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Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga - Hope Takes Root

[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

I. Living Off the Corpse of the Old World

Come on, Max. Tell me your story. What burned you out? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family? Oh, so that's it. You lost your family. That makes you something special, does it?

This monologue, originally uttered in 1981’s The Road Warrior, is still thematically relevant to the increasingly sprawling Mad Max Saga, resonating three films and more than four decades later. Every installment in the franchise—from its scrappy, low-budget debut to its most recent spinoff—revolves around loss. The desolate Wasteland takes, and takes, and takes again, consuming friends, family, resources, sanity. Those that linger are little more than disillusioned scavengers—“maggots living off the corpse of the old world.”

That description certainly applies to Dementus, the central antagonist of Furiosa. A charismatic, flamboyant warlord commanding veritable legions of bloodthirsty marauders, the self-proclaimed “King of the Bikers” (one of several grandiose titles that he flaunts like undeserved trophies) quickly establishes himself as a cunning tactician, utilizing an audacious Trojan Horse strategy to effortlessly overwhelm a formidable stronghold with minimal casualties to his own troops.

Despite his short-term victories on the battlefield, however, Dementus consistently proves himself to be an utterly incompetent leader in times of peace, with his conquests almost immediately descending into chaos and disarray. He’s essentially a post-apocalyptic Ozymandias in the making: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck,” you can easily imagine the History Man saying of his ruined domain, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

II. A Fuel-Injected Suicide Machine

Of course, it is implied that Dementus’ numerous “failures” are actually intentional. Although he claims to seek a “land of abundance,” finding it isn't his true goal; rather, what he desires is the pursuit of paradise—the thrill of a chase without end, futile and fruitless. To paraphrase Michael Mann’s Heat: “For [him], the action is the juice.”

Beneath his boasts, bluster, and pretensions of ambition, Dementus is a devout nihilist, so irreparably shattered by the tragic deaths of his children (symbolized by the stuffed toy that he constantly carries on his person) that even physical sensation—pain, pleasure, exhilaration—now eludes him. As he explains to Furiosa during their climactic confrontation, the gaping wound in his heart can only be healed (albeit temporarily) by violence—the fleeting adrenaline rush of seizing territory and crushing his enemies underfoot.

Perhaps this is what motivates him to “mentor” our young heroine: he wants to remold something untainted by rust and radiation in his own savage image—not merely as an heir or a replacement for his biological offspring, but as the ultimate validation of his pessimistic philosophy. To this end, he forces the poor girl to watch as he brutally murders her mother, burning every excruciating second of agony and torment into her memory. To add insult to injury, he literally tastes the tears that she weeps, reveling in her grief and misery.

III. Feels Like Hope

Nevertheless, Love somehow manages to endure amidst the despair—like a lush and verdant Green Place thriving in the middle of a barren desert. If Dementus is a dark reflection of Max Rockatansky’s worst qualities—selfishness, cynicism, indiscriminate rage—then Praetorian Jack anticipates his eventual altruism. Like Max, Jack’s parents were once “warriors searching for a righteous cause.” Unfortunately, nobility and morality are as illusory and insubstantial as a mirage among the merciless dunes; following their senseless deaths, their orphaned son resigned himself to an empty existence of defending an egomaniacal tyrant’s supply caravans from roving bandits and rival gangs.

In Furiosa, though, Jack recognizes a kindred spirit. While circumstances have reduced them to their basest survival instincts, they both dream of something greater: she of returning to the home from which she was snatched, and he of discovering a purpose beyond the “fire and blood” of the Road War. Together, they forge a relationship that transcends romance, nourishing the seed of Hope in one another. He wouldn’t hesitate to lay down his life in exchange for hers; and she, in turn, would gladly sacrifice a chance at freedom in order to protect him.

Even Jack’s unceremonious demise can’t totally extinguish the faint ember of optimism that he sparked in Furiosa’s subconscious. Though she briefly succumbs to wrath and exacts cruel vengeance on Dementus, she refuses to fulfill her adversary’s grim prophecy that she will become his successor—the personification of his bleak worldview. Instead, she follows Jack’s example; inspired by his inherent goodness, she conspires to liberate Immortan Joe’s abused and exploited “wives” (glorified sex slaves, valued solely as breeding stock), leading them to salvation beyond his seemingly infinite reach.

IV. Some Kind of Redemption

“Who killed the world?” is a recurring question throughout Mad Max: Fury Road; the complementary characters in its belated prequel provide something resembling an answer. Dementus, haunted by his traumatic Past, destroys everything that he touches; by the conclusion of his journey, his band of loyal disciples has dwindled to a meager handful, and he finally marches towards his doom alone. Joe, meanwhile, rules the Present with an iron fist, but his single-minded obsession with producing a “pure” genetic legacy sabotages his dynastic aspirations; without any “perfect” progeny to inherit his cult of personality, his empire is too fragile to outlast him. Furiosa, on the other hand, realizes that the Future lies not in oppression and subjugation, but in cooperation, collaboration, and compassion.

Greed, authoritarianism, and Hate killed the world; it is therefore only logical that Love should resurrect it.

It’s a message as elegantly simple and universal as the archetypes that populate George Miller’s modern mythology. Furiosa is a worthy addition to the legendary series, expanding upon and recontextualizing its predecessors while simultaneously excelling on its own merits. It is magnificent, spectacular, and absolutely epic.

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