The status quo in Mad Max: Fury Road is bleak and nihilistic. The Citadel, the central community of importance to the film, is run by a decrepit leader called Immortan Joe who has a harem of women that he breeds with and another group of women that provide breast milk like factory cattle. The peasants beg for water, and when Immortan releases it to them they go rabid for it, causing harm to each other for a muddy drop. It’s not a good place to be a human and particularly not a good place if you’re a female. Imperator Furiosa’s existence in this society is a bit of an anomaly. Played by Charlize Theron, her status is above the regular foot soldier, leading them on expeditions to retrieve gas and other resources. However, life has little value in the world of Mad Max, so her higher ranking position doesn’t really make her any less expendable than any of the other military human resources. It’s this reality that may have caused Furiosa to begin her journey of self-discovery by smuggling the dictator’s prized “breeders” away from the Citadel and to a green oasis that she remembers from her childhood, but hasn’t seen in decades. As a leader in Immortan Joe’s army, Furiosa has facilitated the exploitation of not only the people but these women in particular and it is her femininity, which is made analogous with the moral virtues of the humane, that drives her to risk her life. Men in this film are zealots and fatalists who worship destruction of their own flesh – it is the women who work to preserve it.
After many exciting explosions and some dramatic close-calls, Furiosa and her refugees find their destination. What was supposed to be a green and fertile land run by women is just a muddy uninhabitable bog. The women leaders from that community who’ve survived on their own under seemingly-impossible circumstances, inform her that they must drive through the dangerous salt flats, where the ocean has dried up, in search of a new home. It’s a scary endeavor that will almost certainly result in their deaths. Maybe. We don’t know because this is where Mad Max comes in.
Max’s story started long before this film. Originally a keeper of the law, Max’s family was murdered by the new violent society birthed from the Oil Wars. At the start of Mad Max he is running from the memories of that tragedy, choosing to live outside of society than conform to its new nihilistic ideology. While Furiosa is facing the prospect of a similar life in crossing the flats, Max gives her a new direction by persuading her to go back to the Citadel and kill all of the leaders that are chasing her. Together they will perpetuate the cycle of redemptive violence by restoring order from the chaos of oppression through murder. Of course they succeed: Furiosa is lifted high above the crowd where she releases water to all the peasants; the implication is that they will go thirsty no more under this new humanistic, feminine rule. It is that moment in the desert when Furiosa chooses to go back that the film quells the concept of revolution and decides that it will continue the status quo but with a new coat of paint. What appears to be a triumph is in fact a tragedy of the system. The society is broken, and a new leader, one who gains by force, does not fix that society. The improvements are presumably cosmetic. The beautiful women will no longer be sex slaves to men, the milk maids will be released from their hoses, and everyone can have as much water as they can drink (until the water inevitably runs out). Furiosa taking her position at the top of the community appears on the surface to be a moment of gender equality – that women are now capable of doing what the men can do, even kill. I argue that this perspective of the film is not actually beneficial to the advancement of feminine image in cinema. What appears to be progress is in reality debasement. The qualities attributed to femininity in the film are compassion, empathy, and general humanity. In order to take over the Citadel they had to shed those qualities and take on the traits of their male counterparts. Within this context, gender equality is achieved through vengeance and the understanding that only might makes right.
The truth is that neither party will advance the society significantly. If we look at Immortan Joe and his old guard of generals as the conservatives who seek war and are frugal with resources, and Furiosa’s party as the progressives who fight for female rights and are liberal with spending the resources (which is undoubtedly the more preferable approach of the two), we find that neither directly engages the core ideology of the society that still needs to resort to violence to get what they want. These are short-term solutions to keep people happy rather than long-term solutions for cultural prosperity. The oil and water will run out, and the community’s lack of self-sustainability will cause it to resort to violence in order to restore depleted resources. It’s not equality and humanity that is valued most in Mad Max: Fury Road but self-preservation.
In contrast, the film Snowpiercer (Bong, 2013) shows a fiercer commitment to revolution by completely abandoning the system of exploitation and oppression. In that film, in which the only people left on a now-frozen planet Earth are on a self-sustaining train that can travel forever. Everyone is divided by class with the lowest class being the exploited proletariat. The order of this system is highly valued, and when the proletariat rise up and make their way to the high-class front of the train they realize that they can’t take over the system without becoming the very force they’re fighting against. So the choice made is to blow it all up and take their chances in the lethally dangerous elements outside. Snowpiercer shows optimism in the face of possibly insurmountable odds, placing faith that even the weakest of society can survive the harshest conditions and persevere. By choosing to go back, Imperator Furiosa shows no such faith.
If one broadens the scope in which you observe these decisions to the world outside the film, the reason behind writing these characters to make the choices they do becomes clearer. Producers need characters to make the kind of decisions that perpetuate cyclical violence or else there can be no franchise. Snowpiercer exists on its own, and a sequel would be a totally different narrative structure to its predecessor because it can’t follow in the same path. But the whole reason for a sequel is so an audience can see more of the same. No matter how many Transformer films Michael Bay makes, the Autobots will always be fighting the Decepticons. Mad Max: Fury Road appears to be something new and fresh by comparison to its contemporaries, but it is still the same film, just crafted better. So much praise for the film revolved around the creativity of the sets and limited use of CG, which, I agree, sets the film apart from its fellow summer blockbusters making it aesthetically more pleasurable to watch. But underneath its hood it runs on the same engine as nearly everything else. Once its projected box office was calculated, talk of sequels took place because it is clear that audiences want more of “this” even though there is already an abundance of “this” in their life. It’s a testament to the powers of Hollywood marketing to make someone believe they need something that they actually have more than enough of.
This consumerist amnesia is a symptom of our conditioning to believe we are making a change, a choice to support something different, when the opposite is occurring. Under these conditions the act of “voting with one’s dollar” is purely symbolic. The same movies will get made, the same cable companies will provide you service, the same parties will be elected. Mad Max is unsettling in the way that it illustrates this because its environment, the post-war wasteland, is the end result of such thinking, and yet its characters have learned nothing, instead choosing to further entrench themselves in their world’s ideology, making them much closer to the people of the real world than their grotesque bodies would have one believe. While Mad Max: Fury Road feels like a feminist film subverting and ultimately overpowering the testosterone-fueled expectations with female empowerment, by virtue of Imperator Furiosa’s ass-kicking strength and determination, it is merely a reinforcement in the same values that lead us to ruin. Instead of embracing our differences and celebrating what gives women their own power, Fury Road asserts that we can all be equal in our capacity for violence and revenge. If this is what the movement for equality is striving for, then it’s moving in the wrong direction.