The most surprising thing about this summer's most interesting blockbuster isn't that it lives up to the hype, a critical tornado sparked into inferno by the irresistible news that a prominent Men's Rights Activist had been moved to boycott it. It isn't that a 30-year-old film franchise realized that the way to make the post-apocalypse sing in the year 2015 was to tell a story about women clawing their freedom from the flesh of men inch by bloody inch. And it isn't that the film scored lower at the box office than a star-studded sequel to a franchise one tenth Mad Max's age and rated for younger viewers.
This post contains minor spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road.
The most surprising is the fact that in a film full of vehicular slaughter and in which the titular character is imprisoned for the value of his blood, visible gore in the film is reserved exclusively for major plot moments. In a story which revolves around the journey of several scantily clad former sex slaves, the audience is never invited to sexualize their bodies and never forced to watch their physical degradation.
Fury Road is all about fluids. Gasoline and water are the obvious resources for any post apocalypse worth its salt flats, but in Fury Road breast milk and blood make showings as well. The former is mentioned here and there as something of a controlled substance in the domain of tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe, but blood maintains a strong presence throughout.
Max's universal donor blood type makes him a prime catch for Joe's War Boys, as it makes him more useful as a human battery. And "as a human battery" is precisely how he spends the first 40-odd minutes (a third of the total runtime) of Fury Road. In one of his final acts of the story, Max revives Furiosa — not with the oft sexualized or romanticized use of CPR — but with a transfusion of his own blood, a reversal of how he enters Immortan Joe's community.
Honestly, the least realistic element of the movie may have been Max's ability to walk around without fainting. But for all the transfusions, guns, needle-firing crossbows, acrobatically flipping chop shop monstrosities and battlefield surgery, Fury Road has about as much on-screen body horror as your average Indiana Jones flick. Which is to say, a few notable examples used exclusively to mark the deaths of its most corrupt villains, and otherwise a near complete abstention from dwelling on serious injury or mutilation.
While restraint in the arena of body horror is surprising for a film of Fury Road's bombastic genre — in which a working double-necked guitar that is also a flamethrower is simply par for the course — restraint in the arena of objectifying women is almost entirely unheard of in the big-budget entertainment industry.
If you asked me where I'd expect to find a film about two main characters escorting a band of women on the run from a life of sexual slavery to freedom that never lingered over the dripping wet, scantily clad bodies of the majority of its main cast, that never actually depicted or implied an act of sexual violence during the course of the narrative — I would certainly not say: "In the revival of one of the most masculine genre franchises of the last century, advertised with a trailer that prominently featured a fire tornado." I'd say "Probably in limited release in coastal cities. Perhaps with the phrase 'From Producer Angelina Jolie' in larger letters, above the title."
As a fan of genre entertainment, I'd be saying it with a certain amount of weariness. Genre fiction has the same problems of representation as the larger entertainment industry, but those problems are often ironically highlighted by its love of a certain well of themes. Genre fiction loves an underdog, for example, the revolutionary. It loves the victim who overturns the oppressor, but when it comes down to crafting the identity of those heroes, the roles overwhelmingly go to the least structurally oppressed members of our society. Women, relationships with them, and consenting access to their bodies, are often simply one more thing for those heroes to earn over the course of their journey.
Fury Road's choices are not bowdlerization, political correctness, or so called "censorship."
It could be said that Fury Road's obviously deliberate choice to include within its production the humanity of all of its female characters and to form the entire plot of the story from their choices was thrown into — if you'll pardon the phrase — stark relief simply by the company it kept in its opening weekend.
After all, on Sunday night another juggernaut of the entertainment world chose, again, not only to attempt to cement a female character's importance to the overall plot line by creating a situation in which she was required to place her bodily autonomy in the hands of a hostile, violent man in order to further her ambitions — but to film it as the stomach churning period at the end of a story installment.
More than anything else, what Mad Max: Fury Road chooses not to do establishes the value of restraint over reaching for "shock value." Fury Road's choices are not bowdlerization, political correctness, or so called "censorship," the negative labels so often thrown at, for example, requests to handle sexual assault in fiction with a more considered touch. They're choices that make it a stronger story.
Refraining from the overuse of gore helps Fury Road, because when those moments of violence do come, the audience has not been so desensitized that they cannot emotionally recognize the noble death of a veteran warrior, the riveting second wind of an injured hero, or the long-overdue just desserts of a brutal tyrant. It's a surprising choice that sets it apart from many other films of its genre and era.
Refraining from objectification helps Fury Road as well. By allowing Splendid and the other women with her to become characters, fictional people with a narrative and literal value that eclipses their potential to be visually (or otherwise) pleasing to a man, Fury Road gains more of the audience's empathy to play with, it gains more meaningful interactions to showcase. It, simply, gains.