Mad Max Fury Road premiered in theaters this week, and critics are already hailing it as the action movie masterpiece of the decade. I can’t help but agree with them. The 4th Mad Max easily triumphs over other contemporary action films due to its distinctive look and feel. Most of the stunts are practical with a few CGI touchups, the film smoothly transitions from chase scene to chase scene, and the characters have an immense depth behind their ridiculous names and limited dialogue. Much has been made of the film’s feminist themes. The film unsubtly reminds us that women “are not things” and the climactic scene involves the two heroes, Max and Furiosa, teaming up with an all-woman motorcycle gang called the Vulvani to fight back against Immortan Joe and his War Boys, the apocalyptic patriarchy. Go see this film if you haven’t yet, it’s an amazing treat and the rare nerdy action movie that I’d seriously want to see win Oscars. After seeing it, come back and read this.
There’s one scene at the end of the film that stood out to me not for its amazing stunts or creative design, but for how quietly it bucks a Hollywood trend that’s always annoyed me. A dying Furiosa is saved by Max performing an emergency blood transfusion. After an entire movie of throwing people off cars and fighting the ghosts he could not save, Max saves a life. But that’s not what made the scene bold in my mind. What made it bold was that in other Hollywood action films, this would have been the kissing scene. Other action movies feel it necessary to give the male and female lead of a movie romantic chemistry, because it’s expected that when two leads of the opposite sex spend a significant time together, a romance together. I was worried it would go down that route when Max holds Furiosa close and tells her his name for the first time, but shortly after it fades to black and we’re at the Citadel, with Furiosa standing triumphant as the woman that took down (the patriarchy) Immortan Joe. I appreciated how the filmmakers didn’t cave into the expectation that these two needed to a romantic item. Rather, they’re two broken people in a broken world that respect each other.
Max and Furiosa make for a great team, though they don’t know it yet. They meet each other by circumstance; they’re both escaping from Immortan Joe, but Furiosa is the one with a specific destination in mind. Action movies like The Avengers often contrive situations for their heroes to fight each other before they team up. It’s an easy way to build tension, but the artificiality of it can be distracting. In the case of Max and Furiosa, it makes sense that they wouldn’t trust each other at first and try to kill each other. They live in a world where mercy gets one killed, and Furiosa can’t afford to jeopardize her mission to save the wives of Immortan Joe. Max is also not a great negotiator. He mostly just grunts and speaks in single words, hinting at just how mad he is. This half-man, half-animal doesn’t get along with others, and neither does the one-armed matriarchal Furiosa.
Yet as the film goes on, one gets the sense that these two are very similar despite coming from different societies. Both have lost an important family member, and are driven not only by the need to survive, but to be redeemed. Both are strong fighters, but have emotional and physical weaknesses, which make for compelling heroes. Actions speak louder than words, and their harsh stares and grunts have more character than a billion Joss Whedon quips.
This brings us to that pivotal scene where Max and Furiosa defy the expectations of Hollywood romance. Firstly, the film already had a decent romance in the form of redeemed war boy Nux and the red-haired and aptly-named Capable, so to have another developing romance would have been going overboard. Secondly, Furiosa and Max don’t see each other as sexual partners, but as comrades. It’s why the kiss scene in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, the main reason I was worried about them sharing a kiss at the end, didn’t work for me. There’s nothing wrong with two heroes developing romantic feelings for each other, but so many movies do it that feels more like an obligation than a natural part of the story. The main relationship of Edge of Tomorrow is of a mentor and student who become soldiers of equal strength. That kiss feels tacked on to an otherwise engaging male-female relationship that never felt all that romantic. Mad Max Fury Road is proof that movies don’t need to romantically pair leads if they have different genitals. The small moments like Max giving up his sniper rifle to Furiosa and using himself as a stable platform for her are more powerful than a tacked-on kiss. And honestly, with so many movies about two dudes kicking ass and never kissing, do we really need to be reminded how much culture favors heterosexuality?
Mad Max Fury Road deserves all the praise for its action and stuntwork, but beneath the skull-adorned hood, there’s a beating human heart. Rarely do action movies make you care for characters who speak so little this much. Future action filmmakers should be looking at how director George Miller makes combining feminist humanism with flamethrower-guitars and granny bikers look so easy.