There be some tiny spoilers past this paragraph. Those who prefer a pure unspoilerified movie-going experience should stay far away from this post.
Few franchises are as testosterone-soaked as Mad Max. With supercharged car chases, tricked-out vehicles, and bone-cracking-flesh-ripping violence, the target viewer for the series is undoubtedly the same 20-30-something year-old guy who spends far too many hours playing Grand Theft Auto.
Which is why it is so damn surprising that Mad Max: Fury Road has taken one of the biggest leaps to showcase women on the big screen.
In Max’s world, greenery has given way to a vast desert and the water is controlled by a ruthless warlord named Immortan Joe. The title character Mad Max (played by Tom Hardy) gets on the wrong side of Joe’s War Boys and winds up being strapped to a car as the War Boys ride into battle to retrieve Immortan Joe’s five wives, or his “property” as he refers to them. One of Joe’s Imperators (a general of sorts) Furiosa has smuggled the wives onto a war rig and has a huge head start. At that point, you might wish the theater came with seatbelts because the action ramps up and never backs down.
Had this been a typical action movie, Max would have almost certainly been the one who came to the rescue of these poor, helpless women. Instead, the filmmakers decided to acknowledge the truth that women can be hardened just as much by war and violence as men can. In Furiosa, played to perfection by Charlize Theron, they created a powerful and gritty warrior with a fierce intelligence who matches Max blow for blow. When Max crosses her path, he doesn’t just take over, he becomes her partner, and together, they fight for survival.
The warlord’s wives were more stereotypical. Scantily clad beauties with breasts wrapped in white willowy cloth that became delightfully transparent when wet, their role as eye candy is undeniable. Yet their actions proved that visual beauty can be paired with substance. From one of them shielding Max with her pregnant belly, to another tricking a soldier into pulling her on to a car so she could assist Furiosa, they each had their moment to shine.
The final feminist touch was the Vulvalinis, an all-lady biker gang. They offered a connection to the past and a moment of reflection. But when the action started up again, they didn’t pick up knitting needles. They picked up rifles. Considering the roles typically offered to older female actresses, it was no surprise that actress Melissa Jaffer was beyond excited to play a Vulvalini.
There was no single definition of what a woman should be in this film. The women could be young and beautiful, old and seasoned, fierce and tough, compassionate and loving, and those different traits didn’t affect their contributions to the story. They were all strong in their own way. If Mad Max has shown us anything, it’s that making women more well-rounded on screen doesn’t take anything away from the story or the adrenaline of a traditional action blockbuster.
The fact that a franchise built on male-dominated themes with a guy’s name in the title can subvert those themes and still see a big payoff in the box office is huge. The success of Mad Max: Fury Road will go a long way towards silencing the critics and the marketing “experts” who still believe action films are “for boys only.”
Plus, it got the men’s rights movement all riled up. A wicked good sign in my book.