Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is the fourth film in the Mad Max tetralogy. Directed by George Miller, this film was yet again another blockbuster hit similar to its predecessors (Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1982) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)) in the Mad Max franchise. This franchise has gained such immense traction since the 1970s, to the point where the coined term ‘Mad Max future’ instantly allows us to visualise a brutal landscape of environmental destruction, resource scarcity and total breakdown of institutions. Fury Road, a reboot of the previous three films nearly 30 years later, is no exception as it portrays a post-apocalyptic world that is characterised by the collapse of society due to a massive global war instigated by nuclear weapons.
“a brutal landscape of environmental destruction, resource scarcity and total breakdown of institutions”
Max, an enigmatic character played by Tom Hardy, is initially shown to be surviving in elitist isolation, haunted by the memory of those he was unable to save as a universal blood donor.
Immortan Joe, leader of The Citadel Empire, dictates The Wretched, who are parched plebeians at the lowest social hierarchy, since he has access to the only remaining aquifer in The Wasteland. Only a few minutes into the film, Immortan Joe sends the War Boys, his fanatical devotees, to capture Max to exploit his blood donating ability.
Max quickly manages to escape the wrath of tyrant Joe and sees this opportunity to save others as a chance to redeem his inability to do so in the past. He does so by joining a communal effort with Imperator Furiosa, Joe’s trusted general who wants to redeem the atrocities she committed under Joe’s orders such as killing innocent plebeians, The Vuvalini, an all-female gang that once lived in The Green Place but have been forced to evacuate as the land became inhospitable, and finally the Five Wives, who are fleeing Joe’s clutch on them as his breeding stock for healthy children. All of them have the same desire to impeach Immortan Joe and restore society built on peace, justice and most importantly, hope for a better future.
On the surface, viewers of Fury Road may view the narrative arc of this film as similar to its predecessors since they are all an evocative dramatisation of our worst fears materialising into a barbaric post-apocalypse. All films portray a tyrannical rule over scarce resources and ultimately, the successful quest to overthrow this oppressive leader. To allow us to understand Fury Road, a useful analysis of the previous 3 Mad Max films comes from the work of Dennis H. Barbour in ‘Heroism and redemption in the Mad Max Trilogy’ who suggests that the trilogy has elements that transcend a mere action film. The trilogy has a unifying theme of redemption and heroism (1999, p. 28).
“…unifying theme of redemption and heroism.”
This observation by Barbour is also undeniably linked to the diegesis of Fury Road. Barbour analyses the portrayal of redemption through its characters, mainly Max, and its purpose in promoting an archetypical image of a hero in the 1990s (1999, p. 28). Hence, given the historical context of Fury Road, released 30 years after the trilogy, how do we then understand the portrayal of redemption in Fury Road as similar or different from its predecessors? This essay argues that while Barbour’s analysis allows us to understand the inextricable link between redemption and the role of Max in salvaging society in Fury Road, it fails to apply to Fury Road given that Fury Road steers away from the archetypical portrayal of redemption through a male Messiah complex by focusing more on redemption through feminine figures.
“…Fury Road steers away from the archetypical portrayal of redemption through a male Messiah complex by focusing more on redemption through feminine figures.”
Just like its predecessors, Fury Road portrays redemption through Max due to the timeless symbiotic relationship between the hero and the society he wants to save. In this sense, Max is redeemed through society’s unwilling desire for a hero and society is given a second chance through Max’s unwilling heroism. As seen by Max’s steadfast refusal towards taking up the heroic role as an inspiration to the discouraged community, heroes do not need to have the desire to save humanity.
This contradicts conventional heroes we have become accustomed to, who have an activist role in redeeming the victim, since the hero in Barbour’s definition is the figure in distress himself who uses heroism as a means to redeem himself while saving humanity (1999, p. 28). This portrayal has not changed even with the new historical context of Fury Road since it depicts that heroes are not born but are instead shaped by the circumstances in society and that there would inevitably be a heroic entity that will emerge during a crisis. This concept is relevant even in a post- Cold War era since we have witnessed our fair share of heroes who rise up to the occasion in calamities to save humanity. The Wretched, through their need for a hero to impeach Joe, rejuvenate the desolate and directionless Max who has lost all values due to his past failure to save his wife and son. Max is tormented with repeated visions of Glory the Child, who he was unable to save in the first film.
Her appearances ignite the willpower in Max to take action and redeem his past incompetence by fighting to impeach Immortan Joe. This comes at a crucial time in the film when having learned the devastating news that the yearned Green Place is completely uninhabitable, Furiosa together with the Vuvalini and the Five Wives agree to ride across the vast salt flats in the hope to find another place to live. At this moment, Max sees visions of Glory the Child and manages to convince all of them to return to the Citadel to wrest power from tyrant Joe. He explains that the Citadel has ample water and greenery, that Joe keeps for himself, that can be seized to venture on a path of rebirth for The Wasteland. Grounding his personal intentions (of redeeming his futile attempt to save Glory the Child) in the larger goal of impeaching Joe, allows Max to achieve redemption as he moves from a solo elitist isolation survival mindset to the epiphany that he can only find his redemption through his connections with others.
