The Saturday Rumpus Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
Who killed the world?
My favorite detail in Mad Max: Fury Road is the fact that this question ultimately goes unanswered. This film deeply critiques masculinity, and many feminist critics have, somewhat hastily, answered the above question with the word “men.” But a much deeper rabbit-hole awaits anyone willing to hold that question in their mind by itself, unresolved, without demanding an immediate answer.
The near-mystical context with which that phrase is situated in the movie does seem to demand this treatment. We first encounter it as graffiti in Immortan Joe’s chamber, abandoned by his “wives,” a painted middle-finger to the misogynistic mythology he’s woven in order to keep his tiny empire intact. The phrase is held up as a talisman against his obliterating ideology, against a massive, all-consuming religious narrative that traps everyone in this world where they are, powerless, dried-out, and denied any real rest or abundance.
The second time we encounter the phrase, it’s yelled at everyone’s favorite warboy as he’s dumped out of a moving vehicle by Splendid, the pregnant supermodel breeder. The sparkly pet names Joe gives “his” women only increase the horror of the entire situation (in addition to“Splendid”, there is also “Fragile”, “Capable”, etc.)
When Splendid utters the phrase, when we finally hear it out loud, it’s said as an incantation to ward off Nux’s bankrupt, toxic religious fervor. It’s meant to puncture the mythology of Joe, to make it clear that his tumor-ridden body will die, that all the ecstasy of the Witnessed kamikaze is a cardboard facade erected by a rotting dictator. This is an indictment of illusion, but also an indictment of the things these warboys care about most, and the moment she yelled the phrase I felt the question in myself.
Who killed the world, Devin?
But of course, our world isn’t actually dead yet. This is fiction, and we’re watching a movie. Nobody killed the world.
Yet here I am, implicit in this future. I know Mad Max is an indictment of the current direction of my civilization—an imagined post-apocalyptic mistake made by the worst things we do now, our logical conclusion. And I know that maleness, male aggression, the narratives around my gender, have a lot to do with how we reach that conclusion.
The story of Fury Road is a story about possessiveness, and about how generosity and compassion, the opposites of possessiveness, redeem the world and the individuals in it.
At the core of this struggle over generosity sits Max. He’s in this movie specifically so that we’re forced to be introspective about ourselves as men, forced to ask the question. He’s caused harm in the past, through inaction, maybe even through action, and repeatedly during the movie he’s forced to make a decision about how to allocate his ethics, his resources, his help, even his blood.
The movie could have been focused around Furiosa; she makes a better hero than Max, really, because her mission is what actually drives the plot. She’s the one who dreams of something better and makes it happen, and Max is drafted into her quest for hope.
But Furiosa is not the identity that needs deconstructing. She exists as a singular and hard jewel, alongside Max’s rapidly reformulating personhood. For once, the woman is the strong one, the baseline, the stable background against which masculinity’s crumbling edifice defines itself.
Max is a compelling damsel—introverted, emotional, caught up in something larger than he can fully understand. He throws himself into helping out with gusto, but still yields to Furiosa’s superior expertise (for example, when she uses him as a sniper-stand, sharpshooting at a level of distance and accuracy hopeless for Max). Max fronts the plan to take the Citadel, but his effort would be totally impotent if the women didn’t lend their warcraft and their zeal. Before Furiosa, there was no hope, no purpose, no narrative. Before her, as Max himself said, the only cause was survival. She is his leader.
She’s the one who screams like a banshee on that hilltop when she learns of the souring of the Green Place. There is no equivalent display of fury (naturally) by Max anywhere in the movie.
After she assassinates Joe, the level of her sacrifice becomes clear. She’s drained of her blood. She’s a warrior with a wound. She was stabbed. And Max nurses her back with his blood, just as if it were milk, his gentle trembling hands soothing her face and finding her vein, his emotions cracking wide open.
My point here is that all this stuff can also be framed the other way. Maybe Furiosa is Sleeping Beauty, awakened only by male agency. Maybe Max is co-opting the superior position by offering a plan. Maybe the fact that Max emerges first from Joe’s stolen car to whip the sheet off his body is a slight against the feminist cred of the film.
Or maybe Max helping his worshipped wounded champion out of the car, helping her to stand, propping her up as the hero, making it clear to the assembled masses that she’s in charge, and then disappearing into the crowd as she ascends to rulership—maybe all that is actually sincere. You know, one can hope. Maybe we should pay attention to Furiosa. They all seem to.
Behind all of this, deep at the core of the movie, is a conversation about male disposability.
