On Fury Road and the value of non-threatening male heroes
So I’ve been re-watching Fury Road and something struck me;
Tom Hardy’s Max is just really non-threatening. Now, that’s weird on a surface level because in story he’s presented as very dangerous. But here’s the thing about the kind of men we’re used to seeing in action movie; They are threatening in their masculinity.
The capitol A Action hero is a fixture in our cultural awareness. Almost without fail this hero is a man (if you have a woman in the role of action hero, it’s almost always proceeded by her gender. She can’t just be the action hero, she is very clearly cast as a FEMALE action hero.) So our male Action hero is a badass. He’s dangerous, he’s brooding, he’s tough as nails. Sometimes he’s sarcastic and witty, sometimes he’s a moody stud. Point is, despite cultural changes that we see with our Action heroes as different pop culture trends change the flavoring, these men are all pretty much cut from the same mold. And here’s the thing about your typical Action hero; They have this underlying current of threatening masculinity. To put it bluntly, your typical Action hero is really all about cock. They’re intimidating to both their male peers and the women who are cast opposite them. They are toxic masculinity distilled onto our screens.
Now, in recent years we’ve been seeing more varity in our Action heroes. More emotion. Of course, there have always been exceptions (Luke Skywalker is one of the most note worthy male heroes to break this mold, and I think it’s worth noting that he’s often called whiny. Hell, when I was a little kid I loved him, but as a young teenager I thought he was lame. Now I realize that this might well have been because he wasn’t acting like your typical male hero. Maybe that scared me on some level) Anyway, let’s get back to Hardy’s Max. In story he starts out as frightening, but he is never threatening in the way of your usual Action hero. He’s feral, dangerous, and unpredictable at the start of our story, but he doesn’t have any of that toxic masculinity. So, we have a mad Max who is dangerous, and seems mad, as it were. But there’s none of that hyper male Action hero posturing.
Hardy’s Max is a flawed man whose past has almost driven him past the point of no return. To the other characters in the movies he initially seems to be feral (they don’t have the benefit of hearing his inner thoughts) Max is a frightening, but he’s not a masculine he-man. In fact, the characters in the movie who fall close to what we’re used to seeing in Action heroes are the warboys and their leader. The culture espoused by Immortan Joe is hyper masculine and toxic. The young men who idolize him seem like extreme versions of what we’re used to with our heroes. They’re brainwashed into a society built on toxic masculinity and objectification, and the heroes of the story are the ones fighting against this idea. Interestingly, Furiosa has a lot of traits of your traditional Action hero, but it’s coupled with compassion and self reflection, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a person. Like Max, she is fighting to regain her humanity through helping a group of young women fight for their freedom from a world of toxic masculinity.
So, again back to Max himself. As the movie goes on he regains his sense of self. A big theme int he movie is the objectification and commodification of human life. We see this with Immortan Joe’s ‘wives” as well as with the brainwashed warboys and the use living humans as ‘bloodbags’ and ‘milkers’ Max starts the movie literally strapped to the hood of a car as a hood ornament/living blood bag. Max is reluctant to help Furiosa and the ‘wives’ at first, but we see him change in a brief period of time. He regains his humanity through helping others and coming to terms with his own demons. Hardy’s Max is dangerous, but he’s also vulnerable, undeniably so. We see his fear, we see what haunts him, and we see him struggle to survive, and then struggle to come to terms with his past in order to help others have a future. This sets him apart from Mel Gibson’s Max, and in my opinion makes him the better of the two. By the time Max starts really showing his human side, we see a man who is compassionate and half broken, a man who relearns himself by helping others.
Another notable aspect of Max is his relationship with Furiosa. Usually when your typical Action hero is paired with a STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMAN in a movie, there’s this ongoing dynamic of ‘but you’re a girlllllll’ There isn’t respect, because the heroes of the story are acting out the deeply felt internalized misogyny of our own society. They can’t interact as equals because in our cultural minds they are inherently unequal. They are defined by their rigid gender rules, and they act this out like they’re children on a playground crying about cooties. And of course, there’s usually the sexual element, with the heroes constantly griping at/disrespecting one another while it’s played off as repressed attraction all along.Fury Road never once does this. Max and Furiosa are two flawed and broken people trying to survive. There isn’t a split second where Max stops to wonder how a GIRL can be so tough. Once they’re established as allies, they immediately move into a working relationship built on mutual respect and trust. Two scenes come to mind. Firstly, the initial canyon chase when Max first shows himself as an ally. There’s one notable moment where Furiosa is standing up out of the roof and Max hands her a gun. That doesn’t seem important, but there’s something about that gesture that’s very c cinematically important. It shows us that they’re a team now, and it shows us that they trust each other. The second notable scene is the “Don’t breathe” moment in the night bog. Max has previously seen that Furiosa is a good shot. He knows that she is the one to trust with this task, so he hands her the gun and lets her use him as a rifle stand. It’s a moment with no dialogue that speaks volumes.
All of this goes to Max as a nonthreatening hero. He never objectifies, disrespects, or distrusts his counterpart. He’s never an alpha male. He’s part of a story that he doesn’t need to dominate with his manly male maleness. Hardy’s Max is a dangerous, vulnerable, and quietly compassionate man who gives respect and trust where it’s due. He has no need to parade and prove his masculinity. In fact, the people doing that are the villains, and isn’t that telling?
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, dir. Roy Andersson
Mistress America, dir. Noah Baumbach
Appropriate Behavior, dir. Desiree Akhavan
Nasty Baby, dir. Sebastián Silva
Inside Out, dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, dir. J.J. Abrams
The Hateful Eight, dir. Quentin Tarantino
Maps to the Stars, dir. David Cronenberg
Entertainment, dir. Rick Alverson
The Mend, dir. John Magary
Junun, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Love, dir. Gaspar Noé
Special Mention to Possibly the Greatest Short Film Ever Made:World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
Honorable Mentions:Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia), Beasts of No Nation (dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga), Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas), Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler), The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon), Reality (dir. Quentin Dupieux), The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu), The Tribe (dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy), and White God (dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
I think the thing I love the most about Mad Max: Fury Road is the fact that while it holds out this persona as ‘hey look some classic post-apocalypse action flick’, it actually breaks and twists a ton of genre tropes. It’s a futuristic desert world, but there is COLOR COLOR COLOR literally EVERYWHERE, it’s not some sepia-toned snooze fest. Immortan Joe isn’t the usual post-apocalypse villain, either–he’s not a sickly philosophizing bureaucrat, he’s just over-powerful and shamelessly selfish. (Plus the overabundance of cool females is fairly unusual in an action movie and exceedingly welcome, but that’s a dead horse I’m going to refrain from beating here).
But my favorite subverted trope in the whole film comes at the end. Like a The Book of Eli or I Am Legend, the movie holds forth the promise of some semi-civilized remnant of humanity that the heroes have only to reach to be safe. The entire plot revolves around Furiosa, and eventually Max, trying to get everyone to the Green Place of Many Mothers; somewhere where plants and kindness still exist, somewhere where the horrors of Immortan Joe’s tyranny can be left behind and forgotten. And then comes the kicker: the Green Place is no longer. It’s as dead and poisoned as everything else, turned into a noxious, useless swamp. And then the heroes have a choice: keep running towards some distant Green Land, some half-hopeless promise–or go back and fight. And THEY GO BACK. And they FIGHT. And in fighting, they save not only themselves but who knows how many others–all the people living under Immortan Joe’s sorry excuse for a rule.
I just love that the solution was not, for once, simply to flee and ignore and save yourselves, but to turn, to hold your ground, and to destroy the evil instead of letting it destroy anyone or anything else.