Amid the mayhem of George Miller’s deranged Mad Max: Fury Road, Max (Tom Hardy) asks Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) where they are going on their protracted, gut-slicing car chase. “The green place of many mothers,” is Furiosa’s reply.
In a world of scorched earth and mutated men, where everyone needs a ChapStick and women are imprisoned like cattle in a stockyard, a green place for mothers sounds positively idyllic.
The evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), ruler of the dusty Citadel, has captured and enslaved five young women as his Wives, or ‘breeders’. Fury Road really begins when Furiosa frees the captive Wives and races them towards sanctuary – Joe tearing after her with his army of tumour-riddled War Boys. The Wives’ parting message to Joe, smeared on the walls of their jail cell, is: “Who killed the world?”
In Fury Road there is only one answer: men.
Fury Road’s recent release has dredged up internet rumblings about its subversive gender politics, instigated by a ‘men’s rights activist’ on the misogynist hub, Return of Kings. He proposed that Fury Road’s guns-and-grilles trailer was a Trojan Horse designed to trick unsuspecting dudebros searching for a “straight-up guy flick” into ingesting “feminist propaganda”.
The dudebros are right: whichever way you look at it, Fury Road is a feminist film. I watched, engrossed, with the glorious feeling that I could put away my armour. I needn’t cringe at demoralising plotlines, sexist dialogue or leering camera angles. There’s no handwringing over women sidelined as love interests or damsels in distress waiting for a man’s protection.
In fact, Fury Road is close to perfect. From the first crunch that is Max chomping on a two-headed lizard, Miller’s lead foot is on the gas. Everything that follows is an operatic orgy of fire and fury that plays one-up with itself. Each time you think you’ve seen the best battle, the craziest stunt or the cheekiest visual gag (Pole Boys dropping grenades from on high or a bungee-jumping, skull-faced guitarist with a fire-spewing axe), the film delivers one better.
For goodness sake, there’s a full-throttle action sequence in a dust storm – a tsunami of red, white and blue underscored by crackling lightning and a crazed Nicholas Hoult screaming, “What a lovely day!”
I enjoyed the madness unreservedly, because it was underpinned by a genuine desire to interrogate the sexism that’s rampant in so many other contemporary blockbusters.
There’s vast enjoyment in Theron’s Furiosa, our road warrior on a mission for redemption, who carries the film’s dramatic weight. There’s also the Wives. These women are not mere damsels in distress; still, Miller teases us in one of the film’s best visual jokes: Max first spots the Wives hosing themselves off by their phallic war rig, adorned in floating linen and removing cruel-looking chastity belts. It seems reminiscent of a lingering Michael Bay shot (of Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who plays ‘Splendid’ here, leaning over a car hood), until the Wives are helping Furiosa beat the blood out of Max, or using their pregnant bellies to shield Furiosa from harm.
The dudebros are right: whichever way you look at it, Fury Road is a feminist film.
Hardy’s Max is shuffling, blockheadedly endearing and poetically combines his two trademarks: strange, barely comprehensible accents and terrifying face masks. But the film belongs to Furiosa, and Theron is doing her best, most complex work. She conveys grief and guts in a twitched lip or a hardened brow, replete with a manufactured twinkle of danger in her eyes.
So throughout the heart-flattening Fury Road, where wit and invention crash into spectacle, I didn’t feel shut out. This is a film that welcomes women viewers. More than that, it feels tailor-made for them.
Mad Max was a stark contrast to my experience with Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film, helmed by paragon Proud Male Feminist Joss Whedon, is a disappointment on nearly every level. Not only is it a sickening assault of badly choreographed CGI (the film takes nearly two hours of its bloated run-time to produce one nuanced, comprehensible and genuinely exciting action sequence), it is also an insulting backwards step in Marvel’s embattled diversity waltz.
The bright spot in Avengers’ dearth of fleshed-out female characters is usually Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Johansson is an accomplished action star, and one of the few Avengers to successfully helm another action smash-hit, Lucy. Her Black Widow is a cool, kickass superspy. She’s also a ruthless femme fatale firmly of the Whedon mould, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Faith.
In Ultron, Whedon winds back the progress and saddles Black Widow with two problematic storylines: one where she is traumatised by her own ‘monstrosity’ at being infertile; the other where she and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk lock eyes and lips in a sigh-inducing Beauty and the Beast redux. (The woman can drop from a fighter jet on a motorbike, but her job in combat is to soothe Bruce with a lullaby when he Hulks out.)
Both plots offer Black Widow as the sole woman of the team. She alone struggles with her inability to bear children, a worry the male superheroes do not have. She alone is linked romantically to another Avenger. The implication is that, in action, there are certain stories and roles that pertain to women, while others are for men.
Off-screen, Johansson is queried about her underwear and eating habits, while her male colleagues field serious questions. Black Widow scarcely appears in the mountains of Avengers merchandise, and Johansson’s co-stars joke about how her character is a ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. It seems Black Widow and Johansson are merely put up with in the Marvel world.
Meanwhile, Whedon is policing feminists on how they should view movie sexism and complaining about the superhero genre’s disservice to women, without considering what his own films are adding to the melange. It’s not enough just to write a Strong Female Character™: it’s the world she inhabits, and how she is allowed to move around in that world, that really counts.
If Ultron is a disappointment – and its head-scratching success proof of Alex Pappademas’ theory that “we live in times of lowered expectation, blockbuster-wise” – then Fury Road is a triumph. For women like me, who have stumbled through the wasteland that is the contemporary action film searching for our ‘green place’, Fury Road and the oil-slicked Furiosa might just be it.