Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
Several Heroic Acts, One True Hero: Why Mad Max is Not the Hero of Mad Max Fury Road
Does a hero save the day? And is that what makes him a hero? What about the villain – could it be his unusual worldview that makes him so villainous? A take on the myriad notions of heroes and villains that jump out from the screen and mess with our heads, as we get sucked into the mad world of Mad Max: Fury Road, as envisioned and executed by its director George Miller.
Sweeping up quite a few of the interesting awards at this year’s Oscars – and with good reason – Mad Max: Fury Road could be called a hardcore action movie, an apocalyptic vision, cult action-adventure, a trippy thriller, even a road trip flick, depending on who the viewer is.
But there is a singular point of convergence for all these points of view: The movie is nothing if not a brilliant study in heroism. It offers us a spectrum that no amounts of sequels and prequels of superhero movies can compete with. And no matter how much Hollywood wants us to believe, in that bass-heavy voice-over, that The Day After Tomorrow is actually coming, tomorrow and turn the unlikely, unpopular geek into a hero.
In the archetypal superhero flicks – with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman – we’re invariably presented with a limited view of heroism and what a hero is all about. We’re also given a villain, a character hamming pure evil in case we were ever feeling confused who to side for, as the movies play out CGI-aided tricks. While in the case of popcorn-friendly apocalypse cinema, we’re left with a lesson in morality or climate change or in true American spirit, valuing your nation’s worth. Or, ideally, all of them bundled up together.
Mad Max: Fury Road is for connoisseurs of heroes and villains. It dives head-first right into the heart of the throbbing action to spell out what this business of heroism is all about, in the form of its characters. Starting with the eponymous “hero…”
‘Fool!’, Furiosa bellows before lunging behind the War Rig, which roars off, even as she pursues it to clamber back on, amidst a flurry of bikers and bombs.
In a quiet moment prior to this one – quiet moments in this movie are almost always the proverbial lull before the storm and very rare, preciously memorable hence – Max Rockatansky, on being asked what his name is, had refrained from answering. ‘Does it matter?’, he’d responded back, in that half-surly-half-incoherent manner that Tom Hardy has perfected as part of his acting arsenal. To which Imperator Furiosa, who doesn’t trust him yet and is still peeved at having to share this impossible mission with a half-surly-half-incoherent prisoner of the Citadel, the “city” she has left behind in search of a better one, has a shrug of a comeback. She has no time for this answering a question with a question nonsense. ‘Fine. When I say ‘fool’…’, she says, semi-mockingly, ‘you drive out of here as fast as you can….’
And so fool becomes Max’s cue as they slowly drive into the canyon where Furiosa had been promised ‘a safe passage’, which didn’t go according to plan.
It’s a small detail and one that could go unnoticed especially in a first viewing of this insanely intense film, but it’s a deliberate detail, calling Max a ‘fool’, and as everything else in auteur George Miller’s world, it has a reason. Because it makes you ask questions – Is Max a hero or just a fool? Could he be both? And there’s Mel Gibson baggage too, because if he’s been playing Max all this while, then he’s got to be a hero!
The opening scene of Mad Max: Fury Road and those that follow immediately, especially Max’s daring escape feat – shot such that you know he’s tried this a million times before – can trick you, almost comfortably, into viewing Max as the hero. Presenting as they do a Max who can’t be anything but mad in a post-apocalyptic universe, we’re pulled inside the innards of a planet that has gone beyond water wars, where petrol (or ‘guzzoline’ as it’s referred to) is up for trade for maybe a pint of genuine Mother’s Milk, and human beings have been reduced down to their basic functionalities as ‘Breeders’, ‘Blood Bags’, ‘Warriors’ etc. But here’s the burly Max looking to run away from it all – not to rescue the other prisoners, kill the War Lord, take over the Citadel, or anything epic like that, no. We meet Max as a Blood Bag – strapped up to the War Boys who as ‘half-lives’ inflicted with something or the other cancerous in this infected world, need healthy blood to be on the frontlines. And that’s who Max truly is – nothing more than a Blood Bag on the run – all red-hot wrath. Surely, no hero.
If it’s planet-saving badass we’re looking for, then there is one very obvious choice the film gives us, and not least because she’s played by the indomitable Charlize Theron. Almost half the critics of the world, if not all of them, have admired the movie for Furiosa and Theron – most thought she owned it, and have only offered feminist readings of the movie even as they’ve griped about the sexism of the Academy Award panel that didn’t consider her worthy enough to be nominated. It’s a perfectly legitimate grouse to nurse – More fury to Furiosa, and more power to Charlize. As one of Immortan Joe’s prime soldiers and leaders, Furiosa takes a huge risk when she makes a bid for an escape, to a childhood she remembers as ‘The Green Place’ and turns rogue when sent forth on a supply run into the wasteland. That’s hero material, especially as we can see she’s also sneaking out the Warlord’s prized breeders, his five wives who are looking for a life away from slavery and rape.
