The following is an opinion piece by guest blogger Federico Ponce – whom you’ve hopefully already been acquainted with through our series of video interviews with him. If not, go check them out. Fede is a freelance MoGraph and Visual FX artist, has worked as creative director on several Marvel project (like Iron Man, Avengers and Thor) and is currently working on his own project, Sebastian: The Slumberland Odyssey.
For the last decade or so, I have seen a shift in the way big budget movies are created. I feel compelled to share my humble opinion on the topic, because I am a film lover – and a big superhero nerd. For that same reason this is not something I say lightly, but I believe that superhero movies are damaging the core of storytelling. They have evolved into a massive, lucrative spectacle, but for those of us wanting a bit more, they unfortunately leave our palettes dry. I am convinced that art and entertainment can coexist and that the industry does not need to dumb something down in order to make it marketable and memorable.
That’s why, when I heard the rumor that George Miller was potentially going to direct Man of Steel 2, I was sold. Let me tell you why.
Mad Max: Fury Road was a $100 million dollar gamble that paid off handsomely. It became a massive box office success as well as one of the highest rated movies by critics and audiences alike. I say gamble, because in the world of big films nothing is a guarantee. Whoever had the vision to hire the director responsible for Happy Feet and have him dig up his own post-apocalyptic, high octane, testosterone driven re-make was on to something.
But George Miller didn’t stop there; he took the entire hero myth and flipped it on its head, giving us a brand new vision of what action movies could be. He did so facing a market that prefers massive tent pole franchises that focus on being “popular” rather than breaking ground.
I love going to the theater and having a public experience with the audience, but in this particular case I avoided the hype and waited a few months to see it at home; I was looking for a more intimate experience and boy did I get my money’s worth with Mad Max: Fury Road.
SPOILERS AHEAD: please stop reading if you have not seen the film yet.
From a technical standpoint, this movie shines in every single department. The visual effects are incredible, flawless and in a sense painterly and stylized without being distracting. The practical effects are equally impressive. There is a stunning choreography between the camera work, the action and the art direction. In fact, every design and visual cue in this movie carries a lot of weight; no detail is left untouched as each piece has been carefully crafted with meticulous detail to further the story and enrich the film’s mythos. The sound design is harmonized and perfectly synchronized in tone and rhythm with the high speed pacing and staccato editing of the film. All acts and beats develop organically and the film does not stop. The pacing is perfect.
This is, at its worst, the best action film to be recorded in the last decade. At its best, it’s an industry-changing piece of art. Here is why:
Mad Max: Fury Road has a rich, deep mythology that combines the exploited patriarchal and linear warrior myth with an emerging new myth: The female creation myth. The movie is ground breaking in that it takes these two myths and dispels its gender associations. Not only that, but Miller understands metaphor perfectly, he understands iconography and language, and he interweaves them into a new fascinating world, the like of which I have not seen in an action movie before. The dialogue is not expository, it’s enticing and the performances of the actors showcase how complex these characters are.
So let’s talk about the characters.
The main vehicles of metaphor for the regeneration myth are Furiosa, Max and Nux. The secondary players are Immortan Joe’s wives and the Vuvalini (derived from vulva – origin of life). Immortan Joe carries the entire warrior myth on his shoulders and though he is aided by his race of mad underlings and very interesting goons, the bulk of this analysis will remain on Joe.
Furiosa is without a doubt the manifestation of the symbol of the ancient patriarchal warrior from the nomad tribes. She is strong, purpose driven, tough, smart and imperfect. Her quest is for redemption and in fulfilling it she will die and be re-born to a bigger, more complicated quest. She transitions from an exterior quest to the journey of the interior. She has a mechanical arm, which denotes that she is in a sense still part of the system. The mechanical, the computerized, whatever is not an organic part of the body is to be considered a symbol of systematization. Darth Vader lost his humanity to the empire and became more machine than man. Furiosa and Luke Skywalker lost a piece of themselves to the system, but where able to turn away from it. Furiosa’s catharsis reaches a climax by her willing removal of the mechanical arm. It represents her last vestige of attachment to the old world; the world of the warrior. Her shaved head hints to her origin as one the war boys; she has been stripped of her gender and began her existence as a homogenized part of that society. But she rose above the rest and became the Imperator. It signifies her psychological and physical ascension. This is why she is able to transition into the next level of her psyche; she has in a way conquered her first quest.
