Her noble goals are ultimately driven by a very personal one: “redemption”.
What she blindly hopes can save her group is the “green place of many mothers”, where a solution must already exist, or so Furiosa’s memory suggests. This solution is mere nostalgic escapism. When she learns that it has turned into a toxic swampland, Furiosa is devastated because it means she achieved neither salvation nor redemption. She falls back on survival mentality, and decides to press on ahead through the salt flats with no plan. She fakes real hope.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
It is here that Max tells her the most critical moral message of the movie: “You know, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” Let’s quickly point out that Max himself, is suffering a personal insanity from a past he couldn’t fix. Recall the beginning of the film, as he attempts escape from the fiery chthonic hell of the warboy den, hallucinations assault him, accusing him of failing to save them. He gets a few glimpses of an Eden before he is dragged back in. After turning down Furiosa’s offer to tag along the trip across the salt flats, his past returns to haunt him again.
There are two meanings to his advice. The first is the literal meaning, that to follow naive hope, as she has already done in search of the “green place”, and to try to fix this impossible situation is futile. The second meaning is a social commentary, that our world’s problems cannot be solved with just expectations of future solutions, be they social, cultural, or technological. You must first “fix what’s broken”, that is you must address the existing status quo, the stranglehold of greed and dehumanizing policies from the top. Otherwise, you fall into the same mindset as the oppressors who seek to scavenge their salvation out in the Wasteland.
His hallucinations change his mind, and he decides to help Furiosa. He’s attempting his own advice (in the second sense), to face what’s broken and save lives to cure his insanity (read: guilt). In this sense, his goal is the same as Furiosa’s: redemption. Unlike her, however, he isn’t motivated by anger. I must make it clear that Max isn’t superior to Furiosa for the value of his advice, merely that he has already traveled the road that Furiosa is on. He’s taking control of his victimhood, not being controlled by it.
WHERE MUST WE GO
So now we can answer what the single most pivotal moment of the film was: the decision to return to the Citadel. By asking to Furiosa to turn back, Max is inviting her to join in the solution he’s decided for himself. “At least that way,” he tells her, “we might be able to… together, come across some kind of redemption.” For Max, he must stop running from his fear of failing to save people. For Furiosa, she must face the reality that there may be no “green place” to run to. Both must to stop escaping the status quo. As Nux describes it, “it feels like hope”, which is to say it isn’t hope itself, but feels like hope, it is real and present motivation, not escapism. For those with learned helplessness, this feeling is a breakthrough because they have a damaged concept of hope.
Again, this is strong social commentary. Think on other post-apocalyptic movies, and how often the solution lies in the defeat of the enemy, or reaching some salvation that awaits. Mad Max doesn’t submit to those fantasies. Our future survival, as a species, does not lie in the pursuit of a Grail, Sampo, Eden, or other external saviordom.
Instead, it comes from the cultivation of good resources by good people, replacing the internal policies of exploitation. Immortan Joe didn’t die because Furiosa and Max actively sought to kill him, he died because he couldn’t relinquish power, control, and wealth, finally chasing them to fatal results. But his ruin was inevitable. Unable to cultivate character and human potential, he will always chase into an emptier and emptier wasteland.
But the infrastructure for protecting the things we hold dear already exists. The resources are already here, right now! This is a very hopeful message because we are always one regime change away from saving our species, and regime change is just a few rebellious acts away. One can see Furiosa as either reformist or revolutionary. Given the right direction, avoiding Max’s mistakes, she can also succeed.
MODEL OF PERSONHOOD
Now that I’ve explored the greater point of the movie, I’d like to end by revisiting the question about if Mad Max is a feminist film. Again, I’m not going to delve into that, but I will point out that while it provides a strong female role model in Furiosa as the heroine of the film, it also suggests what a good male role model should be.
Max and Nux are the only men that the women trust. For Nux, its obvious that it’s because he is naive, innocent, and as exploited as the women (in his own way), and the women keep Furiosa from killing him because they see him as a person, not as property. Max, on the other hand, must earn their trust. He does this by offering not just his strength, the way the hyper-masculine war boys do, but with vulnerability. His blood-giving empowers Nux and revives Furiosa, he puts himself in danger and tells them to “keep moving” if he doesn’t return, and he sacrifices the safety of traveling alone to help the women return to a home that isn’t his.
The mark of a good man isn’t in the things he owns, but in his deeds. Notice how few decorations and fetishes adorn Max compared to the war boys, wearing only the basics for survival. He is a man of action- even as he distrusts Furiosa, he surprises her many times leaping into the most pragmatic action, showing his reliability. We find stark contrast to this in my favorite line of the movie where Rictus declares to the convoy “I had little baby brother! And he was perfect! Perfect in every way!” It elegantly captures the insanity of their pride, as if possession of even a dead person is an accomplishment that adds to one’s net worth, though he had no part in its creation.
Of course, all this can and should describe women too. In fact, both Max and Furiosa exhibit stereotypical traits of the other gender in their violence and their sensitivities. If the characters represent a spectrum of social forces, then Max and Furiosa’s relationship argues that, male or female, all types of victims have common goals (e.g. redemption, survival, revenge) that are intersections where they can uncover great strength. Even Nux, subscribed to their purpose, matures from war boy to man (read: in Max model), learns a more selfless sacrifice than that for some Valhalla. So really, this is a humanist film, of which feminism is one of the key perspectives.
We don’t know in the end whether Furiosa’s recapture of the Citadel describes a political or a social revolution, though with two other production centers for oil and bullets beyond their control, it’s unlikely to be capitalistic. Regardless of their precarious future, we can take comfort in knowing they’ve changed from victims to new policymakers. Cultivating the human, regardless of what policy missteps may come, is the ultimate step towards the survival of humanity, as a species and as a self-identity. It’s really the only truth that survives the travails of dire circumstances.
The movie ends with the line “Where must we go… we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves?” The answer, I think, is not out there, but here at home, where we can make ourselves whole again. I’ll be excited for the rest of the series to see Max find a home to call his own, and cure the madness.