Mad Max, Feminism and George Miller’s Redemption

Films in the franchise: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director of all four films: George Miller (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was co-directed by George Ogilvie).

Between 1979 and 1985 director George Miller made a series of three films focusing on a male protagonist who struggles to survive in the Australian Outback in a society fueled by murderous humans thirsty for blood, violence, wreckage, water, and oil. What seems to be forgotten given the course of the franchise is that the first film is incongruent with the rest, at least from a narrative and continuity point of view. We first meet Max Rockatansky as a police officer who is dealing with a criminal biker gang intent on causing as much destruction as possible. They are thieves, rapists, and murderers. What this movie is not, though, is a post-apocalyptic film. It is purely an exploitation film on par with many movies that came out in the 70’s. Violent, thrilling, full of action and explosions, liberal in its depiction of sex and with its usage of the female body as only a prop, gritty, and low budget – a grind house movie if there ever was one. Even the driving force for the ensuing sequels, the murder of Max’s wife and child at the hand of the bikers, doesn’t actually take place in the first movie. Sure, there is an attack and the two are run over by the riders, but as far as the first movie is concerned they are still alive in the hospital when Max exacts his revenge. The sheer fact that there are stores, police, hotels, farms, hospitals and the like show that a dystopian movie this is not. It is actually the second film that course corrects and changes the narrative of the first movie dramatically and brings us to the memories of the franchise we hold to this day. In the second film, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (the title changes slightly depending on the country of release), we learn of the death of the wife and child and we see the wasteland the world has become due to some previous war that decimated society and its resources. This sequel and the following one, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, do little else of innovative. They continue with the exploitation themes amid the more overt setting of a destroyed Australian landscape and revel in the violence they wreak especially when the victim is female and nude. The movies are campy, with very little dialogue (mostly a good thing, as it is laughably bad), and basically are set up as showcases for explosions, car chases, and the occasional grotesquerie. Someone may point out that the inclusion of Tina Turner in the third movie negates any criticism of the treatment of women in the films, but that would be a very weak defense. Sure, Turner’s Auntie is a strong woman who appears to be the leader of Bartertown, but she did so by climbing the ranks and still reinforces the old ways, which are especially dire and extremely troubling for the female population. All in all, the movie landscape painted by Miller in the three Max movies is a horrifying world on violence and thirst for survival, in which women are commodities and are present for their ability to be looked at by a male gaze, to paraphrase Laura Mulvey.

Twenty years after the last movie, and a couple of Babe and Happy Feet movies in between (yes, the talking pig and penguins), George Miller returns to world and franchise that brought him to Hollywood in the first place. For the first time in the series Max is not played by Mel Gibson, but by Tom Hardy an actor that feels still like an unknown in spite of having appeared in a string of very high-profile films and franchises (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior). While Gibson’s Max was not a very loquacious dude, in Hardy’s hands Max is even less communicative, serving up only grunts and gasps for the vast majority of the film. But Max is a supporting character, at best, in this new outing of the series and his name in the title is not really all that justified. The real star is an actress who has managed to overcome her early type-casting as just a (stunningly) pretty face and make her mark on the cinematic landscape with daring and diverse roles, earning an Oscar and kudos along the way: Charlize Theron. Head shaved, left arm missing, war paint covering the top half of her face and head, and clearly marked and bruised by years of abuse and violence, Imperator Furiosa first appears as a driver and valued worker of Immortan Joe. Joe is the leader a Citadel that seems to once again reinforce the horrors that Miller had exploited in the earlier films of the franchise: the commodification of women and their bodies, a lust for violence and the grotesque, a glorification of male (white) supremacy. Furiosa seems to be another version of Auntie, meaning a woman with some clout in the dystopian society but with actually very little agency. Then she snaps and here is where the movie really becomes interesting. The movie doesn’t deviate too far from its predecessors story-wise – it’s a car chase movie. While Imperator Furiosa is driving away from the set path, she is chased by Joe’s followers and minions. All the while Max is purely a prop: he serves as a human blood bank for one of Joe’s war boys, Nux (played by a maniacal and amusing Nicholas Hoult). The cargo Furiosa is carrying is made up of Joe’s “wives”, baby producing mules, valued for their beauty, youth, and fertility. I began to roll my eyes when we first see these young women as they drink water in a most sexualized manner, presented with virginal lighting in spite of the fact that one of them is nearly full-term in her pregnancy. However, none of these girls are your traditional damsels in distress awaiting a man to save or abuse them. They have will, desire, and strength – manifested in various ways depending on each one’s attributes. The battles and chases are thrilling and visually captivating. More than once my friend and I looked at each other in the theater and just grinned. Look out for a ridiculous badass guitar player who soundtracks the chase and battle scenes – he is unforgettable in his amazingness!

While Furiosa, who eventually teams up with Max, is making her way towards some type of Eden that she was born into before being kidnapped by Joe, Max asks her why she is helping these women. Furiosa answers stating that she is doing it for atonement. It is a peculiar exchange, especially given the limited dialogue present in the film overall. Who is speaking here? In many ways I think it is Miller himself. I truly believe that Miller is atoning for his previous movies and his treatment and abuse of women in his previous films. I see no other explanation, especially given the tonal shifts that take place in this film. Max is barely a meaningful presence, and would not be missed if he were omitted from the story altogether. Immortan Joe is an archetype if anything, barely counting as a force to be reckoned with: he has strength due to the number of followers and allies he has, but is sickly and dying, as are the war boys. Every man in the movie is flawed both emotionally and physically, sometimes in abhorrent and deformed ways. The men are maniacal in their missions, driven by frenzy, lust, and blood thirst – they have nothing to lose, and gleefully sacrifice themselves with fervor as they meet meaningless deaths. The women work as units, they value experience and age, they see the big picture and neglect temporary gratification looking at the big picture. Oh, and they kick such major ass throughout. This is one of the most feminist movies I have ever seen, and the way that the movie gets this done without making one focus on the fact that the characters are female and just presents the events as fact is all the more astounding. This is not a “chick-flick”, it is rocking action movie that satisfies all demands and expectations from the genre’s fans, it just so happens that the heroes are chicks. And they are awesome. George Miller, if redemption is what you sought in making this film you definitely succeeded. Well done!

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