illustration by Michael Hay

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth film in George Miller’s Mad Max franchise. Thirty years beyond the Thunderdome, Miller returns us once more to this feral burnt-out fetishscape, now bigger and brighter than ever. It stars Academy Award winner Charlize Theron as the instantly iconic Imperator Furiosa, out-scorching the entire desert with her gaze, and Tom “Resting Concerned Face” Hardy as dust-up drifter Max Rockatansky, delivering all five of his total lines like a mumbly lion dad. Also featured: pasty fawn-mutant Nicholas Hoult—who manages to be surprisingly endearing for a character literally called a War Boy—and a bevy of beauties who would throw you straight out of a moving tanker truck for diminishing them to just that, leaving you to fend for yourself while they make their way toward the stronghold of a matriarchal motorcycle gang who spit fire over the sand dunes and grow seedlings in sun-bleached skulls.

For nearly the entire running time, these characters race around a super-saturated desert in nightmare doomcars, with fight sequences so finely tuned, character driven, jaw-dropping, and weirdly charming that it almost starts to feel like some post-apocalyptic hell-to-leather Buster Keaton film. It is completely insane and pure joy, the most gorgeously shot, masterfully crafted symphony of carnage in decades, and there are more named female characters than male. I fucking loved this movie.

A big part of my love for Fury Road comes from the same place as my love for the entire Mad Max franchise. I came late to the Wasteland, only watching the original three about a month before Fury Road came out, but I went down quick and I went down hard. For movies often (and not to say inaccurately) billed as absurd action-heavy/dialogue-light Ozploitation disaster flicks, they are remarkably well-crafted. They’re super textural and lived-in, they feel real, and in a lot of ways that’s because they are. Miller has been dropping jaws for 35 years with his stunt work, which began with the astonishingly scrappy Mad Max. The practical stunts were originally born from a combination of budgetary necessity and gonzo moxie, and despite exponentially increasing funds, Miller maintained this same approach through the stunning car chases of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, and then kept barreling forward into Fury Road. Movies have changed a lot in the thirty years between 1985 and 2015. Today, lengthy CGI battles are de rigueur for the action genre, which probably explains why so much shouting went down over just how shockingly real Fury Road was: all the explosions, all the cars, all the flame-throwing guitars. It’s an old-fashioned technique—build it for real, do it for real, light it on real fire and drive it across the real desert—yet is so unconventional in modern movies that it winds up feeling novel and progressive.

This is at the core of what I love most about the Mad Max franchise: each film manages to present the deeply traditional in a way that somehow feels daringly original. It carries through from the practical stunt-work to the stories themselves, tales that would make Joseph Campbell smile with their simple Hero With a Thousand Faces core. The Mad Max films are a kind of modern myth-making, a notion that is present even in the way they treat continuity. If you sat down and tried to piece together a timeline for Max or his world over the course of the four movies, it wouldn’t add up. Instead, each movie functions like a different story someone is telling about Mad Max, the Road Warrior. He is an archetypal figure within a new mythos. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same sawed off shotgun that sparks and fails the first time Max tries to use it—what matters is that there is a gun like that, because Max has a gun like that. Just like Max has a leather jacket carried down from his days in the Main Force Patrol, and at some point he or someone near him will wind a tiny music box. In each Max story, there are certain symbols that are constant, like Orpheus’ lyre. What works in myths works for George Miller as well.

In Fury Road, all of this comes together in triumphant harmony. The classic forms and characters combine with old-school methods of filmmaking to create something akin to the loudest silent film you’ve ever seen, one in which the action and the movement of real human bodies in front of a movie camera tell you most of the story. But the primary reason Fury Road tips over into This Is My Favorite Movie Of The Year zone is because the story being told is socially progressive, both in content and in form—and is humanist down to its bones. Fury Road paints a terrible no-good future in brilliant color—saturated with whackadoodle detail as beautiful as it is perverse—combined with the message that this world’s brokenness can be healed once its people begin to recognize each other as equals. From out of this Wasteland comes a reminder that our own present society badly needs to hear: No one, regardless of gender, should be reduced to what their body has to offer. We are individuals possessed of heart and strength. We Are Not Things. And once we realize that, and support each other, we can save our world, too.

Inextricable from both its message and its method is the film’s up-front feminism. Of course, an inevitable Tall Poppy backlash emerged after the dust settled a bit, some of it coming from women who felt Fury Road was far less feminist than originally promoted. Funnily enough, the movie’s own marketing never presented itself as a consciously feminist film, the cast’s 50/50 gender split only being sussed out by close readers of IMDb, and Theron’s leading role merely extrapolated from the fact that she actually spoke in the trailers (oh Max) and shared the same amount of poster space as Hardy. It wasn’t until credible reports started coming in from the first screenings that this topic properly took off. And once it became clear that the plot was, quite literally, about women running the patriarchy under their wheels, weird cars in the desert were no longer the only things blowing up.

The arguments against Fury Road as a feminist movie are a bit of a mix, and honestly, sometimes a bit of a mess as well. I have rarely felt more like I was being gaslighted than when reading critiques of this movie’s gender politics that described a different plot than the one I watched. Once we set those aside, what emerges is a much more valuable conversation: what do we even mean by the term “feminist movie.”

There can be different grades of feminism in different works, just as there should be certain tenets followed in order to qualify, no matter the genre. A movie is not automatically feminist just because women best men in a fight. Then again, a movie is not automatically un-feminist because its plot line involves sexual abuse. It all depends on how it is handled, what the focus is. In Fury Road, the violence done to the Wives is never depicted onscreen — their suffering is never the entertainment. Instead, the story is about their triumph over that darkness through their own strength. They had been reduced to their bodily resources, yes, just as the War Boys were cannon fodder, and Max a Blood Bag, but it is the women’s adamant refusal to let this exploitation continue that drives the whole plot. “We are not things!” they shout to their would-be oppressors in their first scene. And then they spend the rest of the movie proving just that.

