the road warrior

10

I haven’t seen anyone else do this, so here goes, the evolution of the Mad Max XB GT Falcon. The last of the V8 Interceptors.

  • In Mad Max the car is pristine gloss black with flat black accents. It has a (non functional in real life) Weiand blower activated by a button on the shifter, full interior, open headers going to zoomie exhaust pipes behind the doors, MFP badges and a very Monza-like custom nose cone In general, it is one mean looking police car. Max steals the car to avenge his family, killed by a marauding bike gang.
  • In The Road Warrior the car has been through some stress in the wasteland. The interior has been removed, the lower portion of the nose has been removed to clear the desert terrain, the badges are gone, the zoomies have been replaced by straight pipes, the finish is much more distressed and most importantly, the trunk lid and rear window have been removed to make room for two massive fuel tanks, which are armed with a bomb that is later used to detonate the car and kill Max’s persuers. The nose is also smashed off during a chase sequence early on. The Weiand was also, according to some sources, functional in this iteration. 
  • The car does not appear in Beyond Thunderdome.
  • The car is resurrected in Fury Road, almost the same as it appeared in The Road Warrior, though one tank has been removed and the car overall is looking very tired, it is captured by the War Boys early on, and returns later with the infamous Black on Black paint removed, a Ford truck rear end and a second Weiand blower. The fuel tank has also been replaced with propane canisters that are chained below the rear bumper of the car, to make room for a mounted gun and spiked drop chain system. The lower nose has also been reconstructed in a much more rugged and aggressive fashion. Both versions of the Weiand supercharger were functional here.
Mad Max: Not Your Fight, Not Your Victory

The following is a guest essay/review/ramble about the Mad Max series by my fiancé Ryan Stevenson, a teacher/writer/filmmaker with a lot of thoughts about the movies that he mostly keeps to himself. He free-wrote his thoughts today after our viewing of Fury Road, and I thought they turned out to be substantial enough to warrant a place on the internet somewhere, so, here they are. 

-Lauren Wilford

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.

-The Bhagavad-Gita

Fury Road plays your sympathetic nervous system like a slide guitar. Fury Road makes every fiber of your body scream GO! for exactly two hours on the dot. Fury Road is somehow both wild, indulgent excess, where everything goes obscenely beyond what is necessary, and a razor-sharp, drum-tight, whistle-clean cinematic machine without an ounce of fat on its bones.

Needless to say I loved it. A few students and friends urged me to go see it, and asked what I thought of it, and Iʼm still processing it, so Iʼm writing it all out here. I havenʼt read any reviews yet, and a lot of this is probably stuff other people have already said better than I will. I donʼt know where to start so Iʼll just list some stray observations at first. Itʼs going to ramble a bit because Iʼve got limited time (and have been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace, which is probably rubbing off on me).

Tension

As much as I love unexpected eye-of-the-storm scenes—sudden, surreal slacking of tension for a moment of sanctuary and introspection and mystical sights—I love that this movie has precisely zero of those scenes. It has moments of quiet, but these intensify rather than assuage the anguish and urgency. The image of Immortan Joeʼs horrid Car-mada shimmering through the heatwaves on the horizon, while Max and Furiosa stare each other down in a grunting, grudging standoff, provides a textbook example of how to take tense stillness and ratchet it up into nightmarish paralysis. Again, you could feel a hundred people straining against plush seats and silently screaming GO! JUST GO!

Madness

Tom Hardy is arguably the first to put the “Mad” in Max. Mel Gibson can do arguably the most effective crazy-eye of any leading man in the history of cinema. But until now, Mad Max has been an ironic nickname—no matter how crazy his eye or his hairstyle, Gibsonʼs Max seems almost frustrated to keep finding himself one of the sanest men in a world gone utterly nuts. The opening lines of Fury Road hit this nail right on the head for us, leaving the rest of the film for Max to go full-Macbeth-mad, half-blinded by the squeak and gibber of sprites showing what was, is, and shalt be.

(I wonder if Iʼm the only one wishing Hardy had been cast as the tortured king instead of Michael Fassbender. Then again, Iʼm guilty of wishing every leading role today would go to Tom Hardy.)

All that being said, thereʼs also a part of me that wishes that aging, wild-eyed, socially- disgraced Mel Gibson had been brought back to play Max again in this film—his prodigious talent and prodigious baggage would have both made this new, tortured Max even more fascinating, and his transformation even more powerful.

Motion

Ridley Scott et al. have already authored the handbook on how to adjust the shutter for expressionistic effect, not just illusory deceit, in action scenes. Undercranking/fast motion has, like shutter angle, been used for years to subtly and imperceptibly add speed and spice to combat. But as far as I can tell, itʼs always been surreptitious “movie magic” (boy do I hate that expression), an under-the-table, wink-wink, I-wonʼt-tell-if-you-wonʼt transaction with the viewer, a pact to suspend disbelief and give the filmmakers a break. Old cinema hands appreciate the sleight of hand and feel superior about it, wide-eyed rubes donʼt even know itʼs happening.