Banding together with like-minded people, as Max did with Furiosa and the rest in Fury Road, to form a collective heroic body is the only way that redemption can be achieved. Hence, the portrayal of redemption through the actions of Max as a consistent feature in the past three films is also relevant in Fury Road due to the perpetual need for a hero to rise in moments of crisis. This timeless symbiotic nature of a relationship between the hero and society is one that is not subject to any changes, even in a different historical context, given its importance in instigating the revolution under oppressive conditions.
“…timeless nature of the symbiotic relationship between the hero and society…”
Although redemption is portrayed heavily through Max’s actions in Fury Road and the past three films as mentioned by Barbour, Fury Road provides a new way to envision redemption, and ultimately heroism, by portraying it through feminine figures. Unlike the previous three films that represent a stereotypical patriarchal narrative and Max as the male Messiah saviour, Fury Road has transgressed towards more feminine elements that can be viewed as the feminist movement that has gained traction in today’s context. Fury Road has depicted a move away from the normal patriarchal narratives that show men going to fight a war for peace and tranquility while women are left behind to attend to family care. In fact, amongst the main heroes, there are only two men: Max himself and Nux, a warrior in Joe’s army who decides to join the fight against Joe instead. The rest are female heroes namely the Five Wives, who prove to be more resourceful and brave than their graceful frames may suggest, and the Vuvalini, the all-female tribe who used to guard the now uninhabitable Green Place.
Central to the discussion on feminism in Fury Road is the Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. Furiosa is Immortan Joe’s trusted general who turns against him with the aim of liberating the Five Wives and herself from Joe’s dictatorship. Furiosa is portrayed as the de facto leader of the fugitive army that consists of Max, the Five Wives, the Vuvalini and Nux. Max is portrayed as an equivalent hero alongside Furiosa who does not bear any concern with the prospect of Furiosa leading them to overthrow Joe. While Max is not reduced to a passive object in the fight against Joe, Furiosa embodies varying degrees of masculinity to the point where she bears allusions to the conventional male hero, as she ultimately leads Immortan Joe to his brutal demise by ripping out his grotesque mask with a snarling, “Remember me?” The ultimate death of Immortan Joe signifies the rebirth and redemption of The Wasteland.
Her physical appearance is also indicative of her gender transgression. With a shaved head and a muscular build, this androgyny makes her physical sex ambiguous according to normative conceptions of sex (Boulware, 2016). Furthermore, her image as an amputee with a robotic arm also deprives viewers of the masculine gaze in juxtaposition to the Five Wives who are a quintet of genetically pure women with a willowy frame. This prosthetic, although a small part of the film, is key imagery in depicting the revolution against the oppression by the patriarchal figure of Immortan Joe as this very tool is used to kill him. This can be seen as a political embodiment of her rejection of Immortan Joe’s dictatorship as she turns this mechanical alteration against him (Boulware, 2016).
Additionally, Furiosa and Max’s relationship is not shown to evolve into an ordinary heteronormative relationship. In fact, Max seems unfazed by the beauty of the Five Wives and keeps his thoughts to himself. This is unlike conventional movies where it is almost a given that a romantic relationship will blossom between the male and female leads. Furthermore, Furiosa’s Christ-like resurrection after her fall from the war rig after killing Immortan Joe, disrupts our ideology of who can be resurrected or sacrificed for a cause. As Max saves Furiosa from bleeding to death using his universal donor capability, the conventional idea of a male figure at the brink of death and subsequently resurrected to fight his final battle is contested. Hence, Furiosa’s portrayal in Fury Road is a critique of patriarchal narratives since she is shown to embody the redemptive and heroic spirit in her fight against toxic masculinity represented by Immortan Joe.
Furthermore, by looking at the redemption through another feminine entity, the Five Wives, it is seen that the Five Wives rip their chastity belts in a battle against Immortan Joe’s army. Despite the portrayal of their initially willowy frame, the Five Wives prove to be more resourceful and brave. Their desire to escape Immortan Joe’s control on them signifies that violation of oppressive conditions creates grounds for a successful revolution to be achieved. Such depictions are important for the revolution of a post-patriarchal world.
Hence, while Barbour’s analysis of the previous three films allows us to understand Max’s role in the portrayal of redemption in Fury Road, it only applies in so far as Max is seen as the conventional male hero of the film. Given the historical context of Fury Road nearly 30 years after the last Mad Max film in 1985, where the move towards feminism has gained traction, Fury Road does not fail to deliver. It portrays redemption through female characters such as Furiosa, the Five Wives, and the Vuvalini. This depiction is crucial in rejecting the conventional patriarchal narratives of the Mad Max franchise that is known to be aggressively masculine in its depictions. Such portrayal of redemption allows viewers to envision a utopian world where females and males alike are responsible for fighting a battle of their cause. Fury Road is thus lauded as a piece of work that emboldens the feminist movement while not reducing male characters to passive objects against the backdrop of the gain of agency by women.
- Miller, G. (Director) (2015). MAD MAX: FURY ROAD [Motion picture on DVD].
- Barbour, D.H. (1999). Heroism and Redemption in the Mad Max Trilogy. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 27(3)
- Yates, M. (2017). Re-casting nature as feminist space in Mad Max: Fury Road. Science Fiction Film and Television, 10(3)
- Boulware, T. (2016). “Who Killed the World?”: Building a Feminist Utopia from the Ashes of Toxic Masculinity in Mad Max: Fury Road, Journal of Film and Visual Narration, 1(1)