In a review of director George Miller’s new action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig describes actor Charlize Theron as “The best female action hero since Sigourney Weaver in Alien”. I think Puig should have cited Aliens for Weaver’s action bona fides, but I also think she missed the point. It’s true that Theron is a great actor delivering a bravura performance, but what matters most is the character itself: Imperator Furiosa is the best cinematic hero in years.
Let me tell you why.
Imperator Furiosa towers above most other action-movie heroes because her character and the story of Fury Road subvert a longstanding, worn-out Hollywood action-movie paradigm—but not the one you might think. The real genius of Fury Road isn’t that its hero is a woman. It’s that the hero is the one actually driving the story in the first place.
Furiosa’s prominence in the movie has been making some “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) apoplectic, leading them to complain the Mad Max franchise was hijacked for a feminist agenda, that they were tricked by cool explosions and a freak with a flame-throwing electric guitar into watching a feminist manifesto in which Max has been emasculated. They’re at least partly wrong.
A key factor in what’s perplexing the MRAs is that Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist and hero of Fury Road, but here’s the catch: she is not the movie’s main character. Max Rockatansky (played by Tom Hardy) is not a sidekick in Fury Road, contrary to this post by Rob Bricken on io9. Max is undeniably Fury Road’s main character, its point-of-view character. He is the only character to whose inner life we are privy; he is our narrator. That said, it is true he is neither the protagonist nor the hero of Fury Road, but these aren’t bad things. They aren’t even uncommon in movies.
In order to explain what I mean by all that, I’m going to ask that you put aside your preconceived notions of what protagonist, antagonist, hero, and main character mean within the context of dramatic writing. Let’s delve into some Dramatic Writing 101 neepery to define our terms, some of which will contradict what many of you might have been taught. James R. Hull provides a good primer on his Narrative First blog:
A Protagonist is the character whose action sets the narrative into motion. A protagonist is a person with a plan that challenges the status quo, for whatever reason.
The Antagonist is the character who most directly reacts to the Protagonist’s actions, works to thwart the Protagonist’s plans, and tries to uphold or restore the narrative status quo.
The Hero is the character we are meant to root for, the one we’re to perceive as “the good guy.”
The Villain is the character we are intended to root against — i.e., “the bad guy.”
The Main Character is the story’s principal point-of-view character, the one through whose filter we experience the story. This is also the character whose arc tends to exhibit the greatest degree of change in response to the events of the story.
When these terms are applied in the context of Fury Road, we find that:
- Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist; by making a bid for escape with Immortan Joe’s concubines, she sets the main story in motion;
- Immortan Joe is the antagonist; he reacts to Furiosa’s betrayal by marshaling every ally and resource at his command to recover what he considers his, and to exact his revenge;
- Furiosa is also the hero of the story, the one with noble motives, and whose success we are meant to hope for;
- Immortan Joe is also the villain of the piece, obviously; and,
- Max Rockatansky is the main character, the person through whose experience we, the audience, perceive most of the major events of the narrative.
In many action movies, the main character is also the hero. Just as often, the main character is not the protagonist: the villain is. In a great many action-oriented narratives, it is the story’s villain who acts first to upset the status quo, typically for selfish reasons. Once the actions of the villain come to light, the Main Character/Hero must act to oppose the Protagonist/Villain. This makes the Main Character/Hero function as the story’s Antagonist.
This is not a bad thing; I’m not saying that our favorite cinematic heroes are actually villains. I’m saying the heroes in action films are often depicted as reactive, while villains are more often proactive, within the bounds of the on-screen story. (I’m treating the revelation or suggestion of backstory that establishes characters’ motives as being separate from the principal diegetic action of the narrative.)
Here are just a few examples of reactive heroes in action cinema:
- John McClane in Die Hard
- Tony Stark in Iron Man
- Neo Anderson in The Matrix
- Alejandro in The Mask of Zorro
- Ellen Ripley in Alien and Aliens
In Die Hard, the narrative engine comes from Hans Gruber and his team of thieves seizing control of Nakatomi Tower and taking John McClane’s wife hostage; McClane reacts to this threat by waging a one-man war against the bad guys.
The story of Iron Man originates in the actions of Obadiah Stane, who puts out a hit on Tony Stark as a prelude to a hostile takeover of Stark Industries; Tony reacts to his assault and kidnapping by developing the Iron Man armor and embarking on a redemptive quest.
Neo Anderson is the main character of The Matrix, but the protagonist is Morpheus, who does all he can to find Neo, liberate him from The Matrix, and instill in him the belief that he is “The One” who has come to free humanity from the machines.
In The Mask of Zorro, Alejandro Murietta (Antonio Banderas) is the main character, but the protagonist is clearly the villain, Don Rafael Montero, whose nefarious schemes and cruel henchmen motivated the first Zorro (Don Diego de la Vega) as well as the new Zorro.
Last but not least, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in both Alien and Aliens. In both films Ripley is the main character (though it was less clear in the first film, for various reasons). In neither one, however, is she the prime mover of the story. In both cases, the protagonist is the shadowy entity known as “the company” (The Weyland-Yutani Corporation) and its agents, which instigate the events that set these narratives into motion. Ripley reacts to the calamities that besiege her, but she is a reluctant participant in both cases.