Fury Road is the first film Iʼve seen, outside of Chaplinesque comedy, where fast motion is used without apology and without disguise. Because the whole apparatus of cinematic motion is an illusion anyway, right? Time is always being manipulated in an action movie, in order to throw our metabolism into high gear for a few hours, to give us a rush. Usually this is pulled off through quick cutting (which there are some stunning examples of here). Miller has just taken this to the logical conclusion, and rather than trimming out unnecessary shots, heʼs just giving us a fraction of the frames weʼre used to seeing. Because thatʼs what we want, right? We want things to go fast? Here you go. Things go fast now. Itʼs brilliant. Itʼs metacinematic. And it works like gangbusters. Your nervous system doesnʼt care that itʼs unrealistic, even if your thinking brain notices the trick.

Modernism/Sincerity

So much nonsense is spread around film schools and critical circles about “taking people out of the moment,” “ruining the illusion,” and so on by calling attention to the camera or the cutting or the film style. Fury Road shows just how little that matters. Itʼs an art film, really, because like all modernist art it demands, at all times, that you think about it as a movie, as an illusion, as the handiwork of a team of humans behind the curtain. Your brain knows that the whole time, and it doesnʼt matter one bit to your body. Youʼre still all-in and amped-up.

The nearest recent analogy here is Joe Wrightʼs Anna Karenina, which pulls off the same trick of intellectual meta-artistic alienation and simultaneous total emotional investment.

Maybe this is going to be one of the great productive problems of 21st century art and letters, actually. How do we learn the lessons of modernism and postmodernism, and stop hiding our tools and authorship, while letting go of some of the wry irony and cynicism of the late 20th century and using art sincerely again, for emotional and moral catharsis, even while acknowledging the artifice of the medium?

Music

The score! Itʼs like George Crumb on crack, Philip Glass on methamphetamine, Terry Riley with tachycardia. The minimalist repetitions are less like an entrancing mantra and more like tweaking out, scratching a compulsive itch. Itʼs more intense than any score Iʼve heard lately, but it doesnʼt overpower, interrupt, announce itself like Hans Zimmerʼs score to, say, Interstellar (or anything really). Itʼs just barely keeping up with the frenetic image track. Anything less would be left in the dust by the rip-roaring editing and the titanic framings. It wails and dips, shrieks and shivers, moans and cackles, whispers compulsively and shouts profanely, judders around like a rusty wind-up toy or a daddy longlegs on a bad trip. Iʼm writing this while I listen to it, which is probably why my prose is all over the place.

Limits/Creativity/Ambition/Expectations/Standards

At the end of the movie, Lauren turned to me and said something to the extent of “that was amazing” (or something, but it was more eloquent than that, clearly my poor memory of this exchange has something to do with the fight-or-flight state we were both in). And I said something like, “yeah, it was certainly pretty good” (or something, but it was no more eloquent than that).

Iʼm trying to figure out why I said that. Obviously my expectations were already really high, and I think itʼs because Fury Road didnʼt completely blow my mind and shatter my sense of cinemaʼs potential. And I think there are two reasons for that.

First, I think itʼs because I had seen the previous three Mad Max movies this week and Fury Road, to me, seems like no more or less than the natural destination for that uneven, weird and wonderful journey, the culmination of Dr. Millerʼs decades of brilliant, twisted, often-abominable, frequently doomed-to-failure experimentation in film form and content.

Fury Road is not an exception or a reinvention or an improvement to the original Mad Max movies, so much as a Mad Max movie where all the parts actually work, and thereʼs enough money to pay for all the gear and manpower it needs. Where the Marlovian over-reaching hubris of George Miller, deliberately denied its demands for decades, instantly gets everything it always wanted and knew it deserved.

Students and colleagues know that I have a self-imposed limitation for myself, sort of like one of Lars von Trierʼs Rules of Chastity. I never want my resources to exceed my skills, or my technology to exceed my talent. I want to make sure I earn, with years of frustrated labor, every bit of upgraded gear I buy. I want to struggle against, and even hate, the limits of the equipment I have, so that Iʼm forced to be creative with it, use it for unwarrantied, off-label applications, and generally make the most of it, suck every ounce of life out of it, and drive it into the ground before I graduate to the next thing. Iʼve found that this makes me a poorer technician, and often poorer crew worker, because Iʼm never up to date, but a better artist because it stretches me.

After watching this series, Iʼm tempted to call this the George Miller Path to Artistic Excellence. Every one of the original Mad Max movies has the deck stacked against it, either by circumstance or money or the constraints of the medium or by knowingly- unreasonable directorial ambition. That is, if the deck wasnʼt stacked against Miller from the get-go, it seems like he restacked it until it was. Every time, I think he looked at his gear, his budget, his crew, and his own talent and expertise, and said to himself, not “what can I do with this,” but “what can I just barely NOT quite manage to do with this,” and then tried to do that. Thatʼs how I work, too.

