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On Imperator Furiosa

Hear that rumbling? Furiosa is coming down the road. Not in 2022 or in 2023, but everyone’s favorite imperator returns in 2024. Furiosa (2024) is a prequel to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). I am ambivalent because I am tired of origin stories, and particularly the origin stories female characters so often get*, but I am also relieved because it’s written by George Miller and his Fury Road writing partner Nick Lathouris.

In Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is a general and driver in Immortan Joe’s army in a post-apocalyptic near future. If you didn’t take Latin, “imperator” is a Roman honorific, bestowed on commanders in the field by their armies. It became more like “emperor” with Julius Caesar’s nephew Augustus. And so the implication of the title in Fury Road is that Furiosa is very good at her job (and maybe there’s some foreshadowing about her coming to power with the help of her “army”). Immortan Joe (the late Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his brother warlords have monopolies that they maintain through force. Joe controls access to a necessity. In his mesa fortress, the Citadel, Joe bestows water on the thirsty people who gather at its base, all the while warning them of the dangers of their “addiction” to water. His society is as obviously patriarchal as can be, down to milking women to quench his thirst; kidnapping and holding women captive as his “wives” to provide him with perfect, healthy sons; concealing his own vulnerability behind an armor of plastic muscles in line with the masculinity and illusory strength he wishes to project; and attracting men, particularly young men, as his War Boys, to die for him using the promise of Valhalla and the shiny, chrome glory of his approval. In the Mad Max movies, Max (Mel Gibson / Tom Hardy) drifts into post-apocalyptic conflicts and ends up helping the powerless against the powerful. In Fury Road, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by War Boys and used as a “blood bag” for a sick War Boy named, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Max ends up escaping and helping Furiosa as she helps Joe’s wives—Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), the Dag (Abbey Lee), and the Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington Whiteley)—escape from Joe and takes them to the Green Place Furiosa remembers from her childhood.

But beyond the fact that Furiosa was taken from the Vuvalini’s Green Place by War Boys and became a commander in Immortan Joe’s army, there is not much explicit backstory about Furiosa in the film. Despite current pop aesthetics and criticism’s focus on origin stories as explanation for character, Furiosa’s back story and motivations are pretty clear. And I suspect they would be more clear to other viewers if she were male. Let me tell you what I see when I look at Furiosa just from Fury Road. Furiosa is good at what she does and she likes that. She does remember where she came from and wants to go home, but like Max, Furiosa has been dehumanized by what she has done to survive and what she did for Joe as she led his War Boys on raids. I think Furiosa tried hard not to think about the order of things and just to do her job. While Max is the stranger, the outsider coming into the story, Furiosa is not so different from him or so many other strangers in science fiction, Westerns, fantasy and action movies. And while Furiosa isn’t quite the same, she fits in with the men with no name of Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy or a soldier who walked away from his own authoritarian army in Soldier (1998) or a cop who ultimately opposes his own fascist police department like Murphy in RoboCop (1987)**, or several of the samurai in Seven Samurai (1954) or even Shane in Shane (1953). She’s risking her life to save humanity, her own and others, and so probably has some sympathy for John Connor in The Terminator(1984). Like Max, Furiosa fights for her humanity. Unlike Max, she fights for a home.

Unlike Shane, the soldier in Soldier and the nameless ronin of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Furiosa requires a back story in part because, as my friend Dave DeMoss notes, it is a time of prequels, origin stories and filling in “plot holes.” With an origin story, the point becomes where all those antiheroes and strangers came from. With Fury Road‘s implicit back story, the point is what the story tells us now. Furiosa’s realization that she’s a soldier in a misogynistic warlord’s authoritarian army and that what is happening is wrong is the point. A lot of current pop aesthetics focuses on a detailed origin story as an explanation for a character. Usually that origin is some kind of trauma, but trauma isn’t the only thing that creates heroes or villains. Would Bruce Wayne be any less oriented towards the greater good if he had been raised all his life by Thomas Wayne, Martha Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth? Using only a tragic origin to explain why heroes become heroes when other people don’t can let the rest of us off the hook for not doing the right thing within our capabilities. And sometimes, it implies our natural state is malignant and can let us off the hook for being crappy people. After all, if we are inherently malignant, we can’t do anything about it. So we can just play our games, watch our stories and chill. I’m not saying that in any kind of deluded unwillingness to accept human capacity for violence and cruelty. I’m just focusing on the fact that we have choices, even in dystopian situations. Perhaps especially in dystopian situations. In her post-apocalyptic situation, Furiosa decides she has a choice to do something about Immortan Joe.

