I was one of the few people who did not see Mad Max: Fury Road in theatres earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about the franchise and heard of how excellent it was secondhand. So I was intrigued when Tauriq Moosa was posting on Twitter about Max being disabled and his opinion piece about it, which you can find here. This intrigued me; it was a part of Max’s character that I didn’t know about at all. So when I finally got around to watching the film, I was specifically looking at the film through a disability lens. So let’s jump in.
The most striking thing about Fury Road is so many characters are disabled in some way. Max has his leg brace, Furiosa is missing an arm, Nux has some sort of chronic illness, Immortan Joe needs a respirator to stay alive. This is a powerful message in and of itself, while representation is just representation; nonharmful representation is more than just representation. While the morality of these characters covers a spectrum to say the least, they’re all competent. It’s also, with the exception of Nux needing a ‘blood bag’, is never commented on. This in and of itself is a positive step forward, but there is so much context to this film that make it greater.
First, there’s a matter of genre. Fury Road is set in a post apocalyptic wasteland where any sort of greenery is rare and trees aren’t commonly known. It’s the kind of world where many people assume that the disabled wouldn’t be able to survive in. While Max’s struggle with civilization is closer to survival than most, that’s because of his character as a whole. It’s the same thing, these are fully formed characters with greater aspirations than living to see the next meal. In a world that is physically hostile and bleak as the wasteland, this is a powerful message.
The other interesting thing about Fury Road is the ways in which the film can be read. There’s the literal reading, the events we see are what happen. Then there are more mythical readings, this is a new Deamtime. My own interpretation lies closer to the mythical. The film makes the most sense to me as an in-universe folk tale a la Robin Hood or King Arthur. In broad strokes, the film’s events as presented happened; the details aren’t strictly true. Immortan Joe, Furiosa, the Wives and the War Boys, they all existed. Max on the other hand, is an iconic character who doesn’t slot in neatly. Max is a heroic figure who may not even necessarily been alive when this happened, but this story has become a part of Max’s canon.
This view is mainly supported by the film’s style, which creates a sort of timeless, otherworldly feel. The passage of time in the film feels off and pushes my suspension of disbelief in a way that little else does. Characters’ presentation is a triumph of minimalist storytelling; we know so little about them but it’s clear that they exist in a greater world. This is information that a viewer or listener presumably wouldn’t need in a folk tale. Also considering that George Miller has stated that he can’t figure out the chronology of the original trilogy, extrapolating that something is off isn’t that much a stretch. Finally, it’s an interpretation that appeals to me as it’s more grounded in history and how we tell stories.
On one hand, this view means the aforementioned disabilities are prominent in the narrative means that the future isn’t engaging in disability erasure. These are who these people were. The lack of focus on the fact that these people are disabled means that it’s not something worth commenting on in the future. Taking that detail in conjunction with Furiosa and the Wives returning triumphantly to the Citadel is an incredibly optimistic ending. On the other hand, the film is very much Furiosa’s story, and the idea of it being grafted onto Max’s canon stinks. However, the events of the film show that Max plays a supporting role, he’s a wandering swordsman who helps those in need and moves on. The story may have been grafted onto Max’s canon, but it’s the same thing as say Galahad and the Green Knight, it’s connected to the King Arthur canon, but it’s not about King Arthur.
Fury Road succeeds because its disabled characters are more than their disabilities. They do more than survive; they live and strive as people. This is a seemingly simple task that only requires one to unlearn centuries of institutional ableism. Fury Road should be praised for what it did, but looking forward it is also important to consider what other things can do as well in showcasing different types of disability in a similar manner. Next week I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades. Till next time.