Earlier this year, I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, mainly because everybody else was. I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I came away distinctly underwhelmed. I also wrote a review that, in retrospect, is also quite underwhelming. I clearly didn’t get it.
At the same time, writers I admire were singing its praises. Freddie deBoer, for example, called it “a character-driven, intelligent, action-packed, well-developed, romantic, genuinely epic blockbuster film that doesn’t insult its audience or play down to low expectations, a story with high dramatic stakes that are fully earned and an ending that is deeply satisfying and ultimately positive, achieved with real sacrifice.” Chauncey DeVega almost broke his leg getting to the movie theater. He still came away thinking that it was “more amazing and wonderful than even the commercials hinted at.”
So I decided to give Mad Max: Fury Road a second look. The opening, where Max is kidnapped and turned into a living “blood bag” by Immortan Joe’s greatly impressed me. When I saw Imperator Furiosa I began to feel stupid. Charlize Theron is an excellent actress who projects the right combination of strength and vulnerability to make her an almost perfect female action hero. When the film got to the point where Max decides to form an alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s “breeders,” I was ready to admit I had been wrong, that Mad Max: Fury Road is a legitimately great movie.
But then I looked at the time. There was over an hour left to go. As I watched car chase after car chase, my opinion of the film went down. I also began to zone out. I just couldn’t stay with it. My fingers began to wander along with my mind. I checked out the traffic on my blog, got into a debate on Twitter about the Civilian Conservation Corps, and looked up some of the characters on Wikipedia. I thought the tall blond, “breeder” looked familiar. It was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the Victoria’s Secret model. In my first review, I had called the breeders “a multi-racial harem of underwear models.” I was right. One of them actually was an underwear model. More importantly, they were all wearing underwear. By the end of Mad Max: Fury Road, I had lost the plot entirely. I know that Furiosa kills Immortan Joe. Then she, Max, and the breeders bring back his corpse to the citadel at skull mountain, where they let his slaves know they’re all free. Max and Furiosa exchange soulful glances before he disappears into the crowd, but I still felt confused and unsatisfied. Intellectually, I understood Mad Max: Fury Road. Emotionally, it left me cold.
In the end, I came to the same conclusion I did in my first review. Mad Max: Fury Road was a good idea ruined by lousy execution. So why did Chauncey DeVega and Freddie deBoer like it so much? Both of them are smart, independent thinkers unlikely to write glowing reviews about a bad movie simply to go along with the crowd. It’s not often that I’m so bored by a movie everybody else rates as one of the ten best films of the year. A gap in perception this wide is a gift that shouldn’t be passed over lightly. Thinking about it lets you ask questions like “what is the purpose of mass culture? Who watches big-budget action movies and why? Can a fundamentally reactionary art form like the Hollywood blockbuster be enlisted in the service of a progressive cause like feminism?”
Mad Max: Fury Road was made with a budget of $150 million. That kind of money allows a director like George Miller to spend a lot of money on set design, stunt people, car chases that don’t depend on cgi, and to hire a good cast of A-list actors like Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. But it also comes with a price. Anybody who can secure $150 million in funding for a film has to come up with a marketing strategy. My guess is that George Miller came to his investors with a plan that looked something like this. Even though Mad Max: Fury Road will be completely different from the The Mad Max franchise that enjoyed great success in the 1980s — The original Mad Max cost about $350,000 and made over $100 million — it’s worth keeping the name “Mad Max.” That will bring in both middle-aged men, who remember the film from their childhood, and their kids, who grew up listening to their parents talk about it. Mel Gibson is far too old to play Max Rockatansky, but Tom Hardy, who is a geek superstar by virtue of his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is, at 35, just about the right age.
Mad Max: Fury Road has car chases, explosions, women in lingerie, and a character that looked a bit like he belonged on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. It has a strong female heroine, and a feminist message. In other words, the script has something for everybody. It could also be fine tuned to let it be marketed on the Internet. It worked better than George Miller, or anybody, could have expected. First of all, some of the very men the car chases and underwear models were supposed to appeal to rebelled. MRAs (Mens Rights Activists) hated Mad Max: Fury Road so much they mounted a campaign against it on social media. None of that, of course, would stop men from seeing a big-budget, widely distributed film that was in every multiplex and discussed on every Facebook page. What’s more, Charlize Theron’s strong performance as an action heroine resonated with women, especially with with younger women in their 20s who grew up with a geek culture that often excluded them. For left-wing men in their 30s like Freddie deBoer and Chauncey DeVega Mad Max:Fury Road was a dream come true. DeBoer, a frequent critic of identity politics, and often labeled a “brocialist” by his political opponents, had found a feminist movie he could love with all his heart. DeVega, in turn, is a black Democrat who despises the white supremacist politics at the heart of the Men’s Rights Movement. He’s also a long time aficionado of geek culture, of professional wrestling and action movies. Mad Max:Fury Road was a very successful, lavishly funded production within a genre he had been following for years that pissed off racist assholes he hated.
None of this, however, explains why I didn’t like it. What are the reasons? Is it because I’m a sexist? That’s possible, but my being a sexist didn’t stop me from enjoying a low-budget feminist classic like Born in Flames or a newer feminist movies Australian desert, like Tracks, which was also, interestingly enough, set in the Australian desert. Is it that I’ve simply never been a fan of geek culture, of comic books, graphic novels, and action movies, all of which Mad Max: Fury Road draws from. That probably hits closer to home. Mad Max hit home with DeVega and deBoer partly, I think, because it was a radical departure from the post-1980s action film. They could appreciate a film that broke the rules of the genre because they knew the rules of the genre. By contrast, I compared Mad Max: Fury Road to classic action films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear or Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings. For me, Mad Max: Fury Road broke rules I consider essential for a good movie. There was, for example, no sense of physical vulnerability. People fall off trucks traveling at 100-mph and don’t break their necks. Pale skinned women like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley wander around in the middle of the Australian desert and don’t get sunburned. Max Rockatansky gets strapped to the front fender of a hot road as a living “blood bag” and yet still seems as strong as an Olympic athlete after he escapes. There’s a shortage of food and water. Yet Immortan Joe’s “war boys” seem almost as invulnerable as human cockroaches. Compared to the scenes in Wages of Fear where Charles Vanel gets trapped in a puddle of oil beneath a moving truck it all seemed vaguely cartoonish. But that was also the point. Mad Max: Fury Road was marketed to fans of graphic novels, not Henri-Georges Clouzot movies.
I also think there’s one other reason why I couldn’t enjoy Mad Max: Fury Road. In his pod cast, Chauncey DeVega talks about going to see a film as a “communal experience.” The fact that he almost broke his leg on the way to the theater probably made the bump and grind of a cinematic car chase that much more realistic. By contrast, I usually watch movies at home on my Dell 24” monitor. Streaming a movie off of Amazon can’t quite compete with seeing it at the multiplex. The small screen privileges narrative over action, quiet moments over car crashes and explosions. Part of the fun of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen in the middle of a crowd of drunken frat boys was probably seeing so much loud, aggressive male energy subverted by a feminist screenplay. Film makers rarely spend $150 million to put their movie on a computer screen. If I didn’t understand what all the fuss about Mad Max: Fury Road was, then it may simply be that I was looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Next time, I’ll just have to turn it around.