Directors love putting Tom Hardy in a mask. There is something too soft, too boyish, too vulnerable about the actor’s face to have it fully exposed when he’s supposed to be impressing audiences as a relentlessly tough character. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy played Bane, a Batman nemesis of whom audiences saw nothing but impenetrable muscle and a mocking pair of eyes above a face-shielding breathing apparatus—that is, until the movie’s final moments, when the act of kindness that had led to Bane’s injuries was revealed. By then, it seemed, Nolan could rest easy that Hardy’s body had made the impression of stoicism, roughness, and even physical impenetrability that his sympathetic face might disrupt. George Miller, the director of Mad Max: Fury Road, is similarly coy about showing his audience just what their leading man looks like. As Max, Hardy spends the first act either bearded or hidden behind a metal version of his Bane contraption. When he does show his face, finally, after an astounding road race/battle through a sandstorm, viewers get something new to contemplate as they watch Max: the vulnerability of the strongman.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth film that Max Rockatansky has wandered through. Mel Gibson first made the franchise a success, and himself an international star, with 1979’s Mad Max. In that movie, society was still recognizable in the first stages of breakdown, and Max, a cop faithfully following the templates of a standard revenge trope (“They’ve broken his wife,” the trailer’s narrator intoned), hunted down outlaws and tried desperately to keep civilization in check. The movies that followed—1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and 1985’s Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome—showed Max losing the war but fighting the same battles again and again. Max was changing, too, moving from a recognizable everyman to a lone renegade who swore no allegiances and betrayed no sympathies—an Australian version of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, with a little bit of Bon Scott thrown in for good measure.
Mad Max: Fury Road has been as hotly anticipated as any sequel of the last few years, partly because fans are always anxious to see what a new era will make of a beloved franchise, and partly because there is always a tremor of fear when a fixture of the antihero spectrum is revamped. As Max, Tom Hardy shouldn’t disappoint: He fights rough, he conveys a lot with a little language, and, as in the original trilogy, he is remarkable as much for his sheer unwillingness to die as he is for his strength or smarts. Yet if the original movies showed Max’s slow calcification into a shadowy and inscrutable figure, Fury Road takes its protagonist on a slightly different journey: It cracks Max’s tough exterior to let the audience see the empathic core within and understand that this is where all true strength must issue from.
Mad Max: Fury Road begins inauspiciously, with Mad Max kidnapped and indentured by a society that worships at the altar of the automobile and at the feet of grotesque patriarchal overlords. Perhaps it’s because of this mechanical allegiance that citizens also see every human life as a chassis ready to be stripped for parts. Under the dictatorship of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, a veteran of the first film), women are farmed. The most valuable women are wives and breeders for the leader, while other women, as one simple yet shocking scene reveals, are hooked up to milking machines and pressed into service as cows. Even Max’s body is objectified—a revealingly uncomfortable development—when his captors learn his value as a universal blood donor. Max enters the action not with guns blazing, but as a “blood bag” for one of the War Boys—a warrior caste that dreams of death in battle and whose weapons of choice are vintage cars they have revamped into War Rigs. Max belongs to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy whose desire to prove himself leads him to drag Max onto the road with him. Nux straps his blood bag to the front of his War Rig—a human hood ornament, valuable for parts and display, but unable even to move.
It is in this feminized position that Max endures the movie’s first act, and though he soon emerges into the action, it is never really his story. That distinction belongs to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a War Rig driver who has secretly turned on Immortan Joe’s society, risking her life to help his wives escape the city and lead them to a mythical “green place” in the middle of the desert. The rest of the movie is about this journey, and though Max and eventually Nux lend their help to Furiosa, the story is always about the women.
Women had a large hand in helping shape the movie from behind the scenes. Not only does the story center on Charlize Theron’s character, but Eve Ensler consulted on how the script deals with sexual violence, and Miller asked his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road precisely so that “it won’t look like every other action movie.” This, some viewers have decided, is unacceptable. One particularly incensed men’s rights activist sees Mad Max: Fury Road as the end of a great era of action movies untainted by feminist “propaganda,” and wonders “whether feminism has infiltrated and co-opted Hollywood, ruining nearly every potentially-good action flick with a forced female character or an unnecessary romance sub-plot to eek out that extra 3 million in female attendees.” But the question is rhetorical. “It has,” he says grimly—and others agree.
There’s something intrinsically odd about the idea that men can claim ownership of Max Rockatansky—that he is their hero, his narrative their narrative, and his movies an arena where they can count on retreating to a realm untroubled by the needs of women, or even by female characters. I grew up watching movies like the Mad Max trilogy—not to mention Alien and Lethal Weapon and Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator and countless other staples of untrammeled masculinity—and I feel as attached to Max as I imagine anyone could. The idea that he belongs only to the boys who grew up loving him is a strange one. I grew up loving Max and all the Max-like heroes and antiheroes of Hollywood movies, and I went into Mad Max: Fury Road with both excitement and apprehension, as anyone who has loved a story and seen it go awry (as anyone who grew up in the looming shadow the Star Wars prequels) would.
