Why Mad Max has given way to Furiosa

Niels Ruëll

Has the male beefcake been superseded by the action heroine? It is not as simple as that and never has been. It was, nonetheless, a shrewd move by George Miller to feminise Mad Max. We will see the result once again in the cinemas soon, in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

In the nine years that have flown by since Mad Max: Fury Road, not many action movies that have surfaced have been as overwhelming. The Australian director George Miller blew audiences away with the 25-years-awaited fourth instalment of his post-apocalyptic saga. In a breathtaking desert setting, a chained musician with a double-neck guitar on a travelling colossus spurs an army of kamikaze fanatics on in a sensational chase. The sound system also breathes fire to roast enemies.

“The last thing I wanted to do was make another Mad Max movie”

George Miller

Director of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

The film turned out to be even louder, more audacious, and more spectacular than the three previous adventures that made Mad Max an action icon: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Just what fans of action and Eighties nostalgia had been hoping for.

The big surprise was that the (anti)hero Max Rockatansky, played by Tom Hardy, who replaces the old and maligned Mel Gibson, played second fiddle. He had to hand over the wheel, the precision rifle, and the decisions to a close-shaven, one-armed woman. Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, has betrayed the detestable tyrant Immortan Joe by going on the run with five women he abuses as breeding stock.

A woman is not an object

It was a brilliant move by Miller. Not because his bombastic action franchise, which made Mel Gibson a global star, was suddenly characterised as progressive and feminist by some. Although that does happen, sometimes with suspicious earnestness.

However ridiculous or superfluous it may be, Miller eagerly encouraged that reading. On the walls and floor, the refugee women leave behind three slogans that raise a middle finger to the patriarchy, which has an apocalypse on its conscience but pushes forward irascibly with violence and exploitation and considers women as brainless property: “Our babies will not be warlords”, “Who ruined the world?”, and “We are not things.”
With them, Furiosa hopes to reach the Green Place, a matriarchal oasis where they can work to rebuild society using preserved seeds.

George Miller, regisseur van de film "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," op 16 mei op het Filmfestival van Cannes


| George Miller, director of "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," at the Film Festival in Cannes, on May 16th.

“I think George Miller is a feminist; he made a feminist action film,” Eve Ensler said in 2015. The author of the globally performed The Vagina Monologues, performed all over the world, travelled to the film set in the Namibian desert to give the actors who played the five fleeing women more insight into all forms of sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse experienced by women worldwide. Did that really help Zoë Kravitz (Big Little Lies), Riley Keough (War Pony), and Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to portray characters who never get a chance to trade in their bikinis for traditional clothes that are more resistant to bullets, explosions, and scorching heat? And what do feminists even think of a story in which women are so idealised?

From anomaly to fury

The idea that Furiosa was a pioneer is a mirage. For a long time, the action film and the superhero film were tied for Hollywood's most sexist film genre. Certainly in the 1980s, testosterone levels peaked in franchises such as Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Predator. The role of the woman was limited to being protected, rescued, and seduced. But that doesn't alter the fact that Pam Grier had already carved out a place in blaxploitation films in the 1970s, Sigourney Weaver created the prototype of the action heroine in the leading role in Alien and its sequels, Tina Turner looked badass in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor became an increasingly tough fighter in James Cameron's Terminator series. Moreover, Furiosa appeared in cinemas when Angelina Jolie's run as an action heroine (Lara Croft, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted) had just come to an end and, as the rebellious, strong-willed Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence had made The Hunger Games a phenomenon.

SLT20240501 anya taylor joy as furiosa in furiosa a mad max saga

Anya Taylor joy as Furiosa in Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga.

On the other hand, Mad Max: Fury Road had to compete in 2015 with Jurassic World, an action movie in which Bryce Dallas Howard runs away in high heels from a genetically modified dinosaur. The Furiosa character also precedes Wonder Woman, which grossed 820 million dollars in 2017, putting an end to the delusion that the masses have no interest in adventures that revolve around a superheroine.

Over the years, the evolution is clear: the action heroine is less and less of an oddity, an anomaly, a copy of the action hero with a lush bosom or an excuse to prevent superhero ensembles like the Avengers or the Justice League from consisting only of men in spandex. There are more and more examples, and they are entitled to their own stories, personalities, and missions. But there is no reason to declare victory yet. Although 2023 may have been the year of Barbie, a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 30 films out of the top 100 had a woman in one of the lead roles. That is the lowest number since 2014. The number of female directors in the top 100 dropped from 18 to 16.

Something to fight for

But let's face it. Mad Max: Fury Road didn't pick up 380 million dollars in 2015 and cash in on six out of ten Oscar nominations because it flirted with women's emancipation. The sensation is created by the fireworks, beautifully photographed hard-hitting action, post-apocalyptic scenery at its most monumental, frenzied human creatures, and the most outrageous weapons and vehicles.

Replacing Mad Max with Furiosa was a stroke of genius, especially since it put the formidable Charlize Theron in the driving seat. She is no less tough, taciturn, dirty, or determined than the male colleagues who took care of Mad Max and Co. And she exudes more empathy, which makes her much easier to identify with. Even as she pilots an eighteen-wheel armoured truck through a devastated landscape.

Furiosa is also just a more interesting main character. Max Rockatansky is the anti-hero who loses wife and child in the first film and takes his revenge in a mad rage. In the second he barely finds the courage to protect civilians from a terrifying motorcycle gang, and in the third he is a semi-drifter who only finds a shred of humanity through a tribe of children. It is always a struggle to give him reasons to be active. With Furiosa, that is not a problem at all. She has real, clear goals: to free the women and bring them to safety and to find the green paradise from which she was kidnapped at a young age. She knows what she is fighting for. It is no surprise that George Miller makes no effort to hide the fact that he was bored with Mad Max. “The last thing I wanted to do was make another Mad Max movie.”

Mad Max Furiosa

Fury is born: Anya Taylor-Joy takes on the role of Furiosa in GeorgeMiller’s eponymous prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Storm is coming

The world premiere of the fifth film in the Mad Max saga will take place at the Cannes Film Festival. It won't even include Mad Max anymore. Furiosa is a spin-off and prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road and recounts the eventful early years of young Furiosa. After she is kidnapped, she lives through a war between two tyrants over the strategically crucial Citadel and hatches an escape plan. Anya Taylor-Joy from the chess series The Queen's Gambit and Last Night in Soho takes over from Charlize Theron as the heroine. The screenplay evolved from the background history that George Miller worked out in detail for the character during the making of Fury Road.

“Fury is born”, the slogan on the poster, shows that he has no intention of disappointing fans of monumental action. It remains to be seen how much emphasis will be placed this time on female action heroes who must survive in a macho, destructive, male dictatorship. Truly innovative, fascinating heroines who, in a male world, are not so comfortable with grotesque violence, grubby intimacy, and self-interested choices, may have to wait until the cinema release of Love Lies Bleeding. That frenzied, romantic noir thriller by Rose Glass, starring Kirsten Stewart and the bodybuilder Katy O'Brian, was slaughtered at the BIFFF with homophobic and sexist remarks. Not everyone is ready for all kinds of action heroine. It just goes to show that they should be portrayed in even greater numbers and even more variations.

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