I haven’t seen any of the old Mad Max trilogy, more for lack of bother than anything. Pop culture osmosis ensured I knew what it was about, though; post-apocalyptic wasteland, lots of leather, cars, machismo. So Fury Road flew below my radar during much of the lead up to its release. That is, until the press surrounding it started to discuss how it was surprisingly feminist and was [annoying] a lot of Men’s Rights Activists.
That got my attention.
Fury Road, despite seeming a super-macho movie by way of its car chases and apocalyptic grit, features Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the film’s de facto protagonist with Max essentially falling in to her quest to escape the Citadel with five of the villain’s wives. Furiosa is fantastic. She’s introduced as an elite in Immortan Joe’s army, one with enough sway that when she serendipitously changes course during her mission, no one in her escort questions her. And of course she kicks butt. Furiosa goes toe-to-toe with Max when they first meet and continues to prove herself plenty capable action-wise throughout the film.
But as unexpected as it is to see a woman headlining a Mad Max film, it’s expected that she would be plenty capable in the world. After all, she’s a fighter, someone hardened to the film’s post-apocalyptic setting. Where Fury Road gets really interesting with its character portrayals is with the wives. By all rights, these five should be damsels, albeit ones rescued by a woman instead of a man. They’re not fighters, not drivers, not politicians. In a world like Mad Max’s Australia, what use are they?
The film gives the wives a surprising amount of agency. We, as viewers, are first clued into their escape when we see their empty room in the citadel, “We Are Not Things” scrawled on the walls. This is the central thrust towards them: the wives are not things; they are people.
So they aren’t the load, and they aren’t just Furiosa’s cargo. When the raiding party catches up with Furiosa’s War Rig, one of the villains steadies a shot at her. In response, one of the wives, Splendid, opens the door and places herself — and Immortan Joe’s unborn child — between the gun and driver. It’s an epic moment, one of those big reversals in an action scene that cause a shift in how it all plays out.
Splendid’s actions give credence to their manifesto of not being things. When she puts herself in the line of fire, she’s doing so of her own accord; neither Max nor Furiosa tells her to do it, she makes her own choice. Furthermore, her actions indicate that she knows her own value; she knows how she can be useful in a battle despite being a noncombatant. It’s also worth noting that Splendid’s not out there alone; the other wives are helping hold her to the side of the vehicle speeding through the desert, thus showing that all of them are in this and they all know what they can bring.
Much of Fury Road plays out without dialogue, with visuals being as, if not more, important to storytelling as words. This also makes it a big teacher in the lessons of showing instead of telling: we’re not just told the wives don’t want to be considered things anymore, we see them actively fighting for and using their own agency. We’re not just told that Furiosa’s demanding of respect through others’ reactions, we’re shown it again and again by how she handles herself. With it, the film lets its female heroines make interesting choices. One of the wives loses hope, another one has great faith in their journey.
In other words, Fury Road has a surprisingly feminist bent by writing its women as people.