Another older essay, written a bit after the movies opening.
Themes of Max Max: Fury Road (Spoilers)
I greatly enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. I had expected an experience that was much more colored by sadistic imagery, and though it indulged in the disgustingly macabre (men deformed to appear as bearded babies, obese oil barons with nipple rings, chrome spraypainted lips), it was not unbearable. It was a relentless action film through and through. It had a few strong character arcs – especially the War Boy turned hero Nux – but tended to go for simple archetypes throughout. The titular Max seemed little more than a man along for the ride, though this may very well be a feature, revealing more about Mad Max than his proaction ever could.
For those who’ve not seen the film, it continues the story of Max Rockatansky of the Mad Max films. I’ve not seen the prior films, so can’t speak much on its continuity. In Fury Road, we Max caught up in an escape attempt by the five Wives of Immortan Joe, the cultish dictator of a pocket of humanity, by means of a weaponized 18 wheeler. Other weaponized vehicles go off in pursuit and much action and mayhem goes on.
I found a few interesting avenues of thought: 1) Hope found in transcendence, 2) Depravity versus glory in sacrifice, 3) The acceptability of masculine women, and 4) Some complaints of superficial politics.
Hope Found in Transcendence
The wasteland of Mad Max depict a world where hope is tenuous. Max himself will, before a moment of Pauline-like conversion, deride hope, instead embodying survival as the animating force in man. However, besides Max’s pessimism, hope is still present in the world, though it stems from some sense of the transcendent. A false sense, true, but a sense of the transcendence nonetheless.
We see this first in the War Boys. They have a sense of duty, of purpose, of meaning in their life. It is brutal meaning, one shot through with madness. They do not despair, though. They have a reason to live and to act even unto death with purpose.
The Wives and Furiosa depict a similar transcendent meaning animating their actions. They have not given up on the dignity of man. The Wives themselves, fleeing sexual slavery, depict this in themselves, but the actions of Splendid in eschewing the use of a gun and demanding the protection of an enemy also make this clear. That they don’t give up once revealed that their paradisal “Green Place” died long ago is also a testament to this desire to find a land of peace. Furiosa herself, without explaining why, declares her motivation to be redemption, some desire to make amends for undisclosed crimes committed.
The Depravity and the Glory of Sacrifice
In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the War Boys, the cultic warriors of Immortan Joe. The War Boys are raised from a young age to devote their life to driving, fighting, and dying on the road in service to Joe. To die honorably in combat will lead to the glory of Valhalla, where the War Boy will live again in some fashion. In Max Max fashion, the whole mythos is decorated with the accoutrements of a decayed yet divinized culture of vehicles – chrome spray is applied to one’s lips and mouth giving a high directly before the honorable death is carried out. Most poignantly, the Valhalla earning death is proclaimed with a call to “witness” – such a glorious death must be acclaimed by others, must be witnessed by them.
As a cult of might and manhood with superficial appeals to Germanic religions, the cult of the War Boys is an interesting one. It is the way in which a certain sort of honor and order is inculcated in a society that has decayed into chaos. However, it’s shot through with a real madness. There is no place for self-control, only ever turning one’s desires toward the grasping of glory and the unthinking sacrifice of oneself in the fulfillment of Immortan Joe’s goals. It is, ultimately a sacrifice that comes out of depravity.
In the character of Nux, we see a War Boy who recognizes the depravity of this cult of mad heroic death. It is not a full recognition – the childlike Nux does not so much see the madness of the path he was raised in, but rather is forced to recognize that he fails as a War Boy. He fails on at least three counts to claim a suitably heroic death and, upon the last, fails before the eyes of Immortan Joe. In this failure, he bonds with an escaping Wife – Capable – and is able to gain a new goal in life, the saving of the wives.
All of this leads to Nux’s great moment of triumph. Driving the War Rig as Max, Furiosa, and the Wives transfer to Joe’s vehicle, he is tasked with escaping the vehicle after crashing it to block the pursuing war party. Due to an attack by Immortan Joe’s son, Rictus Erectus, he finds that he will not be able to escape, and instead crashes the vehicle to save Capable and the others. Before the moment of sacrifice, Nux whispers “witness” as Capable looks on.
The Heroic Sacrifice of Nux contrasts poignantly with that sought out by the War Boys, especially in light of the idea of “witness”. The sacrifice of the War Boys is ultimately a quest for glory – its only external effect is as a didactic moments to call others to a similar kind of death. The cry of witness is a demand, a cry for those who sees this death to remember and acclaim it. It comes about in a fit of madness, driven by the chemical high of the chrome spray paint.
The “witness” of Nux, though, is radically different. Firstly, there is no madness to it. The movie is good about pointing out that his sacrifice occurs in a moment of interior silence. There is no madness to Nux’s sacrifice, but rather it comes from the love that has been borne in him for Capable. His whisper of witness does not deny the sense of the War Boys – he is asking for Capable to witness his sacrifice – but it holds something even more profound. His death is a witness in and of itself, a witness to the good beyond himself. The mad sacrifice of the War Boys is at best a witness to a selfish good – “I am so great,” says the War Boys sacrifice, “Tell everyone!” Nux’s witness is to the good of saving the Wives and especially of saving Capable.
