Mad Max: Forging New (and Furious) Roads
Mad Max: Fury Road starts out the way a lot of its franchise-followers would expect it to: with a testosterone-filled, action-packed, male-dominated scene involving a car chase. The female characters are portrayed as things to be looked at––or as Ronald Gregg, Senior Lecturer of American, Film, and LGBT Studies at Yale University, would describe them, women in “Victoria’s Secret clothing [and] very much eroticized.” The opening sequence of the film had initially convinced Gregg that this film would be very similar tonally and thematically to its predecessors. However, Gregg eventually found that the previous films’ themes were turned on their heads in Fury Road. Throughout the movie, “Max himself is mostly silent,” and the antagonist, Immortan Joe, “is portrayed as diseased…even the White Boys need blood…It means that they’re born diseased.” In this way, all the male characters in the film––save Max–– “emblematize a kind of patriarchy that is imperfect biologically.” This shift in perception of the sexes, combined with other factors, make Mad Max: Fury Road “fresh.”
While the film bucked many themes of other films in the franchise, there were still some core elements of the franchise present in Fury Road. “[The] Mad Max [franchise] has always been a film that I would say is located in near future, that it’s dealing with contemporary political, environmental, economic issues,” says Gregg. “It’s always been about the lack of resources, particularly oil in everybody’s fighting over fuel to rev their machines, for powering up their communities and of course, Mad Max: Fury Road moves into how the resources around water have become a really important issue to us within the present.”
While certain themes remain intact throughout the franchise, Gregg also notes how important it is for production companies to revamp their message in order to keep franchises flourishing. In Mad Max, this took the form of embracing women and its demographic. As Gregg notes, “if you keep producing Ironman [or] Avengers, in the same tone, in the same approach and similar narratives, you’re going to burn the audience out. But if you have…multiple aspects of that franchise and keep…rebranding [and] refreshing [or] have different tones…that franchise will thrive.” Gregg explains that Mad Max is the perfect example for other franchises looking to build their audiences. For example, Gregg notes that Marvel’s long-promised spin-off film for Scarlett Johannsen as Black Widow has yet to come to fruition––branding Marvel, even now, as male-dominated. However, given how Fury Road has received positive reception and has been embraced by women, it will be interesting to see if Marvel feels compelled to alter its demographic and target audience(s) as well.
But attracting a larger female audience is not the only reason for Fury Road’s success. What makes the film stand out from other blockbusters is its ability to operate in a global space. As Gregg notes, “Mad Max really comes out of Australia, but being filmed in Africa and with the talent that’s brought into it and of course, both the financing and the distribution being a Hollywood studio, it fits more outside of the traditional franchise that’s in Hollywood right now,” whereas other films, like the latest Batman vs. Superman, operate more in a national space. Regardless of its international releases, it still feels “U.S.-centric.”
The word “fresh” would also explain the success Mad Max had during award season. “I think that at some point it was clear that Mad Max was going to win all of the technical artistic awards and that says something about how fresh that film felt,” says Gregg. Its triumphs in categories such as Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design are testament to its radical approaches to filmmaking. For example, in an interview with Vogue, Lesley Vanderwalt, the film’s hair and makeup designer, discusses how she used the elements around her to represent the characters. “We kept them very natural, obviously, down to almost nothing… It’s always a rule of less is more when you’re out there, and they wouldn’t have had access to anything. It would have been ludicrous to have them looking like beauty queens, as if they’d have found a Sephora somewhere underground.” The commitment to thinking inside the characters’ heads worked here. By contrast, in a film like The Revenant, some may be left feeling a bit underwhelmed, in the same way Gregg did. “You can go back to a number of films…particularly in the 70s with Clint Eastwood or Jeremiah Johnson and you can sort of see that…the makeup and the costumes don’t feel that original.”
While Mad Max: Fury Road was certainly a masterpiece in many ways, its originality had to fall short somewhere. For Gregg and others, the cessation began with the narrative, which, all in all, was not the most compelling. However, such a flaw is understandable for films that dedicate their resources to other aspects. “You notice it didn’t win anything after those technical artistic awards and that’s the sort of the conventional way that blockbusters are received,” notes Gregg. “They’re seen as special effects films, but not really narratively creative and actors rarely get rewarded for those films.”