Recently an article’s been making the rounds that purports to explain “why men exist” in evolutionary terms.
Now, anybody who knows anything about evolution knows that it’s a bottom-up process, not a top-down one. There is no “why”; life is a series of experiments. We trace the contingencies backward; we look at the structures and elements and forces that fell together, that resulted in what we are now, and that’s where we derive a sense of evolutionary “purpose”. But the basic process is not planned. Some things die and some things fuck and shit just happens.
But it’s very easy to fall into thinking that these mechanics should dictate our future purpose, too. That we should “fall in line with nature”, when experimentation and boundary-pushing are exactly the mechanisms nature used to produce all this in the first place.
The article and the research it describes argue that men were an evolutionary project developed because male competition for female attention and sex makes our species stronger. Sexual selection is great for our health as a species. The weak get weeded out.
Are we fighting for control of sexual access to women, in competition with each other? Immortan Joe was winning that game. In fact, in Mad Max, a different sort of principle had taken over: instead of behaving like individual competitive agents, the warboys were behaving like ants, or bees.
Joe developed his religion so the vast male hordes subordinate to him wouldn’t hesitate to blow themselves up to protect “his” food, “his” water, “his” gas, “his” women, like insect drones. He didn’t differentiate between things and people when it came to those women; hence their war cry “we are not things!”. But he didn’t differentiate between people and things with respect to the warboys either. They’re human bombs.
This isn’t really that far off from how that article defined male purpose. We’re fired from the womb like missiles, engines of conflict, created to weed each other out. We’re the refining file that sharpens the human project, but we’re also the flakes that fall away. Fetuses start out female; maleness is a disrupted chemical trajectory, a mad science project. We’re slow motion explosions designed to burn away the undesirable aspects of the human race. Is that what male “purpose” is? Is that what male “purpose” means?
Who killed the world?
Into the center of this anthill fall Furiosa and Max. They’re a twin force of rejection, aggressively and hopelessly (at first) carving out space against the dehumanizing nature, not just of civilization, but of this blasted, resource-stripped reality. Max doesn’t really need to be convinced to leave the anthill; they wanted to use him as a human blood-bag. Furiosa’s position is considerably more complicated—she had rank and power; she was one of the only women to climb the Citadel’s hierarchy. And she gave it all up. She smelled the rotten core of the thing and just couldn’t take it anymore.
I find myself wondering why the women were the first to rebel against this structure. Why didn’t the suicidal warboys think to themselves, hey, maybe we should take the water for ourselves? And the only solution I can come up with is that being male feels powerful. Blowing yourself up feels powerful. Being able to fight and act and move and leave the Citadel on raids was a convincing simulation of freedom. If you’re a warboy lost in the ecstatic haze of battle, heaven seems just that much closer.
The male-dominance trip in our culture has a similar narcotic effect. Hopped up on testosterone, we catapult through our lives looking for ways to get on top. The thrill of climbing the corporate ladder obfuscates the mid-life crisis at the summit. The glory of battle hides the devastation we leave behind us. This movie’s goal is to lay the whole narrative bare, exposed. To shove it in our faces, every bloody inch of it.
Who killed the world?
But of course, the enclave of women in the film are no less killers. No less burdened by the driving whip of survivalism. One of them makes it clear she’s exploded the skull of everyone she’s encountered out in the wastes with her rifle.
The earth-mother-seed thing some feminists are criticizing as essentialist is a red herring. Immortan Joe has way more seeds than those women. Way more. He has an entire industrial farming complex, flush with water and fertile soil—so much abundance that they make it their mission to steal it all from him. If anybody in the world of Mad Max is the earth-mother, it’s Immortan Joe.
All that said, there’s a perspective the women in this film have that the men just don’t. It’s hard to define, hard to locate. It may have something to do with hope. Something to do with the idea that they’re more than human missiles; more than cannon-fodder. The women seem capable of believing that. The men have much more difficulty with the idea.
It might behoove us as men to think about that. To think about our “purpose” as though it’s broader than that of provider, that of lover, that of sperm-carrier, that of blood-bag, that of missile. It may be the only kind of thinking that’s going to save us.
Max is a man-shaped hole, in many ways. A quiet non-person, a helper on Furiosa’s adventure. His introversion allows us, as men, to project our future onto him. What do we want to be? What are his motives? Why does he nurse Furiosa back to health with his blood-milk? Is he just further participating in male narratives about self-sacrifice and mating? Or is there something more going on? What is the Fury Road, anyway? Where does it lead?
Who killed the world?
Image credits: featured image, image #2, image #3, image #4, image #5.