In a typically testosterone-heavy summer movie season, Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for its unapologetic feminist streak. Most obviously, this is manifested in the compelling female characters, and the (apparently, distressingly) radical notion that women are not property.
But the film has just as much to say about men — specifically what masculinity is, and what place it has in our society. At the center of the film are two types of masculinity: the toxic, destructive kind represented by Immortan Joe, and the healthy, productive kind represented by Max. The conflict between them drives the movie, and points a way forward for our world.
(Warning: Major spoilers follow for Mad Max: Fury Road.)
Mad Max: Fury Road in Context
Mad Max: Fury Road arrives in a culture with contradictory views of masculinity. On the one hand, traditional masculinity is glorified. Our sports stars and political leaders are mostly men, and we worship at the altars of Ron Swanson and Captain America. Even toxic masculinity is admired, to an extent — it’s what the entire wave of dark antihero prestige dramas was based on.
On the other, that same culture cautions us that traditional masculinity is dangerous. The underlying message of “boys will be boys,” that hand-wave-y excuse for everything from petty crime to rape to violent assault, is that men just can’t help themselves. And that when men don’t help themselves, we get Elliot Rodger, Ray Rice, Gamergate, Steubenville.
Generally speaking, everyone agrees that heroism is good, and that rape and murder are bad. But on a specific, day-to-day level, it can be frustrating to figure out what role, exactly, masculinity should play in our society. Luckily, Mad Max: Fury Road offers a roadmap for the modern man.
Heroic Masculinity vs. Toxic Masculinity
All of the major male characters in Mad Max: Fury Road are manly men, in every stereotypical sense. They’re strong, silent types who are good at fixing engines, firing guns, and hitting people. What separates the good ones from the bad ones is what they use that masculine power for.
The villains use their strength to destroy and subjugate. A recurring refrain in the movie is “Who killed the world?” The answer is: bad men like Immortan Joe and his War Boys did. They treat women like property to be prized and machines to be used. They let the masses die of thirst, doling out just enough water to keep the survivors in their thrall.
The heroes, on the other hand, use their strength to support and build. Max and eventually Nux throw themselves into helping the escaped sex slaves, who just want to be treated like people. As the story goes on, when Max and Nux fight, it’s to protect themselves, the people they care about, and the cause they’re devoted to. When Immortan Joe and his War Boys do, it’s because they’re upset they cannot treat humans as property.