This post lightly spoils that movie.

The cast of Mad Max: Fury Road. OK, no, it's actually some of the victorious US women's soccer team.

My partner and I watched Mad Max: Fury Road at the ol’ Island Cinema 10 in Middletown late last month. While delegated to a small theater, the weeks-old movie still managed to draw a crowd, surprising both of us, who imagined that it would be gone by the time I returned from Salt Lake City. Though I definitely would have liked it more had I (impossibly, given my delay) known nothing about it, it still managed to pleasantly surprise me.

The immediately iconic flamethrower-guitar guy to one side, Charlize Theron’s performance as the one-armed wasteland badass Imperator Furiosa set the whole of my Twitter timeline ablaze as soon as the movie came out, as did the fact that the good-guy adventuring party comprises almost entirely women. But for a handful of friends for whom the film’s portrayal of disabled or deformed bodies didn’t sit well, praise seemed alarmingly strong and universal among my social-media bubble, taking me by surprise.

Indeed, when the already mostly female team allies with a gang of leather-tough veterans before the last act, the film presents their all being older ladies quite matter-of-factly; no characters stand agog at the reveal. Among the film’s many heroic characters, the titular Max and the squirrelly “war boy” Nux almost seem like token men among the final ensemble, and for an action movie that isn’t specifically about the fact it mostly stars women — the title literally obscures this, naming the picture after a dude — that does seem quite remarkable.

I avoided reading reviews, and as my timeline did tend to restrict the target of its Mad Max ravings to Furiosa, the women as a whole, and the guitar guy (in order of descending intensity), so I did manage to stay unspoiled for much of the film’s specifics. And somehow, through all that friendly hype, I missed the fact that Furiosa inarguably holds the protagonist role, even though Max keeps the title. More generally, I expected here is the next chapter in the Mad Max Saga, and it was not that at all. Fury Road instead presents a low-key, self-contained episodic side-story from the Mad Max world.

The title character is meant to be the same fellow most famously portrayed in decades past by Mel Gibson. Tom Hardy wears him quite differently than I recall from the past films, not as a picture of virile action heroics but as a mumbling, shattered wreck (of action heroics). His brain wriggling with confused PTSD to the point of constant hallucination, he has no ability to lead a story any more, and — mercifully — the movie doesn’t expect him to. He instead gets to play in Furiosa’s D&D party for a while as extra muscle, and receives one chance to critically nudge the plot at the start of the last act. He pleads with Furiosa, having just lost per Plan A, not to resign her band into wasteland desperados, knowing that they’d all just end up like him: a survivor hollowed out by all his own sequels. Furiosa agrees, and takes back the wheel for an audacious Plan-B return home in glory.

The movie’s all about her, from end to end, but it’s about Max too insofar as: here’s what Max got up to on Tuesday. He says goodbye to the newly enthroned Furiosa and vanishes into the crowd at the end, doomed to have more adventures in the world named after him, whether or not they actually manage to get filmed.

Fury Road’s plot is quite simple. With a shorter runtime and a smaller budget, it would have fit as a notable episode in a notional Mad Max TV series about the wanderings of this unfazeable but broken man — his own character-development days long behind him — through the post-nuclear wasteland and the strange and amazing stories he passes through. For all of its many minutes of sky-high explosions among utterly ludicrous spiky-wheeled war-truck convoy chases, this movie expresses a surprising sort of humility among summertime Hollywood action-flick output. I’d like to see more things like it.


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