At the outset of this review of Mad Max: Fury Road, let me say that it’s an excellent movie. If for some reason you are haven’t seen it, stop reading this instant and go watch it. Not only will you have a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience, you’ll avoid all the spoilers that follow here.
Now you’ve seen the movie. Aside from exulting in the experience, you’re probably wondering: just what was supposed to be feminist about that film? I can’t answer that question, but I do know that it poses very serious problems for those of us of the “the only morality is civilization” school of thought. Fury Road, if taken as a morality tale, teaches the exact opposite, namely that morality requires tearing down civilization on account of the injustices entailed by building it.
To start, let’s look at the world of Fury Road. The first Mad Max showed us a civilization in the midst of collapse: society was clearly breaking down, but people could stick their heads in the sand and pretend that it wasn’t happening. Later films dispensed with the pretense of civilization, providing instead a post-apocalyptic landscape and imaginative attempts to carve civilization out of the waste.
Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)—the bad guy—has made such an attempt. He controls a rock fortress called the Citadel, which can only be accessed by a mechanical elevator. On the top of the Citadel, where the ground has not been poisoned by radiation, Joe grows crops with which he feeds a substantial army of “warboys” and support staff. Joe also pumps water up from underground and maintains an impressive stock of armored vehicles. A great mass of people lives below the Citadel relying on Joe for sustenance and protection.
In order to more effectively provide this protection, Joe has subjugated two other territories: Gastown, which produces gas, and the Bullet Farm, which produces bullets. With the resources of these fiefs, Joe patrols a sizeable area, killing or enslaving anyone who wanders in uninvited—this is how Max (Tom Hardy) enters the story. Joe maintains his hold on the army by preaching a kind of warrior’s gospel: his troops revere him as a god who promises eternal life in Valhalla. However, Joe is old and so doesn’t ride with his troops very often. Instead, he has lieutenants like his son Rictus and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
All this is impressive enough, but Joe has other ambitions. Specifically, he wants an heir who is not genetically deficient. Radiation has not only poisoned the soil but also caused widespread mutations—Rictus, for instance, though incredibly strong, requires a life-support system strapped to his back and is also not the sharpest tool in the shed. Joe keeps a number of women as breeders and milk-producers, but their offspring are not good enough for him. In order to acquire an adequate heir, Joe has (presumably) purchased five flawless women who serve as his concubines.
These women plot with Furiosa to escape. Understandably, they resent Joe for enslaving them and want to raise their children (two of them being pregnant) in a more peaceful environment. Furiosa was kidnapped as a child (geography suggests that it was not by Joe) from an idyllic land called the Green Place, and she agrees to take Joe’s concubines there. The film centers on their escape attempt and Joe’s pursuit.
Max joins the women when he is brought along by one of Joe’s warboys Nux (Nicholas Hoult) but escapes. His skills at driving and fighting prove invaluable, but he never considers himself a part of the group. When they learn that the Green Place of Furiosa’s memory no longer exists and decide to ride into uncharted territory looking for somewhere to settle, Max initially declines to accompany them. He only goes after them when his conscience refused to allow him to let them die when he has the power to protect them. He convinces Furiosa to return to the Citadel, the one place where they know there is water and life.
Max and Furiosa are the only two characters with any kind of moral code—all the other characters are simply too shallow. They are mirror images of each other: Max is primarily a survivalist who is pulled by his conscience to help others; Furiosa is primarily compassionate, forced by circumstance to do harm to others.
Now consider each of these moral perspectives in the context of the world the characters live in. Max’s ethic makes a fair bit of sense: if you don’t do what you have to in order to survive, well, then you don’t. His conscience is a holdover from civilized times when the strong were supposed to protect the weak. Furiosa’s perspective comes out of her upbringing at the Green Place where violence was rare. When she was taken from her home, compassion was a luxury she could ill afford. Though forged by the world in which they live, they remember a lost paradise, and that memory influences their outlooks.
In his own way, Immortan Joe is in a similar situation, but he takes a decidedly different approach. He remembers the fallen civilization and tries to preserve it. He engages in settled agriculture, maintains physical capital, establishes religion, protects his community, and even works to mitigate the unquestionable genetic degradation of his people so that there will be future generations. In all of these endeavors except the last he is remarkably successful, fielding a large army and supporting the largest aggregation of people for hundreds of miles.
What makes Immortan Joe a villain is not that he maintains a measure of civilization but that he is apparently more free-handed with violence than with the benefits of civilization. He engages in slavery; he attacks people who simply wander into his territory; he withholds water from the people below him; he restricts immigration up to his fortress. All these things are supposed to feel wrong to us modern, Western viewers. Instead, we’re supposed to sympathize with Furiosa and company’s dream of escaping Joe’s tyranny. When the gang returns to the Citadel with Joe’s corpse strapped to the front of their car, there is much rejoicing as the crowd tears Joe’s corpse, the women carry people up to the fortress along with them, and the women already up top release water for the people below.
What we do not see is that the food supply is still meager, the people overuse the water and eventually run out, and a rival warlord seizes Gastown and the Bullet Farm and lays siege to the Citadel, killing or enslaving everyone he gets his hands on. The women’s dream of a better life for themselves and their children proves illusory. Max, understandably, doesn’t stick around to watch all this unfold.
