Why Charlize Theron should have played Mad Max
By this point, I probably don’t need to tell you how great the new Mad Max is. Pretty much every website that matters has weighed in on it (including this one!) and the fact that a movie with cars and gas masks has caught on should be self-evident. (Does Pitch Perfect 2 have gas masks? Then it’s not as good as Mad Max: Fury Road. Sorry.)
However, regardless of all the flak the film has gotten, from the god-awful brigade of non-showering white guys who hate that women “took over” their action movie, to the ever-popular Anita Sarkeesian declaring that this female-led movie about women taking on the patriarchy still doesn’t count as feminist because it’s too violent, there’s an issue I think is more important that I haven’t really seen anyone else bring up yet.
What struck me the most about the movie is that, despite being made by the same director, this didn’t even really feel like it needed to be a Mad Max movie at all. Much has been made about how Max himself just kind of wanders through his movies and gets involved in other people’s stories, and if that’s the sort of thing his audience likes, well, fine, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s completely superfluous to the story.
Taking Max out entirely would have altered the dialogue some, but not the story. (Waring: Spoilers ahead!) Furiosa rescued the slave girls before she even met him, the War Boy could have still joined their party and learned to reject Immortan Joe, and the fact that the matriarchy they were trying to escape to had failed and that the only solution was to change the patriarchy from within was pretty self-evident. I’m positive that they would have figured it out on their own.
In fact, it seems to me that the people involved were all set to make a movie that was like a Mad Max movie, but then just decided to make it a proper part of the series. To me, this speaks to a deep mistrust that the studio had in their audience. Sure, the fact that a female-dominated movie got a male character shoehorned in isn’t surprising at all. But what’s weird is that the awkward ancillary male is Mad freakin’ Max! The studio was willing to completely waste an iconic character because they were afraid that an exciting car chase movie about people with robot arms needed some kind of pedigree.
More to the point, I have a sneaking suspicion that at one point in the development, they were planning to have Furiosa simply be Max. It’s not like it would have been an out of left-field change (to me, anyway). After all, by this point, the most obvious projects to take influence from the original trilogy haven’t been movies with white guys in the lead, but gangsta rap videos from the ‘90s. A post-apocalyptic version of (let’s face it) the Wacky Racers doesn’t feel like something that people have any kind of racial hang-ups about, so why would people mind if a woman took over?
Furiosa is simply a much more logical choice for the Max role. She has an actual character arc, she’s just as handy in a fight as he is, and she gets to take out the bad guy and lead everyone to peace and prosperity. Sure, they try to play off Max just walking away from everything like he’s Conan off on his next quest before becoming king, but I sincerely doubt anyone would want another movie about him, especially since this film will be a lot of people’s first exposure to the franchise, because young people are taking over! Woot!
So one of two things happened here: either the studios didn’t believe that anyone would want to watch an action movie with a female lead (has it really been that long since Kill Bill?), or they didn’t believe that people would be interested in watching an exciting car chase movie unless it had a tangential connection to a film series that most of the intended audience is probably too young to have seen. Either way, it’s becoming all the more apparent that the people who make even the most mainstream of movies have no clear idea what their audiences want, and this worries me.
After all, with the solid premise that the game Battleship already had built into it, they instead slapped the brand name onto a terrible alien invasion movie, because at least the name “Battleship” is something people have heard of. Similarly, they thought no one would see some shitty Josie and the Pussycats movie knockoff without slapping the name of a lame ‘80s kids cartoon on it (yeah, okay, Jem and the Holograms wasn’t any worse than most of the other shows on network TV at the time, but unless the movie has a scene where the bad guys use the power of rock to disrupt congressional hearings, this title does not belong with this film!). And yes, I’m aware that I’m the only person in the world who defends the integrity of Josie and the Pussycats. Let’s just move on.
The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 beat Mad Max: Fury Road at the box office doesn’t bother me. It was, after all, a date movie and a sequel to a film that’s only a couple of years old. They essentially would have had to let Frank Miller direct it to lose money. The issue here is that, since Fury Road didn’t come in #1, there’s been serious talk about how no one wants to bank on any female-led action movies for the foreseeable future (at least until Captain Marvel makes Disney enough money to buy Namibia), which I think is the most idiotic possible response. If Charlize Theron’s lead role had anything to do with the movie losing money, it would have had more to do with it being a Mad Max movie that had fuck-all to do with Mad Max.
Which brings me back to my main point: why wasn’t Theron cast as Max? The movie has little enough to do with the original films beyond the premise and general aesthetic, so why not just take the plunge and have her play the title role? I don’t even remember what actor played Max, and I just saw the film a week ago. Furiosa is a great character, sure, but it wouldn’t have been that much effort to make her Max. They’d have already made Max a woman, and I’m sure a kick-ass robot arm wouldn’t have been too much.
Mad Max: Fury Road, as we got it, was a really good movie, but it bears all the telltale marks of the creators underestimating their audience, and more than a few bits that felt like they were only there because people would have “expected” them to be there. This isn’t news, because even Marvel underestimates people every now and then, but this is starting to get out of hand. Next time, just make Max a woman. It couldn’t have been any more controversial than Ghostbusters doing it!