I loved Fury Road for all the reasons some men’s rights activists probably hated it. I loved Max’s objectification, and his partnership with Furiosa, which was based on respect but never on romance. I loved Furiosa, who carried the whole movie, and was strong without resorting to the easy tricks of the “strong female character”: She was competent, grimy, brave, kind, grieving, hopeful, and real, and I fell in love with her. Furiosa is the driving force of the plot, not Max: Max first pitches in to assist in the wives’ escape from the city but only because he has no better options. That he comes to believe in their cause matters little to them: they don’t need a man’s approval to know they deserve to be free. This is a far cry from film about an antihero rescuing damsels in distress. The wives worked out their own plan of escape and defend themselves competently, while Furiosa performs high-stakes feats of mechanic brilliance as the War Rig races through the desert. Along the way, they meet other tough-as-nails women who are holding their own on the outskirts of a society ruined by war, gas, and aggression. Charlize Theron says in the film’s production notes that George Miller told her he wanted to create a female Road Warrior who could stand next to Max as his equal. “I believed him and he didn’t let me down. The material allowed for two characters who don’t fall for each other, or even become friends, because there is no room for relationships in this place.”
But Mad Max: Fury Road has more to offer than unalloyed heroism. I also fell in love with Nux, the runty War Boy who switched from being a zealot of his particularly poisonous patriarchy to a thoughtful helper of women. He’s that rare character who is neither a wholly competent hero nor a scabrous villain, but a human man who has made mistakes and knows how to learn from them. And, of course, I loved Max—for not just grudgingly admitting his desire to help others, as his predecessor did so many years ago, but for hardly bothering to conceal his integrity. There’s a wonderful moment at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road when Tom Hardy’s Max gazes up at Furiosa. She is above him, and he looks up from within a massive crowd. The moment is almost a recreation of the scene in The Dark Knight Rises when the audience gets to see Bane’s face and then sees him instantly and mortally punished for his sole act of kindness. There is no such retribution here. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we see a world where male vulnerability does not have to be immediately thwarted or destroyed. We see a world where, in fact, tenderness can save us.
There’s an argument I like to get into at parties, especially if there are writers around. If you talk to a certain kind of writer for long enough, they’re likely to bring up their belief that the novel is dying, that literature is dying, that no one reads anymore, so what’s the point?
“Yes,” I say, “that may be true. But narrative isn’t dying. Narrative will be with us forever. I mean, have you ever seen Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome?”
As it turns out, very few writers will admit to having seen Mad Max 3. This is a shame, because it bears a message I find endlessly comforting, not just as a writer but as a human being. That movie ends with Mad Max again reluctantly saving the day, this time by rescuing a clan of children who grew up in the aftermath of a plane crash, waiting for a messianic figure they knew only as The Walker (in fact the name of the plane’s pilot, Captain Walker, eroded by a few years of mythology and kidspeak). After one of the children’s leaders, a teenage girl named Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) rescues Max from death in the desert, Max leads the children to safety, where they begin to rebuild society in the remnants of a destroyed city. The movie ends with Savannah doing “the tell”: She orates the story of the civilization that went before them, their path to rebuild in, and of “him that finded us.” But, Savannah says, “This ain’t one body’s tell. It’s the tell of us all.” Stories—all stories—have the same power over us.
I loved Mad Max: Fury Road, but it is not just a movie for me. When I think about Fury Road, what most excites me is not how much I enjoyed it, but how many other people it will reach. Movies—especially the big summer movies that reach every corner of the country, every dying mall multiplex and small-town single-screen, every drugstore Redbox and Pay-Per-View account—are the narratives that reach us even when there are no others in our lives. They are where we learn how to be brave, and funny, and beautiful, and sexy, and strong. They are where boys learn how to be men, and how a man treats a woman, and where girls learn what kind of treatment they can expect from the men in their lives when they grow up. They are where we take in a spectacular amount of misinformation, but they are also where we find some of the heroes that will lead us through life.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie with the kind of reach most people—and even most movies—can only aspire to, and it brings with it the kind of story that can change the way viewers think about the ideas they may have taken for granted up until today. It tells a story about cruelty coming from a place of insecurity and weakness more often than it does form a place of strength, about a partnership based on trust and esteem mattering more than a contrived romance, and about how strength can get you far, but how being able to listen and learn can get you farther, and keep you alive. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it shows that being the hero of your own narrative may be what you wish for, but playing a crucial role in someone else’s victory is the struggle that will truly define your strength.
Related Reading — The Women of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Sarah Marshall exists because her mother saw Mad Max in 1979 and, because of her resulting fondness for Australians, married Sarah’s dad. She dreams of starting a garage band called Savannah Nix.