George Miller told the actresses playing the ex-Wives that they and Furiosa were the heart of the film, and they are. They’re the ones who care, they’re the ones who speak, they’re the ones who start shit and get it done. We talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, because even though movies can get cheap-ass technical passes if two women talk about ice cream for 30 seconds at some point, it’s still a useful way to throw a harsh light on the many films that can’t even manage to get that far. Fury Road aces the Bechdel Test over and over again, but it goes even further: it also passes the Mako Mori Test of narrative autonomy, also over and over again.

This is a film where the female characters get not just the lion’s share of the screenspace, but also complete narrative arcs that are their own, independent of men. Not counting the villains, who function as The Evil of Mankind, if you took our two good male characters, Max and Nux, out of the movie, Furiosa and the girls would still have motivations and character development and independent story arcs. But if you took the women out of the movie, the men aren’t left with a plot of their own. This is incredible to comprehend. I have spent complete minutes lost in wonder at how rare this is, in any movie. Without Furiosa, without the women she is freeing and the women she is returning to, who raised her to be the woman she is, this movie just does not exist.

Many Fury Road reviews have some variation on the line, “Furiosa drives the truck and the plot,” because that is absolutely true. Furiosa is seeking redemption for being complicit in an awful system. Over the course of the movie, she learns that the way to realize her goal is not to flee with some of the abused women, but to free everyone by breaking the system altogether, and rebuilding an oppressive society into one based on equality. It’s her mission that rehabilitates Max, who gets his own redemption only through growing to respect Furiosa, and fighting alongside her for her just cause. This Max is such a beautiful male action lead, because he embodies not the usual Lone Man machismo form of heroics, but rather the kind of heroism that comes from cooperation, understanding, and compassion — “Engage to heal,” as Miller had written on the wall of the production office. It’s telling that Max’s big heroic moment is not killing the Big Bad, but offering Furiosa his blood to use. By the end, she and Max have reached a place of mutual warrior respect, as Theron put it, and after they bro-nod at each other and Max silently fades into the crowd at a medium distance, the movie ends with us looking at Furiosa and the women, the camera close in on them as they rise, victorious. There couldn’t be a surer testament to whose story is being told.

Moreover, our protagonist is not the only female character to get her own narrative arc. Several of the girls do as well, pulling on layers of characterization, just as they pull on layers of boots and scarves and gloves as soon as they get the chance. The girls’ stories may not be as plot-driving as Furiosa’s, but they are still there and they are still their own. There’s The Dag, that lovable weirdo who bonds with The Keeper of the Seeds, learns about the sour soil and the seedlings, and moves from resenting the present to gaining a sense of history and hope for a future that she might be able to make green. In her story’s conclusion, poetic as it is tangible, The Dag carefully takes up the satchel of seeds, pressing her hand to the glass, like a promise to the old woman’s memory that she too will try to grow something beautiful in this blasted land.

And there’s wonderful Capable, whose understanding and compassion enables Nux to follow her lead away from a life determined by Immortan Joe. She has the wisdom and humanity to see Nux not as an off-shoot of the man who enslaved her, but as a lost, brainwashed foot-soldier who also deserves to be free. She comforts him as she does the other girls, and guides him to shininess with her steadfast moral beacon (and possibly a shared affinity for goggles). In a lovely bookend to her story, at the beginning Capable offers to take the first watch, and at the end she is the one to watch Nux when he asks her to Witness him. She pulls her closing fist to her heart, memorializing and honoring his life in the gesture she has learned from the Vuvalini.

And Cheedo, oh Cheedo – her narrative is the most deftly done. We first know Cheedo the Fragile as a delicate young girl, the one tries to run back to the men they are fleeing from, terrified of what will happen without the security that comes from a cage. The other women pull her back, dry her tears, remind her that she is not a thing to be locked away, but her own person with her own power. Then, in the last big battle, Cheedo once more reaches back for her old captors, pleads to Rictus to save her – but this time, after she has tricked him into lifting her across the gap between the cars, she rushes to the front, and reaches down to help Furiosa up.

All of these women get these unique narratives that show their character, their strength, and their development over the course of the movie. And, importantly, their stories are not about their relation to men, to Max or to Immortan Joe. (Capable’s narrative is entwined with Nux’s, but his character growth depends on her, not the other way around.) Neither are their stories forgotten in all the bright crashes and dust and Doof Warrior doofs – they all get final moments of their arcs, woven into the action. For me, that’s feminist. That’s encouraging, and that’s powerful. To give side characters cohesive story beats specific to them, that still serve the overall tone and sweep of the narrative – that’s what all, storytellers want to achieve. This is the gold standard, and it’s achieved by a primarily female cast in a movie that is about three quarters car chases. It’s a goddamn watershed for action flicks.

Fury Road is ultimately an allegory, a simple one about resources and humanity. But as with many of our oldest myths, it has launched complex discussions about our world today. It sets a new example for a way we can make movies, both in terms of its practical effects and the respect it gives to female narratives, showing that women can carry the plot of an action movie as surely as a truck can carry enough speakers to be heard from miles across the desert. I was nearly dancing down the street after I saw this movie, thinking about how every director in Hollywood was losing their minds over Fury Road, just howling into the night that this movie took them all to school, that it was a triumph, a masterclass, a blazing gem of nonstop hellbent orchestral action — and knowing that it was also so unabashedly, organically in support of women. Look at how it can be done! Look at how it can be beautiful, and fun, and the most exhilarating break-neck rush of a film to land in cinemas this year.