Proactive main characters are more often found in antiheroes, such as Porter in Payback, Wilson in The Limey, or John Smith in Last Man Standing. It seems rare to find Protagonist/Heroes in action films. I think this is due at least in part to the fact that so many action-oriented movies are about defending the status quo of the story, whatever it might be.
That brings us to the true genius of Fury Road. Imperator Furiosa is one of the most compelling characters to hit the big screen in years because she is a true Protagonist/Hero. Her actions (in concert with those of Immortan Joe’s renegade concubines, aka Breeders) set the main story into motion. She is the one who lights the fuse on the action and becomes the prey in the chase—and she does so for noble reasons: to free herself and other women from slavery, to try to give hope to others, and to seek her own redemption. She is wounded inside and out, scarred and flawed, but also prepared to sacrifice everything to do what she knows is right.
However, it would be wrong to argue, as some MRAs (and the previously cited io9 article) have, that this makes Furiosa the main character of Fury Road with Max a mere “sidekick.” It doesn’t. Max Rockatansky is still the main character of Fury Road. Viewers’ perceptions of events are filtered for the most part through Max’s experience. His journey is just as important as Furiosa’s.
Chase Magnett over at comicbook.com illustrated this point with exceptional clarity in his essay “Why ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Really Belongs to Imperator Furiosa” —
Max enters the film as a true loner. He is unhinged from any one he has held dear and desires to live apart. His role does not reflect Joe’s patriarchal society, but someone who desires to abstain from and ignore problems that he does not consider his own. He only agrees to help Furiosa at first because he cannot escape Joe without her help. In the first half of the film, he treats women like competitors for survival, threatening and shooting at them multiple times. Only through shared experience does he learn to appreciate their talents and trust them.
The same essay also provides a superb analysis of the character arc for warboy Nux, and what his story, in conjunction with Max’s, tells us about the theme of Fury Road as a whole:
Max and Nux represent two types of men, those who don’t care about feminism and those who actively oppose. Both of their arcs follow the revelation that feminism is necessary not only for women, but for the creation of a better world. Furiosa’s cause results in the improvement of her own life and the bride’s, as well as the advancement of Max, Nux, and all of the Citadel. Her struggle for equality and self-determination is a rising tide, creating a better world for everyone.
It also is important to note that Furiosa herself is not changed as much by the events of Fury Road as Max is. He starts his journey as a haunted loner and a prisoner; through his alliance with Furiosa, he reclaims the nobler part of his soul from the wasteland, earning his freedom. This more pronounced degree of character change also clearly distinguishes Max as the film’s main character, even though he is neither its central hero nor its protagonist.
In many ways this parallels the ending of the second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, in which Max regained his honor by volunteering to drive the rig for the refinery squatters. But where that film ended on a tragic note—the idea that we chew up our heroes and throw them aside, forgotten and unrewarded—Fury Road ends with Max restored and ready to return to the wasteland, not just to survive, but to live and be a force for good.
Lest this be mistaken as some kind of perverse betrayal of Max’s character by his creator, it should be noted that there are other notable examples of cinematic main characters who were not their tales’ heroes or protagonists.
Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding from The Shawshank Redemption was that movie’s narrator, and its chief point-of-view character—but Andy Dufresne was the Protagonist/Hero. In the end, it was Red who underwent the transformation of a man beaten down and institutionalized to one ready to reclaim hope.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the protagonist of Amadeus, but the main character is Antonio Salieri, who yearns to be lauded and remembered, only to find himself overshadowed at every turn by the prodigy Mozart.
All this raises a question: How did writer-director George Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris succeed so brilliantly at inverting the stale Hollywood trope of the reactive action hero? I would posit that they did so by giving us a story in which the status quo is one not worth defending. In fact, the point of the story in Fury Road is that some states of existence deserve to be smashed down so that something better can be built in their place.
Maybe that’s why it seems so difficult to craft emotionally compelling action movies these days. On many levels, it’s becoming increasingly clear the status quo of our world, despite incremental progressive improvements over the years, remains mired in patriarchy, oligarchy, racism, sexism, ignorance, and fear. Our society seems to be hurtling towards becoming the one depicted in Fury Road, careening down the dusty dead-end of dystopia.
Could it be that when larger-than-life heroes fight to defend a status quo we know to be flawed, their victories ring more than a bit hollow? It sometimes feels as if the only way to sell audiences these ever more outrageous, testosterone-fueled spectacles is to persuade them that the New Order coming to replace the status quo is even worse (usually global annihilation), so if we manage merely to keep things the way they are, we should be happy we achieved that much and stop railing against things like rape culture or rampant economic inequality, or expend effort promoting an idea as obvious and innocuous as “diversity is good.”
That point of view isn’t good enough any more.
I think part of what makes Fury Road so impressive as a film and Imperator Furiosa so compelling a character is the truth that heroism sometimes means defiance and rebellion. When the social order itself has become part of the problem, the status quo needs to be brought down so that a better, more just way of living can take its place. It’s time for us to crawl under this sputtering war rig and turn our thumbs black fixing what we know to be wrong.
Let patriarchy and oligarchy die historical (and reviled) on the Fury Road; it’s time for us all to lift up Furiosa—long may she reign.