Mad Max: Fury Road is a miracle of a movie. From its jaw-dropping physical stunts to its thought-provoking themes, the latest installment of the four-decade franchise deserves its near-perfect critical reception.
But if you wanted a needlessly contrarian hot take on why the feminist blockbuster is just so problematic, you can head over to Jacobin, where clueless reviewer Stephen Maher will explain to you why it is racist, misogynist and counter-revolutionary.
Maher’s hot take is a profound misreading of virtually every theme in the film – including those so obvious that a viewer might get the feeling that director George Miller was intentionally slapping his audience in the face with them. (Note: This response will probably not make sense unless you’ve seen the movie.)
There are clearly elements of Mad Max: Fury Road that deserve critique. It has an unhealthy view of guns, explosions and violence as desirable necessities of social change. It suggests that our world is fundamentally broken, rather than simply being headed down that dark path. It sometimes offers a simplistic and naturalistic view of sex and gender, typecasting women as eternally resilient and wise sages and masculine men as crazed bigots. Other than Imperator Furiosa, whose rebellion against post-apocalyptic dictator Immortan Joe launches the film, not a single woman is portrayed as complicit in Joe’s regime.
Finally, there’s the fact that in this post-modern Australia, there are no Aboriginal people, even though they would probably thrive in the Outback setting of the film. (If they were exterminated during whatever catastrophe ended most of the world, that should probably warrant at least a line of dialogue.)
Maher misses all of these potential critiques, instead offering a lazy analysis that says more about the reviewer than the film. In the worst example, Maher harshly condemns Miller for relying on the “cringe-worthy exploitation of disabled actors,” suggesting that the director plays up their “utter grotesqueness” as a cheap plot trick.
But at the beginning of the film, Max tells us that “As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken.” Rather than dwell on that outwardly imposed brokenness, Miller’s movie asks us to consider the ways in which peoples’ choices and actions define them rather than uncontrollable aspects of their situation.
In fact, the film portrays cruel exploitation of disability as a key component of Immortan Joe’s regime. The sickly War Boys, poisoned by radiation, serve him to escape their own mortality. The supposed “grotesqueness” of the peasants that linger at the base of Joe’s citadel pales in comparison to their cruel leader’s moral depravity.
Then there’s the fact that Maher seems overtly disgusted by the disabled people he is supposedly defending. He does the same when talking about the film’s portrayal of women, dismissing Charlize Theron’s Furiosa as “almost the equal” of Tom Hardy’s Max.
Maher also blurs all issues of race and ethnicity into an indistinguishable blob of “Orientalism,” which he incorrectly defines as something to do with the stereotyping of supposedly tribal “Others”:
In Fury Road, on the other hand, modernity is the antidote to the rise of barbarism in the face of severe ecological crisis. In this Mad Max, barbarism is not associated with industrialization, capitalism, or the failure of modernity, but rather with pre-modern, “traditional,” patriarchal society. Despite the film’s setting in an ecological wasteland wrought by capitalist modernity, Fury Road presents the Western conception of modernity, rationality, and individuality as the only alternative to the uncivilized Other.
The film maps Huntington’s civilizational conflict onto the classical Hollywood archetype of the lone hero, albeit with a distinctly neoliberal hue. With the collapse of society, our only hope resides in the individual, and modernity can only be preserved when the hero defeats an Eastern Other that is irreconcilably in conflict with enlightened liberal values.
But there’s a huge problem with this analysis: It’s just wrong. Maher can’t even seem to decide what kind of uncivilized “Other” the Western world is triumphantly destroying in this movie, vacillating between native peoples and Muslims and “Eastern” cultures and even the fictional criminals murdered by Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.
In reality, Miller’s magnum opus deserves a lot more credit. It is not about the “Other” that threatens to destroy us. It is a movie about how we are destroying ourselves.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film that Jacobin should be raving over. It’s a movie about a world destroyed by, yet still ruled over, the hubristic Western ways of thinking that Maher is ranting about. It’s a movie that gives more than a cursory critique of the way that supposedly modern economic and social arrangements can reduce people to things.
These are economic themes so clear that Miller might have well have inserted an interlude in which Furiosa and Max debate the finer points of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Maher’s argument that the movie “obscures the political and economic basis of environmental destruction” not just laughable but factually wrong.
When Mad Max: Fury Road asks “Who killed the world?”, only the lazy, stupid or both could read it as a rhetorical question. Miller’s film offers concrete answers in the form of the villainous triumvirate that rules the wastelands. First is the Immortan himself, a figure of irrational excess and unchecked ego. His rule is that of decadence, brutal inequality and the self-serving mythology of dictators as old as human history itself: “It is by my hand, you will rise.”
But he is no petty tribal chieftain. Immortan Joe persists as a living corpse quite literally kept alive by the machines of the old world. Encased in a grotesque shell of molded plastic and animal teeth apparently designed to belie his lesion-riddled body, he not only breathes through an archaic mechanical respirator but projects his power via a fleet of repurposed, salvaged cars. His military dominion is propped up by his Citadel’s monopolistic control of precious resources – water, milk and blood.
Through the Immortan, Western imperialism thrives on its own ruin.
Also on hand are the two other pillars of his empire, both of which are twisted remnants of the vulture institutions that preceded them. Look at the People Eater, a sniveling fossil-fuel tycoon who probably gets his name not from literal cannibalism but the corporate greed he represents. He is hedonism incarnate, complete with nipple rings and gout. The Bullet Farmer provides the military means necessary to keep the Immortan’s downtrodden masses downtrodden. He completes this world-killing trifecta as an avatar of vicious and self-righteous militarism, proclaiming himself the embodiment of virtue as he shoots his way to his own doom.
“Who killed the world?” Power-hungry egotism, rampant greed and cultish militarism – the agents of the capitalist Western world that Maher seems to think Fury Road is somehow championing.
But it was also men. Specifically how men never, ever seem to learn any lessons that stick from their own ruinous failures to reshape the world in their own image.
Ironically, Maher’s review falls into this same trap. Rather than acknowledge Mad Max: Fury Road as an ideologically challenging film that mirrors many of the same criticisms Marxism offers of patriarchal capitalism, Maher instead goes out of his way to attempt to slam round pegs into square holes with a crude ideological cudgel.
It’s the ultimate circlejerk. Here is a male leftist belaboredly explaining to Jacobin’s male leftist audience about how a feminist movie is so problematic, assuming the tired position of a vanguard Marxist who speaks for the oppressed but always seems vaguely disdainful of them.
I don’t have a problem with Marxists (I happen to be one myself). But no one will make the Marxist movie Maher wants to see, because no one is going to film Maher talking into a mirror for two hours.