Before we start, I’m telling you now that there will be spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. You’ve been warned. Proceed.
Like a massive amount of people this weekend, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise thirty years after the last installment, Beyond Thunderdome (1985). How was it? So good, guys. So very good. You should all go see it so we can all incessantly talk about how perfect of an action movie it is and how George Miller should be given back the reigns to the scrapped Justice League movie from 2007. Tom Hardy does an admirable job taking over the role of Max from Mel Gibson, but what everyone’s been really talking about isn’t the titular character but the real hero of the movie, Furiosa, played fantastically by Charlize Theron. Though Max finds himself in the middle of a long drive down an endless, unforgiving road the movie is really about Furiosa and her search for redemption as she tries to smuggle the brides of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) back to the idyllic home from which she was stolen as a child. It would be very easy to launch into a review of the movie, but I think the phrase “GO SEE IT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IT’S SO GOOD!!” is sufficient enough. Instead, I wanted to talk about Furiosa and her namesakes, the Furies – primordial deities of Ancient Greece who punished people for insolence, oath-breaking, unjustified murder, and anything else that might be construed as destruction of the natural order.
Descriptions of the Furies, or the Erinyes, often relegate them to a triptych of goddesses with interchangeable features like snakes for hair (not to be confused with the Gorgons), dog’s heads, bat’s wings, bloodshot eyes, and coal black bodies. It’s really more up to the author in question. Even the tri-goddess motif is subject to authorial whim since the Ancient Greeks didn’t exactly have a set number of cthonic revenge deities. We mostly have Virgil and Dante to thank for the three named Furies, Alecto (“unceasing”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone (“vengeful destruction”). The triptych also works on a thematic level with other triple goddess groups such as the Fates, the Charities or Graces, and the Muses; there were originally only three Muses, but more were added. Still, nine muses fits with the “Power of Three” theme that’s carried over into modern day Pagan and Wicca practices and their pop culture equivalents like The Craft (1996) and Charmed (1998-2006). Fun fact: Charmed had an episode where the sisters were turned into the Furies (“Hell Hath No Fury”). But then again, they were turned into just about everything, so make of that what you will.
The Furies have actually made a fair number of appearances, and honorable mentions, in television, movies, and literature. As a trio, Xena: Warrior Princess used them in a handful of episodes, mainly as combatant figures sent by other gods to mete out punishment; they were also the main antagonists in the video game God of War: Ascension. As far as inspiration goes the Female Furies of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World were the ruthless bodyguards of the god-like despot Darkseid – and formerly led by one of my favorite heroines, Big Barda; and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the gripping Western, The Furies (1950), about a woman who cunningly gets hold of her family’s ranch after her father disowns her. The commonality of women in the position of protagonist and antagonist, sometimes concurrently, could be interpreted as harkening back to the idea that the Furies themselves were not necessarily malicious deities. Depending on your perspective they were either dispensing justice or executing unfair punishment. Or it’s just a happy accident.
The use of the word “fury” has had a long tradition of use in popular culture as well. Mad Max: Fury Road notwithstanding, we’ve also seen the rise, fall, and rise again of the Fast and the Furious franchise with the latest installment, Furious 7, giving the biggest finger to the laws of physics for the sake of pure entertainment that ever was given. If we go back a little further, William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury has been a staple of American literature classes for decades, the novel’s title coming from a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth wherein “the sound and the fury” is our need for significance in a meaningless existence. Indeed, the use of “furious” and “fury” in a modern day setting has been more closely associated with anger whereas the Furies depicted in the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and the poetry of Virgil and Dante were more concerned with “fury” as an extension of justice.
In Mad Max: Fury Road we get an amalgamation of these varied depictions. For starters, the second half of the title reveals not just where most of the action takes place, but it also indicates that Max isn’t the singular hero of the film. If anything, Max is just the means to an end for us so we can meet Theron’s Furiosa. It can’t just be coincidence that the leading woman is named Furiosa and she’s driving a war rig across Fury Road. If Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris had wanted to be subtle (they didn’t), then there were better ways to go about it. Furiosa fits the duel role of protagonist and antagonist, a badass driver looking for redemption by saving a group of women and a foil for Max, in the beginning, who will do anything to survive. More to the point, Furiosa is the one to enact punishment and get revenge on Immortan Joe. As the supposed main character, Max has little to do with Joe’s demise. If he did, it wouldn’t make sense. After the brides, Furiosa has the most dramatic and narratively satisfying resolution in killing him and bringing down his tyrannical regime. If Max were the one to do so, then it wouldn’t ring true.
The culmination of Furiosa’s efforts to get the brides to her childhood home, however, unwittingly results in the creation of another form of the triple goddess motif, the maiden-mother-crone. Reunited with the remaining members of her people, all of whom are women, Furiosa becomes the “Mother” figure, the woman of middle age to the “Maiden” brides and the older “Crones” of her former home. Again, this may not have been the intention, but it sits there and whether you realize it or not you’re watching three generations of women fighting back in order to survive. Yes, Max is there and helps facilitate the plan to take on Joe and his army, but the heavy lifting is done as much, if not more so, by Furiosa, the brides, and the clans-women. Oh, and Nux (Nicholas Hoult) is there too.
There is so much to love about Mad Max: Fury Road. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa kicks all kinds of ass, even with one arm, and Tom Hardy looks like he’ll have no problems picking up the reins of the franchise. George Miller is so on point with a frenetic, fast paced, and gorgeously realized dystopian world gone mad but he also succeeds in giving us a cast of characters capable of meeting and exceeding that madness. It’s beneath the surface, however, that we see Fury Road‘s place in the long tradition of women looking for justice and my God is it glorious. Well done, Mad Max. Well done.