One criticism levied at George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is that Max (Tom Hardy) himself is not a substantial enough part of the proceedings. What surprises me is that even among all of the discussion surrounding the film, I have not seen much talk of Max’s actual character arc. Sure, there have been nods to how it is cool to see a male character, especially one so associated with conventional masculinity, let the women take center stage in the movie but there has been very little attention paid to Max’s development over the course of the film. Make no mistake, the character of Max Rockatansky goes through a substantial change over the course of Fury Road and I want to spend some time going over exactly what that change is.
A lot has been said about the film’s feminist themes, given that the plot concerns a militia of women who declare “we are not things” before dismantling and replacing an oppressive patriarchy. The patriarchal regime in the film are a bunch of men that look like every aspect of conventional masculinity put into a blender. Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) troops drive gas guzzling custom cars, cherry pick aspects of viking culture like “Valhalla” and of course, they have a powerful need to be recognized by the alpha male. This is an oppressive regime that uses women as a means to an end while indulging their self serving male fantasies. When we talk about the patriarchy in the real world, we mean the social system that allows men to have primary power over women (this is a simple and crude explanation, since we are mainly here to talk about movies). Mad Max: Fury Road shows us just such a system, only cranked to 11 in true Mad Max fashion and exaggerated to fit into George Miller’s stylized world.
In terms of Max and his relationship to the patriarchy, the film says a lot without saying much at all. The physical placement of Max throughout the story tells us so much about how his character develops throughout the course of the film. When we first meet Max he is an isolated loner who is only concerned with surviving. This is no mistake, George Miller wants Max to start the film entirely separated from the conflict between Immortan Joe and Furiosa that will shortly occur. When Max is attacked by Joe’s men, he is captured and eventually mounted to Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) vehicle and used as a hood ornament and “blood bag”. The symbolism here is quite clear, Miller is showing us that even a man who thinks he is not part of some bigger system of men will eventually be consumed by that very system. Sure, he doesn’t become one of them but he is almost worse off. The passive man is a decoration on the hood of the patriarchy’s car. A man who will ignore inequality is still contributing the the blood flow of the patriarchal system of oppression.
Next, when Max is thrown from the vehicle he is still chained to Nux (here meaning that he is still chained to an instrument of the patriarchy). It is at this point that Max encounters Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the other women trying to break free of Immortan Joe’s oppression. The state of Max is very important in this scene. He is chained to Nux with a metal contraption locked onto his face (put there by Joe’s men no less). Miller is very intentionally putting Max, through no other means than his own passivity, in a situation where he cannot communicate with the film’s women* or shake the baggage of Immortan Joe’s regime. What follows is a widely criticized shot of all of the women, scantily clad, hosing each other off. The shot is criticized for sexualizing these women in such a way as to potentially undermine the feminist themes of the movie. However, what is often left out in discussion of this shot is that it is from Max’s point of view. Furthermore, this is how he sees the women while still chained to an instrument of the patriarchy. He sees them as objects because he has not yet learned what he will learn over the course of the film.
Max and Furiosa both have the goal of redeeming themselves over the course of the movie. They have both failed people in their lives, Furiosa failed the women she helped oppress and Max failed the people he could not protect. At first this looks like these characters are made to be in synergy with each other. Max will protect the women of the film (so he can fulfill the masculine role of protector once again) and Furiosa saves the women and redeems herself. Yet only one of those actually comes to pass. Furiosa kills her patriarchal oppressor and halts the reign of Immortan Joe. On the other hand, Max does not get to become a protector in the strictest sense. I don’t want to undercut his contribution to Furiosa’s journey. Max is an incredibly useful ally that the women of the film partner up with but seldom does he do anything over and above just being a member of the team. He doesn’t have any giant hero moments and there is never a scene where it is evident to the viewer that the women of the film would have failed if not for Max’s presence. This is particularly clear when we see the scene in which Max fails to make an accurate sniper shot and passes the rifle to Furiosa. In fact, the sole moment in the plot in which Max seems crucial to Furiosa’s cause is when he supports her and encourages her to go back to Immortan Joe’s castle.
The final scene of the movie features Max learning the lesson that the audience learned over the course of the movie. The lesson is that this is not his story. He has broken the chain that tethered him to the patriarchy, he has seen said patriarchy supplanted and now he has to leave because the film itself is no longer focused on its male characters. It is at this point that we get another POV shot of Max looking at Furiosa which is essentially a reversal of the earlier POV shot in which Max objectified the women. Max sees them for the people that they are and that is why he knows they don’t need his help. Max starts the film as someone plagued by hallucinations of all of the people he has failed to help and ends the film as someone content to drop the reins and let people he cares about be responsible for themselves.
* I wanted to come up with something better than “the film’s women” to call all of the women who escape Immortan Joe’s castle. I didn’t want to call them Joe’s wives because that seemed very much to be against the spirit of the movie (Joe shouldn’t define them!). In the end I couldn’t get The Furiosa Five out of my head and as much as I would like that to catch, I decided against it. I may or may not be tempted to change that later.