FURIOSA: Giving the Heroine a Prequel Plays a Dangerous Game

Contributor; Toronto, Canada
FURIOSA: Giving the Heroine a Prequel Plays a Dangerous Game

This essay, originally titled "The Days I Don't Remember," appeared as backmatter for high-tier Kickstarter backers of my book, The Cinema of Survival: Mad Max Fury Road. I've edited and updated it now that the Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga trailer is out in the world. If you'd like to purchase a copy of my book to read up on all things Furiosa (and Max), a few dozen copies are still available!

Content warning: some discussion of onscreen sexual violence below.

I've written a book about Mad Max: Fury Road, which meant consuming a lot of Fury Road-related writing; but I still haven't read the Furiosa prequel comic book, which was released in 2015 to fill out that character's backstory. The comic was ill-received: it did exactly what the movie proper did not: it visually subjected Furiosa to an abuse and victimization narrative, including sexual assault.

It's the sort of thing that makes characters like her more palatable to (male) audiences. Men like powerful women in genre movies to be "explainable," i.e. whose character can be diagrammed back to a sequence of events that conferred power upon her, usually via the actions of men. (See the Rey explanation in J.J. Abrams' execrable Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.)

Now, ask me how I feel about the Furiosa prequel movie, the fifth (ish) Mad Max film and/or the first Cinematic Universe-style spinoff, focusing on the breakout character from Fury Road. Reportedly, the new film is based on the original backstory for the character, developed by George Miller prior to the production of Fury Road, which was shared with Charlize Theron as a guideline for her performance.

The prequel comic I've mentioned was based on a story by Miller. It is unconfirmed whether Miller gave comic writer Mark Sexton the same general story that will make up the spine of the Furiosa screenplay, although there's no reason to presume that he did not. There's also no reason to presume Miller has not further elaborated and altered that story, since he doesn't seem like the sort of fellow who would pull a George R.R. Martin and just keep banging away at a tale that another writer has already spoiled the ending of. In either case, though, interested parties will have to wait until the spring, when Furiosa is released, and then do some cross-comparison.

I, for one, remain anxious about the film project. It seems more prone to dilute the power of Furiosa as a character, than to strengthen it.

Naturally, backstory -- complete with possible violence or trauma -- is implicit in character creation. Max, himself, suffers violence and trauma at the hands of men in the first Mad Max film. That violence isn't so much his origin story as the culmination (and price) of it, but the sort of trolls who like to create false equivalencies as a means to negate progressive arguments around how women are presented in action films and video games will be the first to point this sort of thing out.

Two things, however, would make the equivalency truly false, if I did not add them: 1/ the traumatization we ascribe to Max at the end of the first film is, of course, not Max's direct trauma at all; Jessie (Max's wife) and Sprog (their son) are murdered. Max is merely a witness, and survivor, of violence enacted upon his family.

And 2/, Max is male. Duh.

Men get off narratively easy throughout the history of film (and really, all storytelling); others are harmed on their behalf to create driving motivation and pathology that will play itself out later. Martha Wayne is killed so that Bruce can become Batman and eventually bark "Martha!" at Superman as they're fighting in the rain.

More to the point, Alexandra is murdered so that Kyle Rayner can become a better Green Lantern -- from which the term "fridging" derives. When a woman is the lead of her own story, male-driven narratives have tended to harm her directly. To keep it vaguely DC, Selina Kyle is pushed out a window in Batman Returns -- for all intents and purposes, murdered -- in order to become the Batverse's most powerful woman, Catwoman. Harley Quinn is pushed into a vat of chemicals by her insane lover in Suicide Squad and emerges as a gymnastic harlequin with a penchant for hammers. And we are always, always shown it.

Fury Road, then, was novel in that it provided ample information to understand the victimization of the Wives -- Angharad and the Dag's pregnancies, for one -- without needing to actually show us how they were victimized. George Miller put a rape onscreen in The Road Warrior but felt no compulsion to repeat the move in Fury Road.

The film provided slightly more information to imagine the victimization of Furiosa, but not much; she speaks of some of her early days with Max and with the Vuvalini, but these events aren't visualized or elaborated upon because there is no narrative need to. This has been justifiably celebrated as a feminist approach to women characters in a film like Mad Max, because the film does not assume that we need to see the victimization in order to understand and empathize with that victimization.

Miller has pointed out, either modestly or pragmatically or neither or both, that the fact that we don't see the Wives or Furiosa's backstories play out in Mad Max: Fury Road is because, as a narratively relentless A-to-B (back-to-A) story, there is nowhere in the film to put it. (He had a similar answer re: any questions of potential romance between Max and Furiosa: where would you put it?)

That's the practical argument, and the modesty argument would be supported by the fact that, in spite of Fury Road's linearity, Miller does include flashbacks to some of Max's trauma, largely through the repeating appearances of Glory the Child, but does not deign to do the same for the women, even if it would -- in some respects -- strengthen Max's connection to their plight. But then, Max is the point-of-view character in Fury Road, and Furiosa and the Wives are not; we can be inside his head to a degree that we can't be with theirs.

