**Warning: this review contains spoilers!**
People tend to love conflict. We love it in our sports, where a rogue bite on the football pitch opens the audience to fiery declarations of allegiance. We love it in our entertainment, where the height of feeling comes at the contentious moment when the protagonist must prove themselves in agonizing trials. We even vaguely love it in our geopolitics, where our painstaking constructs of country and self leap into struggle for complex reasons dulled down to “us vs them”. These everyday conflicts dangle like low-hanging click-feasts before a media industry struggling to cling on for dear life. And so, unsurprisingly, our sense of what is important becomes filtered through a thirst for easy conflict.
I, like seemingly many others, went to see Mad Max: Fury Road for this sort of juicy tension. Not within the movie, but among its viewers. A friend of mine had mentioned that some delightfully idiotic offshoot of Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) called for a boycott of Mad Max due to its sinister feminist agenda. I couldn’t resist reading the original article (via donotlink.com, of course, see it here). It told the tale of the shining males who simply want to maintain their rights to a genre of movie, the action flick, where they can wreck and save the day ad infinitum without naggy females butting into their already threatened domain. Can’t greedy feminazis let us boys be boys? The article moped in terms more hilarious than these, and, Boys, for the love of being boys, boycott Mad Max. I had never before encountered more compelling blockbuster marketing. As soon as possible, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road.
Knowing as little about the Mad Max films as the author of the now-infamous article, I entered the theatre with low expectations. I exited on rubbery legs, mind ablaze. The movie was a thing of quirky violence and compassionate beauty that exploded in dazzling colors and stunts on the big screen. All the thoughts it stirred up in my head came out in garbled words that failed to contain them. It was unlike any other action movie I had seen, both in terms of its eccentric tempo and unusual narrative arc.
Basically, the world of the film is one reduced to a desert occasionally ravaged by hellish sandstorms. Few people have survived whatever happened before, and those we do see live in a tyrannical patriarchy that gets around on souped-up, spike-fitted vehicles. Immortan Joe, the main man of the machine-loving machos controls a battered colony of people by monopolizing the water supply. Their other top commodities are gasoline (for their wheels, ‘course), and mother’s milk (yup, just what you think!). Mad Max, initially, is this world’s chosen loner. He’s the first character we see, and we see him chased down by patriarch Joe’s bloodlusty War Boys. Agonizing flashbacks of people, presumably the ones close to him who he could not save, torment Max’s own world. In short order, we are presented with storyline #2. Imperator Furiosa, the only female leader within the destructive male elite, heads a gaggle of war-loving guys and their autos on a standard oil-run in dangerous territory. But she reveals that her intentions are contrary to Immortan Joe’s by suddenly swerving her oil rig off the beaten path. From that point on the audience begins to realize that the struggle in focus will not be Max’s alone.
Queue the MRA’ers/masculinity-defenders’ predictable disagreement. Queue viral media response. At first, I was thrilled to see the overwhelmingly positive raving the movie racked in. But then, reading the think pieces, I noticed a pattern… MRA MRA MRA. The existence, importance, excitement, and analysis of the movie was drawn up consistently with reference to how it served to fire up this particular group of lost souls clinging to the dust in which society has left them. A compact little box emerged, succumbing to our appetite for simplistic conflict, and Mad Max was put in it. And so, my own experience of adoring the movie and relishing the fact that it was going through full-blown internet trending came to its own moment of reckoning when my dad sent me and my sister the following Reuters article: Why Imperator Furiosa, not Mad Max, is the hero for our age. Reading it made me realize that thanks in part to the unimportant quibble of an unimportant group, an important movie was getting locked into a black and white analysis. We’re ready at all times for simple conflict. Conflict built on one party being right, the other wrong, with a clear victor emerging vindicated, and the loser lowered or destroyed. It’s the two party system, the villain and the victim, the religious man who knocked on my door a few days ago and tried to tell me that there is a devil who makes some people do bad things, while others are good. The article stated “women action heroes are starting to supplant males in the 21st century” and went on to argue that in real-life economic and political terms, women are indeed outperforming men in measures of cooperation and altruism, moving up the ladder and displacing males along the way. But is that all we are capable of? Mad Max: Fury Road begs to differ, and it makes its recommendations to society clear.
Once Furiosa veers off course, the events that unfold aptly illustrate the unique idea presented by the movie. The goal of Furiosa and the women who join her (thus escaping their roles as captive wives of Immortan Joe) is survival and freedom. Max’s impetus is survival and freedom. When their paths cross, each group pursues their own interest, leading to physical confrontation. Only after they discover this mutual interest do they gradually come to trust each other fully. They are all cooperative and heroic; it isn’t a contest between Max and Furiosa or between the genders. When it comes down to individuals, it isn’t a contest at all. The one villain we become closely familiar with is Nux, and to me, he is the most necessary individual in the movie.
Nux starts off as the prototypical War Boy, eager for blood and glory in the eyes of his leader, Immortan Joe. He hooks up to Max’s blood, demonstrating his unflinching ability to reduce a human being to a “blood bag”, and sets off with a childish glee to hunt down Furiosa. His goal at the outset is the opposite of what drives Max, Furiosa, and the other women. He has given up his freedom to a cause he is branded into by birth: an engine is stamped into the skin of his chest and his life goal is to die in the name of the patriarch. If the movie were a simple zero sum game, Nux would have been an easy wrench to throw into Furiosa’s path forward. Conditioned by unimaginative action movies, I waited patiently for him to sabotage the women and Max after they spare his life. Instead, the movie foregoes cheap thrills and Nux undergoes a nuanced metamorphosis. First, he fumbles and fails to thwart Furiosa’s escape after Immortan Joe personally appoints him to the task. He is deeply ashamed, depressed even, by his failure. The crew of protagonists spares him, and goes one incredible step further. Capable, one of the former wives, consoles Nux (for failing to get them killed). Little by little, through human connection, Nux regains purpose and joins the heroes, on their level. This is not a movie about one gender versus another, about Furiosa being the boss (notably, Max convinces the crew to turn around and storm the Citadel). It’s a movie about how human beings can display empathy, cooperation, and bravery towards achieving a sustainable future together. The likes of Immortan Joe destroyed the world by turning away from these qualities and adhering to a blind love of the stereotypical characteristics assigned to men. But as we see with Nux, these characteristics are not inherent in our biology, they are constructs that we can, and must, overcome.
Mad Max: Fury Road was a genuine pleasure to watch. Its use of intricately staged stunts performed by real people with minimal use of CGI speaks to its integrity and purpose. Cut the surface-level crap, the film urges. Let’s switch off the autopilot and surprise ourselves. The next time you’re tempted to resort to simple, binary conflict, do like the Mad Max protagonists and take the road less traveled.