I think the second reason I wasnʼt totally overwhelmed is because I saw Snowpiercer last year, which already elevated my expectations of what an action movie could do, artistically and imaginatively and narratively and rhythmically and neurochemically and socio-politico-morally. Fury Road pulls off the same stunt a second time, and helps establish that the first experiment wasnʼt a fluke, that the results are valid because theyʼre repeatable. The greater reach and success of Fury Road (I think? Seems like itʼs more well-known, anyway) means that no one can claim they didnʼt get the memo on the new standards for action filmmaking. It sets the bar a whole lot higher for everyone. I dearly hope this provides the competition, check, and corrective the superhero industry so badly needs. I hope it lights a fire under Marvel, in particular—makes it get off its butt and hustle to keep up.

Watching The Avengers: Age of Ultron this week was actually the perfect palate cleanser. Hereʼs the best that mainstream action-adventure movies, as we know them, can offer in 2015. Now hereʼs Fury Road.

Lauren rightly observed that Fury Road makes The Avengers look like a TV show with a generous effects budget. Except a few sort of obvious hey-all-the-protagonists-are-in-the-same-frame-right-now moments, thereʼs not a lot of powerful iconography generated within the the eighteen-hours-or-whatever running time of Age of Ultron. In Fury Road, thereʼs not a frame wasted on anything that isnʼt a perfectly-composed, never-before-seen image that takes full advantage of the complete toolkit of cinema, both historic and modern, practical and intellectual.

If thereʼs anything that separates movies from TV these days, I think thatʼs probably it. The extent of the deliberate cinematic craftsmanship of each moment thatʼs expected of a film—in addition to writing and storytelling, which a TV show can do as well or better. (And it probably means that a lot of TV shows are really more like cinema—The Knick being my favorite example—and a WHOLE lot of movies, indies especially, are really more like TV episodes. Itʼs probably a flawed definition in the first place, but those are my feelings, in this year of my life at least.)

Urgency

And not to keep bashing The Avengers, but the theme of last nightʼs conversation was how come we donʼt care what happens to Iron Man really, but are apoplectic with fear for the fate of Furiosa and four or five girls weʼve only known for fifteen minutes. I think this is because getting to know and love a character over time offers, in the end, a weaker jolt than the more purely mechanical effect of clearly establishing real danger and real stakes in the script.

It’s because the Marvel movies are basically just cartoons, and because we know that even supporting characters probably wonʼt meet with difficult or unhygienic deaths, and because we know that the main characters are going to be fine because theyʼre starring in movies we already know the names of, to be released five or ten years from now. This led Lauren and me into a digression about Game of Thrones killing its lead characters without warning, etc., which I think actually helps establish a more ethical, decentralized, community-minded view of the world for the viewer, etc.

Iʼd say the same thing about Fury Road. Max might not die, but he might, and everyone else is absolutely fair game. And above all, fates that are physically and existentially much worse than death are very plausibly advertised to, and visited upon, lots of characters in this movie and in this series. We REALLY donʼt want those things to happen, and our brains are straining pretty hard to will those things not to happen.

And thatʼs not just a thrill ride for us to enjoy, but a pretty damning moral exercise, because itʼs impossible not to step out of this movie and realize that to a greater or lesser degree, the exaggerated torments of the post-apocalyptic world are actually happening, on micro and macro scales, in our own neighborhoods. I donʼt know if we really have global supervillains like Loki or Hydra or Ultron to worry about in our immediate daily lives (some of my libertarian friends will likely disagree with me there). But in our own immediate local communities, we do have dangerous patriarchal fallacies, and sexual abuses on a wide scale, and toxic narratives about war and combat and the glories of “Valhalla” and manning up, and itʼs all surprisingly recognizable even in a fabulous, allegorical format. Itʼs all stuff that, like Max, we slowly realize weʼre standing right in the middle of. The moral spotlight is on us, weʼre not anonymous, weʼre not bystanders who are just passing through. And we actually can, and therefore must, do something about this stuff, about the behavior of the very people we know immediately around us.

The particular moral trumpet-call for each viewer is probably different, but the thing that spoke to me most directly was the character Nuxʼs storyline. As someone who works with a lot of adolescent guys, caught between notions of boyhood and manhood (and to make matters potentially more confusing, growing up in a world teetering slowly and very unevenly from patriarchy towards feminism as the prevailing ideology), Nux struck me as a very accurate portrait. A passionate, impressionable, sincere young guy who takes the more habitual, or sensible, or involuntary conservatism of his elders, and whips it up into partisan extremism, dark anger, and shows of machismo, feeling that itʼs his ticket to the adultsʼ table. To see Nux fired up, broken down, and relearning what heroism can and should look like in a freer, healthier world is inspiring stuff. Itʼs particularly reassuring for an educator to see that guys like this can—and do, and will— grow up and turn out OK.