The thing is, Immortan Joe’s dream is almost as illusory. Even if he rations the water, it will probably run out before too long; even if he has a couple children “perfect in every way,” they are unlikely to make it to adulthood or substantially improve the genetic stock of the whole population. There is no new territory he can conquer to increase agricultural production and expand his society’s population. In short, the world is dying, and Joe’s attempts at preserving civilization are ultimately in vain.
In a post-apocalyptic world, why should anyone bother with “civilization”? If building society means hurting people and not even providing long-term benefits, then humanitarian-moral calculus tells us that we should focus on being compassionate, adopting an ethic focused on helping those in need individually, rather than socially. The only other acceptable consideration is the one we can’t live without: survival. Max and Furiosa, survivalist pragmatism and humanitarian idealism: these two principles bookend the spectrum of what is “good.”
The dying world scenario is what makes this scheme plausible, but it really just throws into sharp relief elements of real life. Eventually, everything will die. You, your children, your children’s children, your society, your species, your very world will all turn into dust. Everything flows; nothing abides. The morality of the dying world must be the same as the morality of the living world. Therefore, we living today shouldn’t bother maintaining civilization, either.
The Leftist finds this proposal completely agreeable. Indeed, she already lives in the waste of a dying world—Western civilization—and she exults in its demise. Watch Furiosa overthrow Immortan Joe in the theater, then go outside and overthrow white supremacy, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and whatnot. Answering pesky questions like “what will happen to white people after their society has been ground into the earth?” is not on her to-do list because she doesn’t care what happens after.
So how should view this film? Should we identify with Immortan Joe rather than Max? Doesn’t the movie dramatize, indeed glorify, the overthrow of civilization in the name of humanitarianism while ignoring the consequences?
Yes, it does, but that’s not the point. There’s a very good reason that I had to explain the world and how it works in this article. It’s the same reason why the film doesn’t show the fallout from Immortan Joe’s defeat: the movie doesn’t care; all that’s just scenery. The story is about Max, his deeds, his journey. We should praise or blame the film based on how it portrays those things—which it does well—not its more ethereal implications.
Max is a masculine archetype, kin to the knight-errant of olden days: he is a wandering warrior with a personal code of honor and a sweet ride. What makes Max distinct is that instead of traversing a medieval kingdom he travels a wasteland. The knight wanders a civilized world, a world filled rules and authorities. His personal code does not run contrary to the order of civilization—he is not a barbarian—but he does have a streak of barbarism, a willingness to break the rules and defy authority, and his intervention can help people solve particular problems that have proven otherwise intractable. The knight-errant does not seek to destroy his society but to prick its feet and keep it from falling into complacency.
Max wanders the wasteland, a place where there is no civilization, no order. This is a low-trust setting, where no one really cares about anyone else. Narrow self-interest reigns alongside violence and terror. Max is a creature of this world, but he has a streak of civilization to him–the sense that you should care about people beyond yourself. He doesn’t care about the inherent dignity and rights of Man (and Woman … and Whatever); he doesn’t believe in compassion for compassion’s sake; he doesn’t so much as bat an eye at things like “law and order,” at least not anymore. It is only a little thing that distinguishes him from those around him, but that still allows him to save a few people from themselves.
(As an aside, if anyone claims that Mad Max is supposed to be a cautionary tale about overpopulation, nuclear war, and global warming, you can tell them that they’re missing the point. The futuristic realism of the setting is a conceit: in a future film, Max might be magically transported to Athas and that would change nothing of importance.)
Compare Max to another uncivilized hero near-and-dear to the hearts of many neoreactionaries: Conan the Cimmerian. Conan kills, rapes, and steals as the desire strikes him and prudence permits him; he has no respect for private property, law and order, or any authority beyond power. He has a barbaric code of honor that places great emphasis on personal ties and obligations, and while that code often makes him more admirable than his civilized antagonists, it is not sufficient to support a civilization.
Like Fury Road, the stories of Conan are straightforward action-adventures. We don’t read them for any kind of morality play but rather because we want to see a man facing adversity and triumphing through strength and cunning. When Conan strangles the tyrannical king of Aquilonia and seizes his throne, we are not supposed to take this as social commentary and definitely not supposed to go out and try our own hands at Hyborian rapine.
The value of Max and Conan, as well as heroes from James Bond to Luke Skywalker to Odysseus, is to exemplify various masculine virtues and to show us the great deeds that can be accomplished with them. Their stories inspire us to live out those same virtues; they teach us how to be men. This kind of instruction is badly needed these days.
Mad Max: Fury Road should be watched as an action-adventure film. There is no need for us to seek a deeper meaning to it. But if people want to see it as a morality play and to sing the praises of Furiosa, the strong, independent woman who still needs a man, we can explain how Joe was a benefactor to his people and that by destroying him, Furiosa has led them all to death and desolation. Normal people do not wish to live in the waste; they will recoil from these thoughts.
It’s just an action movie, you sick bastard! Sheesh!
After showing them that going forward leads to destruction and that survival requires taking society back to the place from whence we came, just walk away.