It’s cool that Furiosa is presented like a lot of male antiheroes are, but it’s unusual for a female character to have the same kind of signification—the cool prosthetic, the elevated position in her patriarchal society, the broadly implied backstory. But beyond a pop aesthetic needing everything filled in, there hasn’t been a TV Trope for a mysterious female antihero and I think that feeds a desire for an origin story beyond the one implicit in Fury Road. Furiosa is a woman supporting an explicitly patriarchal system and I think there’s a desire to understand how a woman could be a part of that. She is helping women escape captivity, but this is new for her. Furiosa was in the Citadel hierarchy. She was an Imperator for Immortan Joe, a general to a warlord. And the most obvious explanation might feel unsatisfactory—like many women with positions of authority in patriarchal regimes, she benefitted from it. And like many people in authoritarian regimes, she focused on her own survival and possibly bided her time for her own escape back to the Green Place.

This is difficult to talk about because it can get misogynistic in itself. Look how gleefully white people picked up “Karen” and all of the sudden it’s not Black people’s analysis of how white women benefit and support white supremacy, but a way for white people to put everything off on women. Just like Immortan Joe would. Everyone in Furiosa’s world is trying to survive and the people in the Citadel are traumatized by their existence in Immortan Joe’s regime, from his wives and Furiosa to the milk women and the poor people running Joe’s elevators to the War Cubs raised to believe dying for a “sick old man” is a life of glory. Furiosa was good as a general. She was good at reading a situation and figuring out how to survive. And once she woke up and a made a new choice, she used those skills to help. That implicit arc has been easy to accept with so many male antiheroes.

Instead Furiosa gets Mad Max: Fury Road: Furiosa #1 (Vertigo, 2015), a comic prequel explaining that Immortan Joe assigned Furiosa to protect his wives from other men and that she became who she is because she was abused, raped and ultimately discarded by Joe when she was unable to have a child. It explains that Furiosa learned to empathize with the wives despite their apparently easy lives, because of her experience having been like them. And the comic kind of implies that it took Furiosa a while to recognize their common plight because of her resentment of their potential fertility and her possible infertility. The comic has George Miller’s name on it, but it doesn’t seem like he was much involved. After all, Miller had so carefully researched the experience of women kidnapped by warlords and brought in Eve Ensler as a consultant to talk about the effects of rape, and the comic has none of that care or sensitivity. Instead the comic falls back on facile cliches. And it implies that what Furiosa resolves is her belief that she’s better or different than Joe’s captive wives. There are myriad motivations for women and Furiosa is a stronger character for the implied back story of Fury Road compared to the explicit origin story of the Furiosa comic. Rape and infertility are not the only motivational story lines for women. And Furiosa’s back story is likely to be a story about what she lost when she was taken from the Green Place, not how her trauma made her a hero.

I understand wanting more Furiosa, but what happened with her is pretty obvious and well-enough explained. She benefited because of her skills. She realized how wrong Immortan Joe was. She tried to do a good thing. One of the things I think is powerful in just being presented with Fury Road is that you see someone who was part of it and chooses not to be part of it anymore. There is a danger of diluting that and the message that evil is mundane and thoughtless, but right now you can choose to do the right thing or stop doing the wrong thing. Right now. That’s a choice we all have maybe at different scales than Imperator Furiosa, but we have it.

Of course, more Furiosa is coming. George Miller’s prequel is already in development and is supposed to open in May, 2024. And my own concerns about prequels and origin stories aside, I do trust Miller to do it right. After all, he and the cast and crew of Fury Road did it right.

*One exception is Rita Farr’s backstory in the Doom Patrol television series.

**Your mileage may vary on how well RoboCop (2014) fits in with all this.

~~~

Carol Borden sings “Imperator Furiosa” to the tune of “California Über Alles.”

Thanks to David DeMoss of And You Thought It Was Safe for the discussion that led to this piece.

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