The tremendous amount of sympathy and dignity Fury Road offers Nux, while still revealing the immaturity and insufficiency of his view of the world, sets it apart from being just a hateful feminist screed against manhood qua manhood (I think fewer of these exist than a lot of people fear, but whatever), and makes me take the movie much more seriously as a work striving for total empathy (which is what I’d say drama is ultimately for).

Passivity

On the subjects of dark anger and shows of machismo, though: I havenʼt read it yet, but I understand that thereʼs an article out there written by a Menʼs Rights Activist-type (or possibly Christian Complementarian Godly-masculinity type) who is mightily cheesed off about Fury Road. Specifically, that Mad Max himself is routinely playing second fiddle to Imperator Furiosa, and is practically a guest-star in his own movie, and spends most of his time getting put in unpleasant binds, literally and figuratively, rather than kicking a lot of ass.

Iʼm not going to dignify this with a lot of comment about why female characters deserve as much agency in films as men do, because everyone knows I think that and everyone I know thinks that and we should hold that truth to be self-evident by now.

But I do think itʼs a point worth addressing, not only from a feminist-standpoint, but from a Mad-Max-standpoint—which I think any purported fan of Mad Max, feminist or not, should be able to get behind.

Messiness

Iʼll backtrack a little to build up to this argument. This week I saw all three original Mad Max films for the first time. In spite of what you may hear about Fury Road standing alone, I do strongly recommend seeing the first three first (if youʼre over 18 and/or have a particularly strong stomach for gore and grotesquerie).

The movies are just nuts, theyʼre all over the place, theyʼre a mess, and I feel a very tender affection for them. The first one barely makes narrative sense at all and is better enjoyed as if it were a Godard film or something. The second, The Road Warrior, (aka “the one people have actually seen,” I guess) is self-evidently strong on its own merits without me needing to point them out, but is also deeply weird and unsettling and misshapen in subtle ways. (The preponderance of leather chaps and dearth of pants, for one. Lauren calls this installment Ass Max.) The third, Beyond Thunderdome, didnʼt even start out as a Mad Max story on the page, Max just got grandfathered in (which, I think, is significant).

Theyʼre all three pretty weird. Itʼs hard to know who theyʼre meant for—kids? adults? The third in particular gets infected with Spielberg-Goonies-1980s childish whimsy in its action scenes, but forgets to clean up the gore and existential body-horror that would make such a change remotely appropriate for young audiences.

In the end, theyʼre, objectively, maybe not very good, and certainly wildly inconsistent, both intra- and inter-movie. But they remind me of the many other crazy, probably not objectively-always-great, undeniably-visionary series I love, series that also have no consistency, no polish or professionalism, and too many wild aspirations for artistic greatness.

The Mad Max movies are certainly heirs of Sergio Leoneʼs Dollars Trilogy, evident in their wandering, taciturn protagonist, stunning desert cinematography, etc. (and Beyond Thunderdome cribs from Lawrence of Arabiaʼs visuals a lot, on that note). But also in the way the cast and characters get recycled, transmogrified, redeployed out of context. Bruce Spence is an aircraft pilot in the third Mad Max movie who both seems like he sort of is but then definitely isnʼt the same pilot from the second movie, like Lee Van Cleef playing the pretty menacing ultimately-good-guy Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More but then playing the fascinating but-wholly-bad Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Gian Maria Volonté does the same thing with two wholly unrelated main characters in the first two Dollars movies.

And in the way that Clint Eastwoodʼs Man with No Name is actually a man with three names (Joe, Manco, Blondie), one for each film, and may or may not be the same continuous personality from movie to movie. In a way, the three movies make more sense if heʼs just a repeated concept of a character who gets into three similar but ultimately non-continuous adventures in three parallel universes or something (which are evidently populated by various Lee Van Cleefs and Gian Maria Volontés).

I like to think that Mad Max is might be a similar stock type, played three times by Mel Gibson but maybe not entirely the same character each time, getting into various scrapes in three separate instantiations of what post-apocalyptic Australia might look like. And as if to cement this interpretation for Fury Road, Miller follows Leone in recasting the primary antagonist from the first movie, Hugh Keays-Byrne, as a totally different primary antagonist in the fourth film.

The Mad Max movies also resemble the Alien series, in that each movie works hard to undermine the world built by the director of the last movie and replace it with something that the current director finds more applicable to the problems of our time. Except that Mad Max is all directed by the same guy who just keeps changing his mind and gets more money to work with each time. (Another similarity with the Alien series.) And like the Alien movies, Miller seems to struggle each time to figure out who his movie is for, what genre it belongs in (if any), what contemporary trends it should imitate (theme songs? saxophones? slapstick? kiddie stuff? Tina Turner?), whether it should be darkly funny (like Alien 4) or or somberly meditative (Alien 3) or horrific (1) or straight-up action-packed (2), and so on and so forth.