My anxiety around all of this, and around the Furiosa movie, is largely that the above arguments make sense. And since they make sense, they argue that the "feminist" nature of Fury Road may have been arrived at for reasons that had nothing to do with George Miller and his team wanting to do something differently from how any other action movie, including his own, would have done it; and rather, because of the exigencies of one specific movie with one specific set of conditions. Conditions that can now be undone.

In other words, George Miller might just as easily have shown the violence visited upon the Wives, and upon Furiosa, had his narrative structure not precluded it. And -- whoops! -- now here he goes, making an entire feature film set in a narrative area where, one imagines, the evils undergone by a younger Furiosa will not only be harder to leave out of the picture, but may in fact be fundamental to the storytelling.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope there really is a wicked, smart, enthralling adventure story that Furiosa was in the middle of, 20 years before the events of Fury Road, which neither frustrates or negates her iconic presence in the film I've just spent years writing about.

Much of Furiosa's transcendent power in Fury Road comes from her not having an origin story; she explodes into the Mad Max mythology fully formed, Athena from the head of Zeus. This has value beyond simply cheating sexist expectations.

It means that as with any icon, we may bring to Furiosa what we need her to carry for us, in terms of meaning and tone. This will become less possible if we drill into some vague portion of what made her who she is when we find her or, even worse, the specifics of how she looks, how she acts, or how she belongs.

I am not one of my generation of film writers who is intrinsically against prequels as a concept, although I do generally agree that there is a fundamental (possibly unbreakable) challenge in the narrative structure of any prequel, which is that we know the ending ahead of the characters. We know, for example, that Furiosa will survive whatever happens to her in Furiosa; if she starts the film with two arms, we know one of them is going to go. This both dissipates tension and renders traumatic plot points as something akin to a gag.

My problem, though, is less an issue with prequel dramaturgy itself -- clever prequels, like Rogue One, can work to get around this, to varying degrees of success -- as with the fannish need to particularize all the details of how a character came to look and behave exactly as we know them. ("While we're here, why don't we show you why Boba Fett's helmet has a dent in it?") This was the central gimmick in the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for example, which puts Indy's hat, scar, bullwhip fetish, and ophidiophobia as the outcomes of a single ten-minute adventure when he was 13 years old.

I'd call that film the last time this sort of fan service was legally permissible (in whatever court of movie laws exists in my head); the Star Wars prequel trilogy notoriously filled in unnecessary blanks in a cosmology that was spinning just fine on its own, and the problem has only worsened since. Prequel tales are narratively tricky at the best of times; as fan service, patting the audience on the head for anticipating the plainly obvious, they are the very definition of an ouroboros.

Back to Furiosa. Do I want to see a film centred entirely on that character? Of course I do; she's great. Anya Taylor-Joy is an interesting actress (even if it is, of course, disappointing that Miller & Co. have chosen to focus on a period of Furiosa's life where she can't plausibly be played by Theron, who more than deserves to further expand and deepen the character she co-created). My concerns, beyond both the fan-service and narrative loop-de-loops described above, is simply that by making this film, George Miller isn't just going to fall into some of the gendered and misogynist trope traps that he successfully evaded when he made Fury Road, but that by doing so, he's going to prove that Fury Road wasn't feminist except by accident.

James M. Cain was (largely) right about adaptations and follow-ups not truly being able to ding the original work, which remain whole and sacrosanct on their various shelves. Still, finding out that Fury Road was only circumstantially the film that we all took it to be would be disheartening. More than anything, this lines up to one of the most troublesome and unsettling aspects of interacting with any art work: the fuzzy, malleable, and wholly ephemeral line between what we bring to it as individuals and as an audience community, versus what is endemic to the work, or intended by the work's author.

This latter is particularly tricky in film, where the entire notion of the "author" is laughably single-minded. I've ascribed the Max films to George Miller throughout my writing largely as shorthand, one which happens to line up with whatever misreading of "auteur theory" is currently popular, but I know quite well that the authorship question is unresolvable in anything as polymorphous as a film production.

Still, a new group of people -- including Miller and other longtime collaborators like his partner, Margaret Sixel -- are about to take another crack at the Furiosa character, and I can only hope they honour her in the same way that the community of fandom that sprang up around her since 2015 has honoured her.

I feel slightly more confident about that than I would if, say, Disney was doing this; Miller is as close to an independent filmmaker as you can have while still working for Warner Brothers, and whatever Furiosa turns out to be, I think we can assume it will be the film he intended. That being the case, though, I hope that Miller, himself, proves reliable.

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Anya Taylor-JoyCharlize TheronGeorge MillerMad MaxNick LathourisChris HemsworthTom BurkeActionAdventureSci-Fi

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