I’d still, notwithstanding invoking the possible ire of feminists, peg Furiosa at a super-strong character who often performs immensely heroic acts. But is not necessarily a hero.
Among the contenders for that position are the wives themselves – again much ink has been spent on them in feminist interpretations of the movie, and again, it holds true. In a world ruled by the tyrant Immortan Joe, who controls everything and everyone – viewing human beings as resources – if you’re a healthy female of a certain age, your fate is sealed as a Breeder. In Joe’s increasingly desperate quest to father the perfect male child shorn of deformities, as a Breeder, you’re nothing but a receptacle for him to impregnate. Tired of being reduced to their wombs – “We are not things” – they make a run for it with Furiosa. Insulated from the wasteland in every way possible, simply stepping out of the harem and into the War Rig would have taken a lot of will, making this heroic act one of daunting courage.
And as the film proceeds, the wives do so much more: they gain strength and confidence, each one of them part of the spectrum of bravery, evolve in their own way. Even as one, Angharad the Splendid, is on the verge of labour. Not one soul can forget the moment when she steps in the line of fire so Joe can’t shoot at Furiosa, her pregnant belly and her steely glare daring the dangerous warlord. Or the moment when The Dag sighs, holding her stomach and says, ‘It’s going to be an ugly boy’, to which The Keeper of the Seeds, a member of the Vuvalini clan, pats back, ‘It could be a girl.’
As we watch them, prying open their chastity belts and offering each other advice and support, we’re reminded of how the actresses went through extensive workshopping with acclaimed feminist writer Eve Ensler, most well-known for The Vagina Monologues, to play the wives to their full potential. It’s a process that shines forth undoubtedly and lends them all heroic traits. Even the virginal Cheedo the Fragile, the ‘baby’ of the group, has worked herself up by the time we reach that rush of a climax: She tricks the frightening Rictus Erectus using her so-called vulnerability as a weapon, ensuring Furiosa a bridge to Joe’s vehicle, so she can finally kill the villain.
If the wives had Ensler mentoring them, the War Boys had ex-army generals and commanders – in Miller’s frame of things, those are counterparts to each other; with their jobs well-done, the players are ensured as strong characters. Because who’s to say the War Boys are any less heroic? They spend all their time in the Citadel, Joe’s piece of the wasteland, prepping themselves up for wars they will one day fight.
If the Wives look upon The Green Place as a distant vision of hope, for the War Boys, it is Valhalla. They are no different in that sense from the Wives, entrapped by their bodies just like them, only theirs are diseased. Inculcated into the cult of the Immortan, they look upon him as the ultimate saviour, and are desperately looking forward to sacrificing their lives on the Fury Road, so they can die in full glory for a cause. All ‘shiny and chrome’, they call out to each other – ‘Witness Me’ – as they leap, plunge, drive towards their deaths.
Since Mad Max is about a world gone askew, a skewed vision comes handy – one that belongs to a hero too, but we’re just more used to calling him a villain.
If we hark back to any of the classic villains, be they literary or from pop culture, you’ll find each of them the uncontested hero of their own stories. They’re unforgettable precisely because you can never deny them their acts of heroism. Think Voldemort, or Uriah Heep – self-made men of great power, ambition, charisma, and the drive to make things happen, all the markings of a great hero. If the writer had tweaked the narrative just a wee bit, we’d be more sympathetic to the struggles of an ambitious man struggling against rigid Victorian class divides. And we’d definitely see the exceptional talent of a wizard out to prove himself, had our perspective not been so coloured with viewing the wizard of average talents as The Chosen One.
Immortan Joe, the villain of Mad Max: Fury Road, is also a hero from another story – the one in which the world collapsed, vegetation and water vanished, disease spread, and along came an ex-Army General putting his brilliant knack of making the chaos work to great use. And in the process, creating a new world order. It might be one that suits him best, but who else from our spectrum could claim to do that? For all her grit and toughness, Furiosa ultimately cherishes an unreal nostalgia for a place that cannot possibly exist: When she finally confronts that fact, she breaks down and makes hasty, romantic decisions like driving till their fuel ends – in the wrong direction.
Max, as we’ve seen already, would be the first one out of the mess – strategizing and negotiating with the other bigwigs of this apocalyptic universe, The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer, would clearly not be his areas of expertise.
It could only have been the great Immortan Joe, unshakeable in the face of impossible challenges and frightening precisely because of that superhuman quality. George Miller had once said in an interview, ‘Today’s tyrant is yesterday’s hero’ – and even though he was referring to Aunty Entity (portrayed by Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, 1985), you could say the same of Immortan Joe. He who made a way of life functional, no matter how dreary and self-serving it was. In a world that’s all fire and blood, it makes utilitarian sense to strip people down to their very essences and label them Blood Bags, Breeders, Milk Mothers.