As many of my students and colleagues know, I love any movie thatʼs a big awful mess, where the seams and patches are showing, because that prompts me to think about the process of creation, about ambition, about intention and execution, about vision, about art frankly. Mad Max movies offer these meditations in spades, and on top of that are exciting and visually breathtaking and above all, a little like many other things, but ultimately like nothing else. Which is another way for an artwork to earn its place in the canon, for me—if nothing else is quite like it.

Passivity 2

But perhaps the thing I love most about Mad Max is that “a Mad Max movie” means not so much that Mad Max is the protagonist, or that heʼs even on screen very much, but that it takes place in a certain world (or rather, one instantiation of a certain type of world). And Mad Max himself is, increasingly as the series goes on, merely one citizen of that world, a world that he keeps discovering is bigger than he imagined.

And it becomes clear, slowly, that Maxʼs place in that world is both more important and less important than he might think. I think this makes a great statement about cinema— about narrative, about the whole notion of protagonists in the first place—and about what individual human action is and isnʼt worth in the real world.

In the first movie, Mad Max is barely there (much less Mad, a description he only gets a minute from the end credits) for probably the first forty minutes, a fact that most summaries of the film conveniently forget when they recount the fifteen-minute quest for revenge that provides the most memorable (because most nearly intelligible) straightforward plot in the film. In the second film, The Road Warrior, Max is a jaded self-serving survivalist who happens to wander into a conflict between townsfolk and bandits, and gradually becomes enmeshed in it, until itʼs obvious that neither circumstance nor conscience will allow him to stand idly by. Itʼs very much a samurai story or gunslinger story or Han Solo story. Importantly, though, even after he does his (significant but not irreplaceable) part in saving the townsfolk, he cannot be part of their world, and disappears into the sunset like so many of his archetypal forbearers. In the end, we even realize that it was never his story—the opening voiceover belongs to an unexpected character, and we were really telling the story of this character and his people, not Max himself, the whole time.

In the third film, heʼs hailed as a possible savior by two very different communities—one ruthlessly mercantile and industrial, one primitive and tribal—but is reluctant to take on either messianic mantle, neither of which turn out to be a good fit anyway. In the end, his actions manage to help steer both communities towards safety and stability, but sort of by accident, and the real peace comes from the actions of two complex, visionary women (Tina Turner and that tribal girl who provides the end narration) who each pull civilization up by its bootstraps and reinvent history itself.

Both The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome are classical epics, really, each concerned with the founding and fate of a nation, led by an extraordinary, visionary hero. But Max is never this hero, nor is it his nation. And he plays an even less active role in Beyond Thunderdome than in The Road Warrior, left more and more to nurse his own psychological wounds, and marvel at the ingenuity and fortitude of mankind, which continues to survive and thrive produce new heroes in spite of his action or inaction.

(Meta-cinematically, behind the scenes, Beyond Thunderdome was a story Miller wanted to tell, about the tribe of feral youngsters reinaugurating the cycle of human history, and Mad Max himself was, as much as anything, a convenient and financially-viable pretext to tell that story. He literally stumbles into the tribeʼs story and stumbles out of it again. He realizes that nothing thatʼs happening is ultimately for, or about, him, as much as it might appear to be at first. And, appropriately, the film itself was never really meant to be about him anyway.)

On-screen, over the course of three films, Max comes to realize simultaneously that no man is an island (in spite of his efforts to withdraw from civilization entirely, the moral demands of the world come find him and force him to give a damn about other people if he wants to survive) while simultaneously coming to the uncomfortable realization that he is not special or indispensable.

This is why, for me, Fury Road is the perfect culmination of Maxʼs arc (again, allowing for the fact that this particular postapocalyptic Australia-or-wherever might not be precisely the same as before, and this Max neither comes before nor after Gibsonʼs but might exist parallel to him. That is, Fury Road must come after Beyond Thunderdome in the myth cycle, but may not have any specific relationship to it on an ordered, linear timeline. Itʼs hard to precisely date, or even order, any installment. (The Dollars trilogy has the same fascinating problems.)

By Fury Road, Max is even more psychologically scarred, even more withdrawn and focused on survival at any cost, and even less the savior everyone expects. He spent much of Beyond Thunderdome trapped, bound, hanging from chains, held at gunpoint, and otherwise powerless and incapacitated, and Fury Road takes his sufferings and indignities to new levels.

Max has always been a character that things happen to, rather than a character who makes things happen. Heʼs perhaps the most consistently passive action hero I can think of. The fact that he plays second fiddle to Charlize Theronʼs Furiosa is not so much some sinister feminist coup as a natural continuation of this tendency.

