This post will contain significant spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road.
I strongly suggest you go see it before reading the post. However, should you need convincing that it’s a film worth your time, I offer the following things I loved about it:
- The world-building is consistent, amazing, deeply satisfying. It’s set in a world poisoned, dead, polluted, with disposable people and a constant resource shortage/control system that means constant conflict and oppression. It’s a dying world evoked wonderfully through chrome, explosions, and cars. There is a guitar that shoots flames. There are muscle cars stacked on top of other muscle cars.
- It’s really well-written. Structurally, it’s great. This is what I’m going to talk about during the post below.
- The action sequences are intense and frequent; somehow also there is a lot of character building at the same time. Like at least four characters have character arcs. Whoa.
- Charlize Theron portraying a great action hero PLUS a disabled character who isn’t pitiable, “inspiration porn,” or defined by her disability. (She has a RAD mechanical arm.)
- The film is an action classic and also a feminist action classic, as many have pointed out in tones both admiring and revolted. I mean, this film pissed of Men’s Rights Activists, which means it’s totally worth seeing. 🙂
Right, then, spoilers ahoy:
Best Buddy Road Trip Flick 2015
After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It was the best buddy road trip flick of 2015.” She’s not wrong. The structural bones of the film are that of a road trip flick: protagonist goes on trip with Very Important Purpose, finds not what they expected to find but something else, something about themselves, and then returns home with new-found confidence, purpose, etc. Some examples of the Road Trip Flick: Blues Brothers, Little Miss Sunshine, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dirty Girl (which is on Netflix right now and also fantastic, go watch it). The Road Trip Flick structure is pretty darn closely aligned to the Hero’s Journey structure, where the hero must venture to the “special world” to gain allies, defeat foes, and bring the elixir of life back to their people.
So in that respect, Mad Max has a very traditional structure, and it cracks me up that a lot of articles are crying “this film breaks the mold!” I mean, it doesn’t and it does. It certainly doesn’t fall back of the tropes of toxic masculinity that many action films use–it addresses toxic masculinity, but from a place of dismantling rather than blind acceptance. So what about the plot structure is nonstandard? Well, there’s a female main character and a lot of women. And they are subjects, not objects, even the ones who were sex slaves. I wish that wasn’t such a big deal, but it Action Movie Land, it totally is.
Belle vs Max
One thing I find helpful when looking at a film is to figure out who’s the viewpoint character and whose story the film is following. Sometimes this is the same person, sometimes it is not. In this case, it’s not. Like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the viewpoint character is not the one the movie’s overall story is about. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, we’re meant to see the tale through Belle’s eyes, but it’s Beast’s story. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re meant to see the film through Max’s eyes, but it’s Imperator Furiosa’s story. This is what’s pissing off the sexists: this is a film about a woman and her heroic journey to gain allies (one of whom is Max), defeat foes, and very literally bring the water *cough* I mean elixir of life back to her people.
Unlike Belle, though, Max has agency throughout the film. Max’s motives are clear: survival (which he’s very clear about), and also redemption (which he doesn’t consciously know at first that he needs, but we sure do). These are the same motivations that Imperator Furiosa has, except that she’s consciously seeking redemption, thus her quest for the Green Place of Many Mothers. Max is along for the ride at first; although he is still acting in the best interest of his primary motive, survival. At some point, though, both Max and Furiosa make a conscious choice to trust each other. When Furiosa needs a driver during their passage through the mountain pass, she has Max do it. Max realizes that despite having gathered all the women’s weapons and technically holding the women at gunpoint for some time, that he and Furiosa both want escape, survival, and yes, redemption. Once he’s been trusted by Furiosa, he slowly morphs from Other to Ally. In some of the relatively sparse dialogue, Furiosa asks him what they should do if he doesn’t return from a mysterious mission to blow some shit up that’s chasing them in the fog. He looks at her funny and replies: “Keep driving.”
Max is often the catalyst for action. He sometimes serves as a fulcrum for the team. This has pulled him in to what several folks at FANgirl blog have identified as a key component of “heroine’s journey” stories: working with a team or otherwise affecting the entire society, not just the self. Notice in this scene (WHICH IS A HUGE SPOILER SO IF YOU HAVE IGNORED ME BEFORE GO WATCH THE FILM ALREADY, SHEESH) who’s making the plan, and how the camera focuses on the group as a whole:
There’s a reason why Max is there, but it’s not his story. He’s part of something bigger, and Furiosa is leading that charge.
Furiosa’s arc could follow a number of traditional hero’s journeys. My favorite version of the hero’s journey comes from The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler, although Furiosa is also very much following the Heroine’s Journey as outlined by Maureen Murdock in her book of the same name. Essentially, Furiosa’s Hero’s Journey narrative goes like this:
- Inciting Incident: Setting off on her journey in the War Rig.
- Mentor: None. While there are figures who fall into the mentor archetype later in the film
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: Max (shapeshifter), “Wives” (ally), Nux (shapeshifter), Immortan Joe (enemy), all the other desert factions in the first half of the film (enemy)
- Midpoint/First Big Test: The mountain passage
- Boon: Full allyship with Max, then later Nux
- The Road Home: finding the Vuvalini (there’s that mentor archetype, y’all), realizing that the Green Place is no more, deciding to come back home
- Showdown/Climax: Final road battle that results in the death of Immortan Joe, where she kills him.
- Return: Furiosa’s return home, flowing water, Action Hero Nod with Max as he leaves, etc.
There’s a lot more about this movie that I will probably talk about. We all know how big a fan I am of symbolic props, and gosh, this film used them incredibly well. But for now I say, Huzzah, a film where almost every character had at least some development and most of them had full character arcs! Huzzah, a film well-structured and well-plotted. Oh, what a film! What a glorious film!