If you haven’t seen the latest iteration of Mad Max stop reading right now, walk out of work, get in your car, and race to the nearest theater. Trust me, it’s worth the angry phone calls from your boss and the panicked looks from fellow motorists as you drift by them like Vin Diesel out of Fast and Furious on your way to the theater.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth film in the Mad Max franchise and may well be the best action movie of the year. It’s filled with the unique weapons, vehicles, and landscapes that made the previous movies so great. And the cinematography for what is essentially an action remake of the 1994 movie Speed is fantastic and complemented by the outstanding soundtrack and amazingly detailed costuming.
But what really makes Mad Max so great is the character design. In a genre that is defined by one-sided, overly masculine characters who shoot first and think later, in which the dialogue is merely a way to transition from one over-the-top action scene to the next, Mad Max is a breath of fresh air.
Let’s start with one of the biggest issues with action movies: their portrayal of women. Often, women are shown as helpless damsels in distress, in need of saving by the ‘roided-up male protagonist. The only thing these one-dimensional characters provide is a brief distraction, almost always by pseudo-seducing the bad guys, while the male protagonist comes up from behind them and heroically slaughters them.
This couldn’t be further from what happens in Mad Max. While many of the starring female characters in the film (aside from the badass Imperator Furiosa and the gang of granny bikers) do start off as enslaved concubines of the movie’s antagonist Immortan Joe, they organize their own means of escape with the assistance of Furiosa, a female commander of a legion of male warriors. When Max comes across their path, instead of submitting to his will and making him their leader, they conscript him into their gang by convincing him that only through their assistance and resources can he achieve his own freedom.
What’s so refreshing about these characters is that, like real human beings, they are complex characters with a range of motivations and fears that guide their actions. Rather than just being portrayed as sex objects, the female characters in Mad Max show a range of emotion, including both bravery and cowardice, making them more relatable and allowing viewers to fully immerse themselves in the narrative.
The movie’s display of a multitude of personalities and motivations for leading female characters is a rarity in the action genre and should be commended as both artistically insightful and socially relevant. Directors and movie studios shouldn’t have to receive extra praise for writing dynamic female characters, but until the entertainment industry sees women as something greater than the sum of their physical parts, such praise will need to be publicly made.
Mad Max, at its core, is about how human society could look if everything just goes to shit. And while it would fit in with established movie tropes to use weak female characters alongside a strong male lead, such a scenario would be even more unrealistic in the dystopian future that Mad Max seeks to portray. In a world where resources, both physical and human, are extremely limited, it would be vitally important that all members of a society pull their weight, regardless of gender. As such, there really is no room for the helpless damsel or the clueless female sidekick. These stark times call for heroines like Furiosa and her gang—women and men who will do what’s necessary to survive.