As in The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, thereʼs not much Max wants in Fury Road besides his freedom, his relative physical safety, and a vehicle fast enough to help him maintain these. But as in the earlier movies, the road to independence and safety merges unavoidably with the path towards altruism and duty, and Max finds himself traveling on both for a few miles before realizing that community is its own kind of freedom, and duty is its own reward. When the time comes, he neglects to take the exit ramp to solitary safety, and throws in his lot with the community for a little while.

This means, though, that Max is always arriving a little late to the party. His arrival definitely changes things, and when he throws his resources into the pool, it suddenly makes possible certain risky schemes the community was cooking up before his arrival. “Hereʼs a guy who could help us drive the gasoline rig and break Humungusʼ siege.” “Hereʼs a guy who could defeat Blaster in the Thunderdome and undermine the pig- plant strike.” “Hereʼs a guy who could lead us to Tomorrow-Morrow land and back to civilization.” “Hereʼs a guy who could co-pilot the war rig while I deal with the bikers so we can get the wives to the Green Place. Max might be the man for the job.” (In at least half of these situations, Max is actually not quite the right man after all.)

In any case, the communities are far from powerless before Max arrives. He doesnʼt take any time to enlighten their savagery or perform feats they were too weak or naive to accomplish. He just pitches in, usually after much cajoling and bargaining. And when the community succeeds, itʼs not about Max. Itʼs their victory, because it was their suffering, their plan, their bravery, and their struggle and sacrifice that pulled it off.

True, Max did what was asked of him (usually a little less)—initially for reward, but ultimately because he acknowledged some inner sense of fellowship, empathy, conscience, humanity.

But this admission of common humanity is not a supererogatory heroic feat deserving of accolades and parades. Itʼs whatʼs asked of everyone equally. Itʼs the debt everyone owes everyone else from the moment weʼre born. Youʼre not special for doing it. Youʼre just doing your duty.

Thatʼs what the series is about, if you ask me.

By Fury Road, Max knows this drill. He doesnʼt expect to have to go through it again (privately, he really would rather be left alone with his own demons). But heʼs game. And it would be pretty senseless, tactically, for him to barge in and pretend he knows better than the people who designed the operation in the first place. (I guess I should go ahead and say “mansplain” here.)

I guess this is all to say I donʼt know what alternative the mens-rights or complementarian types would propose which wouldnʼt be, from a military standpoint, pretty dumb.

I think these guys are upset that it seems like itʼs almost Furiosaʼs movie, even though itʼs called Mad Max. They feel like they didnʼt get what it said on the package label, and didnʼt get what they paid for. What they paid for, they think, was a movie in which a man named Max is mad, and drives a dangerous car.

The fact is, though, it seems like itʼs almost Furiosaʼs movie because it IS Furiosaʼs movie. The same way Mad Max was Jim Gooseʼs movie as much as anything, and The Road Warrior was the Kidʼs origin story, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a sort of positive spin on Lord of the Flies written by George Miller that just happens to borrow the name Mad Max, and had to borrow Max himself along with it.

In other words, no Mad Max movie is ultimately about Mad Max. “Mad Max” is just what we call movies about duty and community set in a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland with skinheads driving souped-up murder cars.

Allies

With all this in mind, it occurs to me that Fury Road could be the closest thing we have to a handbook for how men should relate to the feminist movement (or white people to racial equality movements, and so on). Itʼs your fight, but remember that itʼs their fight. Itʼs on you, but itʼs not for you. Their victory will be good for you, too, in the end, but you donʼt do it because itʼs good for you. Do it because itʼs good for them. And do it because itʼs just how things should be.

Along the same lines, Fury Road is the perfect antidote to the bad aftertaste left by white savior fantasies like Avatar.

And really, the whole series is great for this stuff—again, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome do exactly the same thing. To my mind, the only shortsightedness of the feminist hoopla surrounding Fury Road is that the Mad Max series has pretty much always had a great track record with this sort of thing, and Fury Road both is and isnʼt something special to celebrate.

It maybe just took Fury Road to make us realize that allyship—which I guess Iʼd define, in this case, as consenting to the dawning moral realization that you should, and must, subject your own needs and privileges and rights to fight for something that will not chiefly benefit you, and for which moreover you deserve no special credit for helping to bring about—is what Mad Max has always been about, to greater and greater extents as the series goes on.