It is not a perfect image, but Nux’s sacrifice reaches closely to Christian witness, martyrdom. It is not the perfect witness – that of laying down one’s life for the confession of faith in Christ – but it is on its way. Nux lays down his life for the dignity and good of Capable and the others.
Masculinity and Femininity – The Masculine Female is acceptable
Much has been made of the “feminism” of Mad Max. It has been praised for its depiction of a strong female character in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and that the only simply good characters in the film are women are telling. The only good men are Nux, who must be rehabilitated from his brainwashing as a War boy, and Max, who is alternatively only looking to survive or being animated by some guilt over past actions.
The movie does have a subtle nod toward masculinity as the sex of virtuous self-sacrifice, specifically self-sacrifice unto the end. The War Boys eminently reveal this in its degraded fashion, but Nux reveals it in its (more) perfect fashion. Max also makes it clear in a similarly ambiguous fashion. Survival is his default aim, but once given some greater purpose he will throw his life in the thick of danger to bring it about.
While one can say that the self-sacrifice of Nux and Max are nods to masculinity, Imperator Furiosa performs similar actions and is depicted as a more masculine female character. I would contend that a closer examination reveals that this is still a nod toward masculinity.
Imperator Furiosa, as I’ve said, is a masculine female character. She is clearly female – there is no effort to hide Charlize Theron’s feminine qualities. However, she is presented in the accoutrements of a masculine character – e.g. masculine clothing, extensive weaponry – and acts in masculine capacities – e.g. physical fighting, aggressive driving. There can be no doubt she is acting out a very masculine role.
The typical feminist response to such is that Furiosa is not a “masculine” character, but rather only a “strong” character. I think this is being some disingenuous. Compare her to the Wives who are, for the most part, the image of femininity. While they are clearly experiencing survival syndrome (with one depicting signs of stockholm), they’re real virtue comes out in their ability to nurture and even eschew violence (or, more to the point, eschew the distinctively masculine). The characters of Splendid and Capable make this especially clear. Only the character of Toast depicts decidedly masculine qualities and this comes out in her character’s look – close cropped hair and a full shirt.
Then is there something “wrong” with Furiosa, Toast, and the crew bad ass old women who show up in the final act of the film. Not at all.
Masculinity and femininity are not hermetically sealed sets of qualities. Neither are they balances of egalitarian-equivalence.
Imagine a spectrum. At one pole is the absolute feminine and at the other is the absolute masculine. Now no one, male or female, resides purely at the poles or at points along the spectrum. Instead, they reside in portions of the spectrum.
Now, women have more leeway in sharing in the masculine portion of the spectrum than men. I don’t believe this is just cultural, that we live in a time that has become more tolerant of this. I believe this is tied into the ontology of the sexes. Historically, a variety of societies have tolerated women partaking of masculine qualities in exceptional situations. The myths of the Amazons, the stories of Judith, Deborah, and Jael in the bible, the great queens of history. The list is innumerable. These are women praised, often openly, for their masculine qualities. They are not seen as perversions, though, but rather something extraordinary. The Latins even had a word for such a woman – Virago. Vir being the word distinctly for man, this meant a woman who depicted masculine qualities.
Men do not have such extensive leeway. Not even in extraordinary situations can men take on distinctively feminine traits. To do so would be a perversion. Thus in no culture (save perhaps our own) was it deemed acceptable for a man to dress in women’s clothing or act, especially sexually, as a woman. Even in cultures which tolerated homosexuality, it was often only between men and boys – if it was between two men, one would be considered truly perverted, for he “received” like a woman. A boy, not yet initiated into manhood, was tolerated to fill such a role.
Furiosa and the other action female characters show this uneven spectrum. This is par for the course as regards action heroines from Wonder Woman to Sarah Connor to Elizabeth Swann. A woman is able, in extraordinary circumstances, take on masculine traits without loss to her femininity. It should be made clear that this is only sound in extraordinary situations. Further, women who do take on masculine traits, do give up on being the paragon of femininity. The tomboy, while always feminine, is not and cannot be the absolute feminine.
This does not mean that there isn’t a point of perversion. When a woman takes on masculine traits to the loss of her femininity, then they have become symbols of perversion in the same way a male can – these are often seen in evil women such as the majority of female Disney villains.
Among the weakest aspects of the film is the simplistic view of politics and governance. Immortan Joe and his allies are nothing more than caricatures, apparently having gained power by force of might and then ruling over a set of people who never breed dissension and rebellion. The War Boys are the closest signs of a complex political structure with a hierarchical place given to those skilled in War and marked for their devotion to heroic sacrifice. However, the court which Immortan Joe stands over is just an image of depravity for the sake of being bad guys.
The weakness of such a vision appears at the shoehorned denouement. Having killed Joe, Furiosa and the Wives suddenly become (or are heavily implied to become) the leaders of a new Citadel, one where, we are left to believe, a new paradise will be built. This is terribly unsatisfying, but it is not just from a rushed denouement. it stems from the film’s weak depiction of politics, whether good or evil.