George Miller is tired of the tropes associated with women in films, especially in the case of action movies. For evidence supporting this, look no further than Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Though the film is named after the franchise’s lead character, Max is far from the largest presence in the film. Furiosa, a female action lead that all others should aspire to be, stands tall over Max as do the five former wives that have escaped their oppressor, and also Nux to a certain degree, whom undergoes much more character development than Max himself. The reasoning for this is simple but clever. Max has very little at stake when it comes to the enigmatic villain known as Immortan Joe, and because of this the film chooses to focus on others who have had more experience with this oppressor. While Max’s life is at stake, these stakes are resolved fairly early in the film and so Fury Road chooses to focus on those whose lives have been drastically altered by the warlord oppressor. Because the film focuses on its more dynamic characters it is able to give a strong commentary on the culture that is promoted by Immortan Joe and others of his ilk. Mad Max: Fury Road takes aim at the cultures of tribalism, misogyny, and commodification, and it is able to do so effectively because it examines these practices through the lenses of those that have been a victim to them.
What immediately defines Immortan Joe is his treatment of those around him. A presence that overshadows all others around him, this demonic figure is shown to have almost everything in his unbreakable grip. Water, fuel, and even women are all nothing more than pieces of an empire to him, and any part of this empire that might try to escape his will is met with his full and terrifying power. Such is the case when Furiosa and the wives, The Splendid Angharad, The Dag, Toast the Knowing, Cheedo the Fragile, and Capable all attempt to escape his grasp. For Joe, these women are nothing more than things that are of use to him from time to time. His anger, though at first may seem to be that of genuine concern for the wives, is instead soon revealed to be anger towards the women that have escaped him because of their defiance. Joe is only concerned for the unborn child that Splendid is carrying, which he also refers to as his “property” later on. After Splendid falls from the War Rig, Joe holds her as he roars in anger. But he does not hold her as a person would hold another injured person. Instead, he hoists her over his waist, bulging her belly out as he displays, what to him, is nothing more than a damaged piece of property.
After all, to Joe and many of the other characters in the film, people, especially women, are nothing more than items to be used. Joe keeps his “mothers” hooked up to milking machines so that he can profit from them. He also keeps the wives locked behind a vault door where they are kept for him whenever he may want them. To him, they offer the potential for healthy offspring, which is what he values most, even over the wives themselves as the film shows. Once the emergency C-section of Splendid is performed, Joe is shown to value male offspring over anything else. After the death of the unborn child, Joe actually puts his pursuit on hold. Perhaps he is mourning the loss of what he considered him, but regardless of his actions this halt demonstrates that he values what the wives can do for him more than the wives themselves.
Immortan Joe’s treatment of Furiosa is somewhat different from the way that he treats his wives. While she is certainly not considered to be an equal by Joe, she is shown to have more respect from him than he displays towards most others, especially towards other women. Joe regards Furiosa as a force to be reckoned with before he ever learns of what she has done. But once he does, this regard only shifts in the sense that she is simply no longer of use to him and she must be put down such as one would put down an animal. In a way, Furiosa’s action of initiating the escape from Joe gains her a form of respect from him as he now considers her a foe to be dealt with. But this respect is a far cry from the basic respect that should be shown between normal humans. Joe’s respect towards Furiosa is one of anger for her “stealing” his “property;” but there is an element of concern or even fear in his behavior towards his former Imperator. Every time Joe comes upon Furiosa he desires to simply and quickly kill her. When Nux offers to keep her alive for him, Joe instead commands him to put a bullet in her skull. Moments earlier, Joe had attempted to shoot Furiosa in the back of the head, possibly before she was even aware of his presence. Joe’s behavior in the beginning of the film as he learns of her betrayal further reinforces this behavior towards her. Joe is scared in the beginning of the film, as he understands what Furiosa is capable of. For him, the notion of being challenged by something that was considered to be little more than property is the most terrifying thing of all.
Furiosa is not the only former part of Joe’s empire to challenge him though. Fury Road also presents the character of Nux, whom goes through the most change in the film. Beginning as a blindly devoted follower, Nux’s perspective is widened to the point that he stops seeing Joe as his lord and savior and more as the monster that he is. Nux is nothing more than a tool to Immortan Joe, albeit one that he is more than willing to exploit without end. Simply put, Nux only exists to serve Joe, and he is more than content with this role as the film begins. Death is seen as the glorious end to Nux, an event that will free him from his half-life and also glorify his ruler at the same time. But once Nux fails at his tasks multiple times, he begins to see his world differently. Believing that he can no longer adequately serve his lord, Nux latches on to the next most powerful force near him, in this case, the wives, Furiosa, and Max. Though he may have an unyielding loyalty towards them, Nux is still a fundamentally broken person. As he dies in the film’s conclusion, he whispers “Witness me,” the ultimate battle cry of the War Boys. Though this saying has taken on a new meaning for Nux, it is notable that it also demonstrates that Joe’s hold over him is still present in some fashion. Nux has lost the ability to be an unattached individual, and for the entire film he simply follows whoever holds the most power near him. Though he would likely not go back to Immortan Joe were he given the chance, the truth remains that he is unable to truly define himself outside of those around him.
Mad Max: Fury Road presents its audience with a villain that could easily be considered as nothing more than a cartoon were the portrayal not handled correctly. Indeed, this would likely be the case if the film only showed Immortan Joe through the lens of Max. But by developing characters that have been fundamentally affected by him, the film is able to characterize Immortan Joe not just by his actions, but also by the culture that he creates. In addition to Joe, the film also presents The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer. Both of these old men whom, like Joe, killed the world, are intricate in their own respective rights; but neither of them are ever elevated above anything more than an obstacle to be disposed of by Max. This is because Fury Road defines them simply be their actions and appearances, but not by those that they have affected or even forged. They are surrounded by their own War Boys, but these are no different from the ones that surround Immortan Joe. In the end, Joe is defined by his enemies, and through the lens of these enemies, the audience is able to see the dangers and effects of the ideals that the Warlord espouses. The women in Fury Road are much more than the things that Joe treats them as, both by way of definition but more importantly by way of their actions. This practice of showing instead of simply telling served the film well, as it is able to effectively counter the ideals of its antagonist by way of well-developed central characters. The end result is a film that successfully not only denounces its villain and his practices, but also effectively shows the dangers of the same. This makes for a lovely day indeed.