(As I write this, I have just gotten into a short discussion with world-class barista and notoriously hard-to-please cinephile Lucas Alvarez, who gives Fury Road a 6 out of 10, partly because he doesnʼt feel the Max of Fury Road fills the shoes left by the Mel Gibson Max of the Road Warrior. I just told him what Iʼm trying to tell you, and he sees my point. But I guess this means the decentralization of Max as protagonist strikes other viewers as strange and unduly passive, even if theyʼre not menʼs-rights or complementarian types. Lucas, a feminist, also doesnʼt see why Fury Road gets so much press for being a feminist work when thereʼs a lot more feminist work out there and Fury Road could certainly be a lot more explicitly feminist than it is. My point is mostly that if a movie thatʼs pretty much just straight action scenes for can still manage to speak to concerns about patriarchal society and give its female characters agency and independence, without breaking a sweat, then that certainly sets the bar a lot higher for movies that have the luxury of long dialogue scenes and whatnot. I think whatʼs most feminist about Fury Road is that itʼs pretty ordinary and commonsensical in its treatment of male and female characters. If that looks hyperfeminist, that says a lot about the regressiveness of the films being released alongside it, and about us as consumers, who have been blithely accepting such films for so long. It sure makes Marvelʼs whole “hey we have Black Widow weʼve got lady concerns in our movies too” gambit look pretty paltry in comparison.)

(I guess Iʼd say that Fury Road is a feminist film insofar as itʼs the sort of story that would be more or less standard mainstream entertainment if we lived in a more equal society. The fact that we think itʼs really weird and wild and original in its treatment of gender just shows how unequal our society still is.)

Combat

This is a side point about female action heros and such, another thing Fury Road handles remarkably well. Nowadays at least, it tends to read pretty well when female characters have to fight a bunch of male antagonists (in films like Kill Bill, for example). We understand it as both a narrative necessity (bad guys prevent heroine from getting what she wants or needs, threaten her physical safety, she deals with them accordingly) and as a productive thought-provoking metaphor for the state of gender relations at large (in which bad guys stand in for forces of oppression and heroine stands in for the struggles of all women to be themselves, achieve personal goals, etc.)

But what to do when male characters must fight women? Doesnʼt this get tangled up with issues of violence against women, domestic violence, and so on? Isnʼt it irresponsible to put such a thing on screen?

Itʼs a problem thatʼs often invoked, in good faith, by feminists, and in bad faith by patriarchal male thinkers. (I call it bad faith because itʼs not so much that they care about the question itself, but because they chiefly want to find as many reasons as possible why we shouldnʼt have female action heros, or female soldiers in real-world combat, or women taking martial arts lessons, or whatever, and they think this is one of them.)

The most explicit unpacking of this conundrum Iʼve seen lately was in the climax of 22 Jump Street, although they didnʼt offer many progressive solutions to it, and ended up being paralyzed by the charactersʼ regressive attitudes. And there are other films that have male heroes engaged in combat with female villains, or female characters engaged in combat with male characters for other reasons (I feel like Black Widow in the Marvel films fights some superhero at some point). But every time Iʼve seen it, the film has made some effort to call attention to the fact that the character is a girl, and that that means violence against her is in someway a transgression of proper boundaries (even if itʼs a necessary one from a plot standpoint).

In all cases, the film goes way out of its way to show that the hero is conflicted about having to punch a lady, because sheʼs fragile and it would be unchivalrous, and so on. The film also goes way out of its way to show, and tell, that the woman is a woman, in case somehow you missed that part. Sheʼll have some wisecrack about being a girl, sheʼll break a nail and get upset, sheʼll be wearing some hyperfeminine (usually highly sexualized) outfit, or sheʼll just make a lot of yelps and whimpers at key moments to make the audience worry that the evil damsel is in too much distress. Or the whole business is played for comedy, which is usually worse in the end.

Iʼm trying to think of other examples, but none come to mind: Maxʼs fistfight with Furiosa might be the ONLY time Iʼve ever seen a male protagonist fight a female combatant on screen without hearing the filmmakers tee-heeing about it from behind the camera. Without the female character in some way being framed as a victim and the male one as a transgressor. Without the female character appearing waiflike or fragile or histrionic or hormonal, or alternatively, brutish and horrifying and somehow abominable because sheʼs too much like a man or something. Without the filmmakers implying that the male characterʼs very manhood is on the line if he either wins too unchivalrously, or loses too abjectly.

But this is a lot of patriarchal crap, so Miller just ignores it and barges through it. By staging and shooting this fight straight, impartially, and above all, well, Miller manages to neither apologize for nor sidestep the issue. He reveals it to be fundamentally a non-issue. Max fights Furiosa because he wants the truck, and because she canʼt let him take it. So they beat the tar out of each other. Thereʼs no chivalry, thereʼs no quarter, thereʼs no quipping, thereʼs no hand-wringing, thereʼs no irony, thereʼs no apology, thereʼs no allegory, thereʼs no sexual tension. And it makes us wonder why any of us felt we needed any of that in the first place.