When you’re killing for guzzoline and Aqua Cola (what we once knew as water), you need new rules and you need nothing short of a force of nature at the helm of things, in control, ensuring that they’re being implemented. And hence the legends that you carefully construct around you – Immortan Joe stole the sun, dying for Immortan Joe brings you closer to eternal heaven in the after-life. It’s a familiar trope of myth-making, because when there’s absolutely zilch to look forward to in our lives on this earth, the beyond beckons us with incomparable delight.
Who then is the hero of Mad Max? Is there even a hero? Are we meant to just go back home with all these mind-boggling shades of heroism showcased for us, via unbelievable camera work, phenomenal sans-CGI action sequences with polecats and bikers, all the whizzing insanity?
When in doubt, turn to Joseph Campbell – who tells us that ‘the modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul’ (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). When you look at it from that perspective, there is only one true hero that emerges from amidst the chaos of Mad Max – it is without a doubt, Nux. Portrayed brilliantly by Nicholas Hoult, Nux is the one Campbell would approve of. He’s the only one doing arc – and what an arc! Armed with nothing but an overpowering sense of loyalty towards Joe, he drives into the sandstorm with gleeful abandon screaming, ‘What a lovely day!’ – arguably the best line of the movie given to him – knowing only too well that he would, in all likelihood, not survive said lovely day.
Illustration by Kritika Trehan (artist’s website link)
The Nux we meet initially is the pitiful War Boy who’s too weak to fight and hence not enlisted to join Joe’s army on the Fury Road, who’re all revving up to chase Furiosa gone rogue. But for Nux, the Fury Road is not just a road, it is means to salvation – dying a martyr for Joe and entering Valhalla, is all he’s longed for his entire miserable life. He decides to pump his weak blood streams with Max’s mad blood and unleashes what’s left of himself onto the Fury Road, convinced of capturing Furiosa and bringing her back to his lord. Flawed even as a War Boy, this is a heroic decision.
But he’s one of many at this point, he could easily blend into the sea of War Boys that overflow the screen, and we could mistake him for just another crazed volunteer who has been systematically brainwashed, much like the foot soldier in a militant operation. But Nux soon cleaves his self off from the mob, marking himself as special, as he hatches a solo plan that scales ambitious peaks even Furiosa would marvel at. All this while, Nux is devoted to Joe, of course, and so everything he does is a mark of his loyalty. When he helps Max to fight Furiosa, he believes he’s doing it to trap her and the Wives – and fantasizes about bringing them all back to the Citadel. When he holds onto a scrap of white cloth torn off from one of the Wives, he believes it gives him special status in the eyes of Joe. And when, personally plodded on by Joe himself, he attempts to shank Furiosa, he knows he is overshooting himself, and yet he attempts it only to fail miserably.
When the hero faces the ultimate rejection, he is disappointed and confused, and it is only through sheer strength of character that he manages to rise above it. And so it is with Nux. Unable to comprehend that his Lord can reject him in less than a fraction of a second with the mere insult ‘mediocre’, Nux recedes into darkness. Dejected, he ponders over the meaning of it all – he sits hidden at the back of the Rig and mulls over the purpose of his existence. On the other side of the crisis lies heroic breakthrough. In an internal monologue that the viewers are never privy to, but can only imagine, Nux crosses over to fight the good fight. He hears of hope and redemption and struggles to grapple with these concepts that are brand new to his limited imagination – as a War Boy, you are never introduced to them – concepts that begin to ring truer to him than the airy-fairy story of the gates of Valhalla. He does not know if he has the ability, but he knows that he will try, he must. War Boys have grown up only around machines and Nux makes this his skill – he makes himself useful as a fixer of the War Rig, he comes up with ideas when they’re all stuck, literally (One of the most poignant moments of the movie is when he tells Max how they can pull out the Rig from the marsh with the help of ‘that thing’, which is a tree).
Nux has a lot to lose – he knows that as a ‘traitor’, he will have no place in a system lorded over by an unforgiving dictator – and yet he heeds to an inner calling. He rises above his own self.
In the final throes of the big, bloody chase back to the Citadel – the real green place, it turns out – Furiosa, Max, the Wives and the Vuvalini are all embroiled in an edge-of-the-seat battle in which speed is of the essence, along with Nux who knows that as far as he’s concerned, the Fury Road is still his journey to salvation. With Furiosa seriously wounded, on the verge of death, and Max fighting the enormous Rictus Erectus, they are now only seconds away from the Canyon across which lies the Citadel.
With Joe dead, and Furiosa driving his car, Nux, at the wheels of the War Rig, sees that there is the tiny sliver of a chance of them getting through to the Canyon. He deliberately crashes the Rig just as Joe’s car whizzes through, in the process killing Rictus, blocking the Canyon, and of course, meeting his own death. His final words are now spoken with an overwhelming sense of self-awareness, and it gives the viewer goose bumps – ‘Witness me’.
Seconds later, even as Furiosa is hailed as the new leader and Max nods off into the crowd, we know we have already seen epic heroism a few seconds ago.
We know we have already witnessed the true hero of Mad Max.