Nux was an amazing character for me. He symbolized the archetype of the “fool” – the man-child constantly looking for purpose, but most importantly, is always looking for approval of the father figure. His life is devoid of meaning, driven only by the thirst of survival and the promise of Valhalla. But the hero’s path of the war boys does not lead to ascension or spiritual transition; the path of the war boys is the path of the ego. They don’t yearn for spiritual transcendence, they yearn for adulation from their peers. Valhalla means nothing unless their final act is “witnessed”. In a socio-cultural context, this is extremely relevant, as we live in an age when everyone wants to have a public life on social media. It seems like we all want to be the fool – “Witness me or else I lack importance.”
The slang for chrome used in this unholy ritual is brilliant. The idea that something pure, something shiny is a man-made artifact that has been lost forever is a clever symbol that emphasizes the lack of connection with the larger natural and spiritual world that transcends the present condition. Nux’s character arch is heartfelt and he finds the mystical help in one of the life givers. She guides him through the river Stix with love and understanding. But he has to find redemption and ascension in physical death, because his psychological chasm is so great, that he would have a mental breakdown if he was to make it to the new world. Sorry, Nux. Maybe in your next life.
Max’ journey begins as one of a slave. He is not just a slave to the system, but a slave of his own fear and self-hatred. His quest is one of forgiveness and redemption. Early in the film, Max is captured and tortured, and his escape is foiled in part by his inner demons. This metaphor of slavery serves to illustrate that Max has fallen to an ultimate low within himself and he is now close to death. He is being used as a “blood bag” and been completely disposed of his humanity. He is paraded as a trophy and his psyche is not yet ready to take on the role of savior. He must die first and be reborn. It is through sparing Nux’s life, although unwillingly, that his quest for a higher purpose begins. Though Max is a fighter and a trained warrior, his mythological symbol in this tale is one of Life-giver. He replenishes life and hence follows the energy of the female myth. It is because of his life-giving blood that he allows Nux to live, but more importantly it is through his blood that Furiosa is able to be re-born as a queen. Later on, Max responds to the call of action and serves as a protector. It is a choice that empowers him to accept the higher path. He comes back now as a fully developed protector with no agenda other than to help the mothers replenish the world. That is why at the end, he walks away. He walks away from power, from the old world. Max enters the final threshold in the myth; he finally enters the inner quest.
Immortan Joe: The name should say everything to you about what is going on in Miller’s mind. This name is meticulously crafted and it is broken up like this: The combination of the words immortal and important is our first hint at a linguistic deviation that comes from a culture that cannot process two complex ideas at once, hence merging them into their own comprehensible, simple concept. Immortan represents the symbol of a mystical creature that will live forever and it is of the outmost importance to survival – followed by Joe. By adding Joe, Miller has managed to take the God in to the realm of men. Joe is everyone’s father, the man the boys look up to, the man in charge of regenerating the world.
Immortan Joe is one of the best antagonists ever written. He is relentless, flawed and strangely charismatic. He looks like a monster to those who do not belong to his world, but like a God to those who do. His breathing device and armor tell us that he has fused with the machine world; he is now the system. His quest is not for power, but to return the world to life on his own terms. We can see that he is somewhat successful, by the hints of green at the top of the mountains and his ability to pump water. But this careful balance is not without its risks, hence the unholy alliance with the Oil and War lords. Here the author again takes the time to take a quick stab at our modern day, exemplifying the corruption that exists between the systems that control most of our lives: Oil (energy), War (death) and Water (life). These are no less than forces of life and death for all human beings. Immortan Joe is the culmination of the male energy force. It is through his will that the world will come to be. The ultimate response to the female force of chaos is the male response of absolute control. And so Joe represents that force, that desire to bring order through his control. Joe is the ultimate patriarch to which all boys look upon. He manipulates the world around him and will never let go of control.
It will take a warrior, a life-giver, a fool and the keepers of seeds to challenge this formidable foe, bringing down the old world and start anew. This is one of the best narratives of the regeneration myth and the heroes that rise do not do so by virtue of super powers, but by virtue of inner growth.
The film industry has misinterpreted the meaning of hero in the literal sense. They have taken an escapist approach and equated the concept of hero with spectacle. Modern super heroes acquire physical powers that enhance the boundaries of the human body, but for all the action, comedy, special effects and drama these movies have, they do nothing to advance storytelling or to explore the human psyche through symbols and metaphors. They are so intent in the literal translation that they want to rationalize a flying man. They want to dissect the science of the Gods and in doing so they are destroying the power of myth and metaphor.
What is brilliant about Miller’s approach is that all characters have access to tap into the deep mythological archetypes of the human psyche that reside in all of us regardless of gender. Their sex and social role is not imperiled by their choice of inner quest. Miller brings back to storytelling a deep sense of metaphor and symbolism that allows us to take the movie and use it as a mirror to uncover something about ourselves and our society.
I am excited to see him turn the literal into the metaphorical and give super hero films a new meaning.