(Once again, though, the groundwork for this was laid pretty well in Beyond Thunderdome, when Max decides he needs to knock out the young female leader of the tribe of children. Thereʼs a brief twinge of uncertainty on Maxʼs face, as though heʼs just realized sheʼs a girl, and is embarrassed to even be in such a situation where heʼd have to punch a girl, but then he sort of shrugs himself out of it, as if to say, well, I was already about to knock this person out, why does it make any difference to me that sheʼs female?)

Romance

On the subject of sexual tension, this is another thing I totally love about the Mad Max movies: except for his wife in the first film, Max never has a love interest. The movies never even play up a will-they-or-wonʼt-they tension between Max and a female character.

This is not to say that we as the viewers donʼt automatically think that any time we see a reasonably attractive female character on screen, Max is likely to notice her and weʼre likely to have some flirty banter coming up. But he never does, and it never goes anywhere. And we quickly realize that there were never any cues for a romantic liaison anywhere onscreen other than “thereʼs a pretty lady,” and weʼre so conditioned to expect any and all pretty ladies to get matched up with our male protagonists that we assume this one is headed straight for Maxʼs bedroom one way or another. We make up our romantic suspense out of whole cloth, and the joke is completely on us if weʼre expecting such a thing to happen.

I donʼt think this is just my male gaze talking, since while we were watching the original trilogy, Lauren was just as strongly expecting Max to hook up with one of the female characters whenever they showed one. “Oh hey, this must be the babe,” sheʼd say, predicting the next step in the 80s-action formula.

Afterward she astutely summed up the sexual dynamics of the complete series as “Mad Max: No Time to Bang.” The most explicit visual articulation of this comes in The Road Warrior, when a soldier of the besieging scavenger army and his lady friend are caught au naturel and in flagrante when their makeshift tent gets blown away by a passing vehicle. But thatʼs pretty much the reality for everyone in the Mad Max universe, and rightly so: this is not a story where characters have a lot of leisure to check out and chat up an attractive fellow survivalist while theyʼre barreling down the blacktop and bombarded by exploding spears thrown by mohawked hooligans.

The reason Max and Furiosa arenʼt flirting isnʼt that theyʼre reminding themselves to be polite and respect professional boundaries. Itʼs because theyʼre cognizant of the buzzsaw-wielding berserkers on the roof. Max isnʼt being gentlemanly, heʼs just not stupid enough to wonder whether a woman driving a tanker truck at a hundred miles an hour might be doing so for his attention or arousal. And vice versa for Furiosa. And when you think about it, very rarely should there be time for such a thing in our own workplaces, either, even though so many men decide to take time out of their (and their female coworkersʼ) busy schedules for it. We would all do well to remember that frankly, there is just no time to bang.

Fluids

I just think it was cool how we devolved from gasoline as the rare, universally-desired McGuffin commodity of The Road Warrior, to methane and pig poop and, by extension, pig bodies as the commodities of Beyond Thunderdome, to human bodies as the commodity of Fury Road. Fluids like milk, blood, and so on, treated with the same dispassionate utilitarianism as we treat gasoline today. Dante would have gotten a huge kick out of the opening scenes where Max undergoes the ultimate contrapasso-style infernal punishment, paying for his old lust for gasoline by becoming the “gas tank” for a demonic fiend. And his redemptive decision to undergo the same indignity to save another human soul at the end. We could theologize all day about this one.

Based on the ideas of passivity and duty and sacrifice-without-reward above, a section could be written called The Universal Donor, considering Maxʼs blood type as an allegory for his character arc, but thatʼs actually the extent of my observation just now.

Kinship

From The Road Warrior on, but especially after Fury Road, I have to feel that Jodorowskyʼs sprawling microbudget ultra-violent surrealist-religio-humanist epic El Topo was an artistic touchstone for George Miller, and that makes me happy.

Particularly the heroʼs descent from active to passive, selfish to self-sacrificing, and (most sacrificially of all) from protagonist to supporting character.

As I learned from reading the A.V. Club, the other spiritual sibling of Fury Road circulating in todayʼs zeitgeist is, get this, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And theyʼre right. Females are strong as HELL. Thereʼs even a mashup on YouTube.

GRYFFINDOR: “What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family? Oh, so that’s it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it? Do you think you’re the only one that’s suffered? We’ve all been through it here. But we haven’t given up. We’re still human beings, with dignity. But you? You’re out there with the garbage.” -Terry Hayes + George Miller + Brian Hannant (Pappagallo: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior)

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Fᴀᴠᴏᴜʀɪᴛᴇ Tᴏᴍ Hᴀʀᴅʏ’s ᴘᴇʀғᴏʀᴍᴀɴᴄᴇs.

As much as I adored Fury Road, The Road Warrior remains my favorite Mad Max.

Wez is fascinating to me. A huge portion of that I attribute to his styling, as well as the performance by Vernon Wells. Stellar! Another fascinating tidbit is that director George Miller had the actor fill in the backstory for the character. I love it when actors are allowed to have their input; it can add so much depth and different angles.