(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
I avoided talking about Fury Road on this column before now because it seemed so utterly, precisely on the nose that any effort to delve a little deeper inevitably sounded like the patented obvious. Flamboyant autocrat in post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to prevent the liberation of his private harem by a woman with some very firm ideas on gender equality? You don’t need to be Pauline Kael to spot the appropriateness. I chose it in part because of the recent success of Wonder Woman, which couldn’t have come at a more desperately needed time, but took advantage of some of the stepping stones that preceded it. Fury Road gets a big-ass spot on that list.
Two years and a million motherfucking centuries ago, the cultural civil war appeared to be reaching critical mass. The ugliness of Gamergate came scuttling out of the internet’s darkest weasel pits the previous fall, the Supreme Court just recognized gay marriage, and South Carolina – under a female Republican governor of Indian American heritage – finally took steps to ban the Confederate flag. Wounds were raw. Shit was real. The left finally started drawing lines in the sand – preparing to defend modest political gains that should have been enacted decades before – and the various tendrils of toxic masculinity began its pushback, shrieking about how much their wieners hurt from sharing the clubhouse with girls and gays and stuff.
In the middle of it all came George Miller, ostensibly attempting to cash in on his signature franchise one last time. Turns out, he had more on his mind than that – a lot more – and the bombshell that was Fury Road hit right when we seemed to need it the most. Proof of the impact came most loudly from the entitled fratboy brigade, who howled about the death of their childhood and “politically correct” gender assignment and how “Mad Max NEVER kneeled before a woman.” (In point of fact, he had. And a black woman to boot.)
Miller, of course, answered with the sheer power of filmmaking behind him, presently a boldly pro-feminist statement in which the title character essentially served as a passenger in his own movie. Max (Tom Hardy) evinces a look of constant befuddlement, thrown in with the turncoat Imperatrix Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she breaks with her tyrannical boss over a matter of vaginal liberation. It was only a modest hit at the box office — $150 million domestically, a little more than twice that overall – but the cultural chord it touched ran far deeper than that. Today it makes easy shorthand for memes and gifs of all varieties: the easiest way to tell how deep something has sunk into our collective subconscious. Like its predecessors, it only gets better with age.
And a lot of that has to do with Furiosa; not just the character herself – magnificent enough with Theron delivering such wordless world-weary strength – but the raw stakes involved in our current gender struggles. Furiosa advocates for her charges’ basic humanity. (“We are not things!” one of them writes on their harem prison before the movie-long breakout attempt.) Her opponent, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), pursues them out of monstrous entitlement: a post-apocalyptic Nero who wants what he wants because he wants it, and fears the devastating loss of prestige that failure would bring.
The message strikes its target clear and pure and unvarnished by the niceties of more formal debate. Even in an environment where day-to-day survival is far from given, sometimes you still need to stand up and say “no.” That Miller used his signature character mostly just to introduce Theron’s indomitable force of nature shows just how important he thought the issue was, and just how far he could to stretch his incredible cinematic talents to get the point across.
And it made a certain amount of sick sense that frightened little boys would take it as a threat. Suddenly men were the also-rans, not the heroines. Suddenly we were riding shotgun on someone else’s journey, helping them out without a whole lot of thought to ourselves. And it was fun! Better than fun, it was awesome! That, along with the raw cinematic power on display – the thunder of a master filmmaker in his mid70s and still a long way from home – put some vital cracks in the glass ceiling that Patty Jenkins may have just shattered into a million pieces. We’d seen such turnabout before, of course: Michael Biehn’s amiable Cpl. Hicks in Aliens for instance or Angelina Jolie’s anonymous helper monkeys in the Lara Croft films. But it was never presented in more stark terms than this, and never with a more resounding thrum along the foundations of pop culture expectations.
And now here’s Wonder Woman, which pulls from Fury Road’s DNA in strange but important ways. It too features an ostensible hero (Chris Pine, who’s played no less a macho man than Captain Kirk) pushed agreeably to supporting status. It too shows a central figure of indomitable will crashing the all-boys party with a resounding explosion. But as we watch it pass box-office milestones left and right, it’s worth noting who paved the way, and how it joins a battle that’s been going on for a long, long time. She’s carrying a torch passed by a lot of performers… and it’s worth noting that the same director sending Gal Gadot to the stratosphere once directed Theron herself to a richly deserved Oscar. Progress is possible. Wonder Woman seems to have arrived just in time to remind people that groping co-workers in the closet is never okay, no matter what that pig in the White House says. But it doesn’t come overnight. You build bricks to get this far. You lay them one stone at a time. And it may not seem like a lot at the time, but when the time is right, it can help plant a flag that desperately needs planting. Celebrate Wonder Woman, and draw what strength you can from it. It has a lot of that to give. Her way was paved by a number of worthy predecessors… at least one of whom is leaning out of her wasteland marauder and giving her a massive fist pump.