Well, Fury Road is pretty exciting, huh? No really. In a whole bunch of cultural ways, it’s pretty goddamn exciting. Its female protagonist Furiosa, played by the frighteningly brilliant Charlize Theron, is entirely as amazing as the pretend titular ‘lead’, Max (Tom Hardy). Her hopes, fears, dreams, plans, actions and ideas form the entire plot (she’s even in the centre of the poster) and at no point does the plot awkwardly require her to make out with Max. They work together and make each other better; they are equally skilled and share aaaaall the screen time. She’s fit and brutal and an agent of her own destiny. In the wake of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaigns, representations of women who aren’t afraid to get dirty are insanely important.
If you’ve ever sat through an action film silently screaming ‘But why doesn’t she help??’, you should be pretty psyched about these stories doing well. It’s about embracing characters that make sense, who realistically could have survived in this world, who you would totally want on your team during the apocalypse, regardless of which genitals they have. Fury Road may be ushering in a new era: the era of the female action film character who doesn’t fall over all the time. Or fall for the guy.
Fury Road is a pleasing representation of modern feminism: men and women fighting together with mutual respect and differences defined by their individual choices, backgrounds and characteristics against a big angry symbol of the white patriarchy. Furiosa is not particularly maternal or interested in the safety of the slaves she is transporting just because she is a woman, but because she is a human with a heart, and in her own experience has seen the damage this bad guy has done. Max is traumatised by his past but, often driven by his own paternal muscle memory, he recognises the validity of Furiosa’s cause and her strength as an ally and aligns himself with her. It’s awesome.
What Furiosa really does well is illustrate that the old argument “Women just aren’t as strong as men” simply doesn’t cut it any more. When Max and Furiosa don’t get off on the right foot, there’s no nobility – it’s a scrappy brutal fight that Max only wins with the help of Nux (Nicholas Hoult). He doesn’t hold back or “hilariously” underestimate her because she’s a woman, and that’s great to see – survivors don’t hold back. Action fighting is as much about skill and ingenuity as brute strength; from Bond to Gladiator to Terminator, we’ve always known that. When Jaws pinned Bond (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) to the wall, no one started wondering whether Jaws shouldn’t really be the lead, seeing as James’ body is clearly more suited to carrying babies around and cooking than fighting. It’s a big and pleasing step to see in action choreography.
Furiosa is also ‘disabled’, with an amputated arm. In this way, Fury Road posed the most perfect question – aren’t we all? Is Max’s mental disability any less a handicap than Furiosa’s arm during the action? Or Nux’s cancer and blood disease? Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and Fury Road affords disabled characters the value and respect they deserve. Furiosa’s prosthetic is also a major site of interest; with a little ingenuity, she has made her handicap redundant – it illustrates the way intelligent humans adapt. The audience’s prejudice is a bigger obstacle than the physical one she has overcome. As an audience, it reminds us that in a modern world of CG and VFX, there is literally nothing a character can’t do once a writer/director has envisioned it. Nothing Furiosa does is any less realistic than John McClane jumping off that roof in Die Hard, and real generalised prejudices have no basis in what these characters are capable of. If you can build it, we will buy it.
But does it hail the start of a new feminist era of action cinema? Is it evidence that the execs are finally listening to the song of box office sales, to the sound of audiences paying to see an action film, which just so happens to be gender-equal, and loving it? For certain, it’s a positive step, another tick in the ‘win’ column, and with films like Everly opening this weekend (starring Salma Hayek as a prostitute who betrays a mob boss and must face down the hoards of hit men sent after her and her family), the new all-female Ghostbusters and (potentially, depending on how they treat Sarah Connor) Terminator Genysis, there seem to be plenty of powerful female-led action films in the works. Jennifer Lawrence smashed expectations with the Hunger Games series, and other action heavy teen dystopian fictions are following thick and fast with female leads fighting for their lives.
Fury Road is first and foremost a fantastic film, hands down, with great characterisation and structure. It is not proof that every gender-equal film is going to automatically be as successful or as incredible, or that every female-led action film is going to be phenomenal, but it is proof that great scripts bother to flesh out all their characters and don’t rely on stereotypes. Regardless of gender, it’s incredibly difficult to connect with or be moved by a stereotype; they don’t ring true and they alienate the people they are supposed to be representing, and those people take their money elsewhere.
Frankly, while the cultural significance is huge, it may be time that filmmakers recognised the money that is there to be made. The film industry is only targeting half the market with men, and even then they’re only hitting the fraction that hasn’t spoken to real humans in a while and would rather be reduced to a calming stereotype themselves. Film feminism is not about sacrificing financial gain for the sake of social responsibility but about realising that the film industry is serving other industries – fashion mostly – by shaming people for not fitting a certain mould. Cinema audiences want to see good films with characters that aren’t restricted by arbitrary gender characteristics, and some of the very best action films – and franchises (Alien, Kill Bill, Terminator… ) – have proved that feminist action worlds make moolah.
The thing about Fury Road, though, what makes it almost unique, is that Max doesn’t give a damn that Furiosa is a woman. He doesn’t assume she’s good or bad at anything and he won’t assume he’s better or worse. He takes her as she comes, and she comes with power and skill that he needs in an ally. He doesn’t care whether she’s hot or not, he just cares how good a shot she is. Fury Road may mean a lot for female action heroes, but what it really signals is the rise of the feminist action hero: men who don’t have time for the fragility of masculinity, and women who are too busy blowing up the bad guys to worry about being a lady.