Max Isn't Marginalized, Matriarchy Isn't Feminist
Mad Max Fury Road is one of the most consistently misinterpreted movies ever made
“Hey, you’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road. Modern classic, right? Isn’t it crazy how Furiosa totally replaces Max in a Mad Max movie? He doesn’t even do anything!” A very common interpretation of a great movie! Even the Honest Trailer of the film plays up the “Marginalized Max” angle. Too bad this vision of how the movie functions is just flat out, no doubt about it, objectively wrong. Not even close to right. Just inexplicably, inexcusably incorrect on its face.
In much the same way that “Indiana Jones doesn’t affect the plot in Raiders of the Lost Ark!” has become a standard-issue internet blowhard’s contrarian analysis of a great movie, the idea that Max doesn’t do anything in Fury Road is inescapable online - and unlike with Indy, this disrespect towards Max didn’t take decades to emerge but was part of the initial wave of reaction towards the film. Which is just weird! Without Max, Furiosa and the Five Wives don’t survive the initial flight from Immortan Joe and his War Boys. Max kills plenty of the latter, as well as many Rock Riders. There are three named evil sub-bosses in the movie: Rictus Erectus, the Bullet Farmer, and the People Eater; Max kills the latter two. He saves the lives of Furiosa and the wives time and again. He drives and fixes the War Rig. He saves Furiosa’s life literally with his own blood! And, in the single most important decision in the film - both narratively and thematically - he is the driving force, convincing the others not to attempt to flee to a better world that probably doesn’t exist but to turn around and fight for the current one. That is both the turning point of the movie’s story and the single most direct encapsulation of its message, and it’s all Max. It is totally unjustifiable to say that Max isn’t important in Fury Road, and yet it’s one of the most common things people “know” about the movie.
I suspect that so many people believing this rather than paying attention to what happens onscreen just demonstrates the power of people stating opinions with the right mix of confidence, insiderism, and against-the-grain posturing.
This bizarre plot misinterpretation wouldn’t both me so much if it didn’t also make such a hash of the film’s most essential themes. People saying that Furiosa replaces Max not only contradicts basic story moments but thoroughly confuses them about the movie’s message. It’s important to understand that Furiosa doesn’t replace Max because the entire movie demonstrates the failure of dictatorship and the superiority of communal leadership. It’s not about men being erased in deference to women; it would be totally bizarre for a movie with that intent to place so much agency in its male characters. (Nux’s sacrifice saves the lives of the remaining characters, to pick an obvious example.) It’s about the superiority of democracy and shared governance and diversity over the the whims of an individual autocrat - yes, a white and male autocrat, and not coincidentally. In his place we are shown a multigender, multiethnic community of equals, which is what progressive politics once aspired to, not Empress Furiosa. To say “Furiosa replaces Max” is to suggest that what the world needed was a different dictator, a more “diverse” dictator. But the movie rejects the idea of a female dictator. In what world is the female lead requiring the male lead to literally share his blood to save her life a portrait of matriarchal ascendance?
When Max has the rifle and gives it up to Furiosa because he knows she’s the better shot, this isn’t some sort of act of ritual suicide for masculinity. It’s the recognition that the next masculinity, the new masculinity, is unthreatened by the strengths and abilities of others. They are working together. She literally leans on him to shoot!
Feminism is not about women replacing men in an equally stratified and undemocratic structure as the patriarchy that preceded it; that’s a parody of feminism. Feminism is about equality, diversity, communalism, and radical democracy. Indeed, the movie models consensus and communal deliberation for us. When they stop and discuss whether to continue on the salt flats or turn back for the Citadel, Max and Furiosa do most of the talking, but everyone weighs in and is heard. Furiosa doesn’t lead by fiat. She listens and becomes convinced, as do the rest, and they all make a plan together. Max isn’t erased; he’s a valued and essential part of the whole, just as white men will be in the new world of democracy and equality we are building. “Dur dur dur Max is sidelined in his own movie lmao” is a perspective that stems from thinking that the world of Immortan Joes is the real world, the inevitable world - that white patriarchy is so constant and deeply entrenched that there is no alternative. But there is an alternative. Fury Road shows us that alternative: men and women working together as equals with shared goals and shared sacrifice to rebuild the world. That so many people have so badly misread such a vital and brilliant movie - and one that is so direct and uncomplicated in its essential themes - proves once again that the internet is a machine for making smart people believe stupid things.