Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
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No, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist masterpiece (but that’s OK)

Because most Hollywood films are so bad at dealing with female characters, Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for trying. But it still uses lazy, sexist tropes and clichéd plot devices.

A handsome, troubled man rescues a beautiful woman (who also happens to be a badass driver) from servitude, and “she rescues him right back”. The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road. Except I’m actually describing the plot of Pretty Woman.

A woman with a background of abuse uses her hard-won position to exact revenge on a powerful rapist. Also the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road, but really I’m describing Showgirls.

Neither Pretty Woman nor Showgirls are hailed as “feminist masterpieces”, but since its opening weekend Mad Max: Fury Road has been celebrated as exactly that. Often, I’ve observed, by men – feminist allies gleefully celebrating the introduction or deconstruction of gender politics to a stereotypically male genre.

I loved Mad Max: Fury Road for lots of reasons. The production design, by Colin Gibson, is amongst the best I’ve seen. “Make it cool or I’ll kill you”, director George Miller told Gibson (women don’t tend to talk to each other like that, I’ll be honest. Make it cool or I’ll fire you, or possibly just ask you to do it again until it’s right). But Gibson played a blinder, designing vehicles as characters in their own right, grotesque chimeras of vintage style and function, spewing black smoke and doomed maniacal soldiers – War Boys – on poles.

That the soldiers are called War Boys highlights both their status as disposable, and the rigid-but-disputed gender roles that have inspired the claims of “feminist masterpiece”. In Fury Road, boys are bred for fighting, and girls are bred for…well, breeding. In a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, birth defects would be high. Immortan Joe, the film’s antagonist, owns a citadel powered by humans. Lactating overweight women are hooked up like dairy cows, their “mother’s milk” harvested for human consumption. Joe’s “wives”, incredibly beautiful girls in chastity belts, are selected by him for their desirable breeding traits in pursuit of his desire for “perfect” male offspring. I think this is a pretty likely scenario in the event of society breaking down, and the film holds no punches in its stark depictions of biological exploitation.

Charlize Theron plays Furiosa, the driver of the War Rig. How she came to have this key military role in an otherwise entirely patriarchal society is unexplained, but conveniently it allows her to abscond across the wasteland with Joe’s prized and pregnant brides hidden in the belly of her vehicle like a Crust Punk Matryoshka.

These women are rebelling against their enslavement as “things”, as property. They also rhetorically question “who killed the world?”. The implication is that men killed the world. In the pre-desolation Mad Max universe, were there no female military leaders? No female soldiers? No female nuclear engineers building bombs? If we’re to buy the aggression and survival instincts of Furiosa and the matriarchal, gun-toting tribe with which she eventually reunites, then we have to look past the notion of men as natural war-mongers and women as natural peace-makers. Necessity is an equalising force. But in the end, these tropes are not dismantled by Mad Max: Fury Road, but reinforced.

I understand the desire to declare Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist masterpiece. A notoriously male-dominated Hollywood churns out sexist films daily. A study by the Geena Davis institute (pdf) found that only 28 per cent of speaking roles in G-rated Hollywood films are female. Earlier this year, Variety reported that a mere 7 per cent of the top 250 grossing Hollywood films had women directing, and only 11 per cent had female writers.

Because most Hollywood films are so very bad at gender, Mad Mad: Fury Road stands out for trying. But that doesn’t mean it’s a girl’s best friend in the form a diamond in the rough. If you declare this film to be a feminist masterpiece, you’re declaring it the new – or desirable – standard, and as a standard for feminist masterpieces, I’m afraid it fails. 

A feminist masterpiece would have cast the titular hero as female.

A feminist masterpiece would not have scantily-clad models with improbable thigh gaps hosing each other down. 

A feminist masterpiece would understand that women selected for pregnancy would be well-nourished, with large childbearing hips.

A feminist masterpiece would acknowledge that patriarchal societies that value chasity to the point of enslavement also cover up their women from head to toe.

A feminist masterpiece would not have the female leader’s final plan of driving into the sunset undermined by the male hero in favour of his “superior” plan (turns out he knew what was right for the women better than the women themselves, oh ho).

A feminist masterpiece would not immobilise its female lead at the end and leave her to be rescued by a man.

A feminist masterpiece would have its female lead, not its male lead, emerge triumphant and reveal the body of her enslaver with a rousing speech.

A feminist masterpiece would not have bags of seeds handed from one “mother” generation to the next. I see you, symbolism, I see you.

A feminist masterpiece would be written by three women, not three men. 

A feminist masterpiece would be directed by a woman. 

A feminist masterpiece would be Furiosa’s story. It’s not. It’s Max’s story. He’s haunted by the women and girls he failed to save, redeemed by the women and girls he succeeds in saving. And at the end, he simply walks away. Mad Max: Fury Road is many things. A high-octane, thrilling, beautifully shot and edited, incredibly designed post-apocalyptic chase that you’d be daft not to see. But a feminist masterpiece? Let’s leave those to the women.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.