"Mad Max: Fury Road," George Miller's reboot of his own acclaimed "Mad Max" series, which began in 1979 with an Australian policeman singlehandedly setting out to stop a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang, has enthralled nearly every critic who had the opportunity to lay eyes on it.
" 'Mad Max: Fury Road' isn’t a reboot, it’s a power-up — an outrageously kinetic, visually inventive, dramatically satisfying demolition derby that pits the matriarchy against the patriarchy while standing as the action film to beat for the rest of the summer, possibly the decade," Ty Burr wrote in the Boston Globe.
But now the movie film critic Eric Eisenberg called “as crazy, thrilling, gorgeous, and awesome as anyone could really hope” is being lambasted by angry action movie enthusiasts with a very specific ideological bent.
A post on the blog Return of Kings captured the attention of the blogosphere with an impassioned call to boycott "Mad Max: Fury Road" because “it was going to be a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.” While Tom Hardy takes over the role made famous by Mel Gibson, the movie features Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as the shaven-headed Furiosa leading a band of women from sex slavery to freedom. The writer Aaron Clarey bemoaned this, saying "Fury Road" would be a “Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things.”
Eyebrows raised (and many times, tongue firmly in cheek), websites such as Jezebel and the Mary Sue responded, wondering why men would react so ardently against a portrayal of strong women picking up guns – and laughing outright at the idea that Hollywood is run by feminists. In fact, on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked multiple state and federal agencies to look into what the organization described as gender bias in Hollywood's hiring of female directors. Women directed 1.9 percent of the top-grossing 100 movies in 2013 and 2014, according to a University of Southern California study.
Culture watchers say the strong reaction is based on feelings of disempowerment – grounded in reality or not – and follows a cultural through line from GamerGate, in which anonymous posters last year used social media to attack women for "feminizing" video games.
“It reminds me of GamerGate, and there is an unfortunate tendency among young men to think something is supposed to belong to them, and the action genre is one of them,” says Chris Hansen, associate professor and director of the film and digital media division at Baylor University. “The action genre has always been so male dominated and you are depicting a world that is also male dominated, so the notion that a woman would rise up is radical in that context.”
That said, he notes that women have been action heroes for at least 30 years: Ms. Theron is following in the combat boots of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the "Aliens" films and Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
“By admitting they’re threatened by Charlize Theron and Emilia Clarke’s [hard-core heroics] Clarey and his commenters are also agreeing that the media we consume and the stories we tell are hugely important,” wrote Carolyn Cox for the entertainment website the Mary Sue, in a post titled, "Incredibly Peeved Men's Rights Activists Call for Boycott of Mad Max, Are Unintentionally Hilarious."
Still others see the Return of Kings blog and others of its ilk as a fringe group that does not warrant serious attention.
“They are a group of very angry men and they try to disrupt anything that is feminist in nature. They think movies are getting 'wussified' because men are becoming weak and soft and feminized. They see it as Hollywood trying to take away masculinity,” says Tom Keith, filmmaker, self-described anti-sexist activist, and author of the book "The Bro Code."
“Anytime a film comes out with a strong female protagonist, with a woman who has agency, they have a problem," Mr. Keith says. "They are unapologetic sexist men. But no one takes them seriously, it’s just bluster, smoke and mirror for their own insecurities.”
Mr. Clarey’s blog post attracted the attention from other anti-feminists largely due to the outrage it conveyed, observers say.
“If you were like me, the explosions, fire tornadoes, even the symphonic score surrounding 'Fury Road’s' first trailer made your attendance a foregone conclusion. It looked like a straight-up guy flick,” wrote Clarey on his blog. “The truth is I’m angry about the extents Hollywood and the director of Fury Road went to trick me and other men into seeing this movie. Everything VISUALLY looks amazing. It looks like that action guy flick we’ve desperately been waiting for where it is one man with principles, standing against many with none. But let us be clear. This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat.”
Another point of contention was the involvement of feminist author and playwright Eve Ensler in the making of the film. Ms. Ensler was brought in as a consultant due to her real life experience working with former sex slaves in the Congo to help the actresses understand their roles in "Fury Road" – not make a political statement, experts say.
“We’re used to women being in the background, not men. But Miller isn’t doing it as a statement, he’s doing it because that’s what the story calls for,” Hansen says.
Meanwhile, many point out that women are still not portrayed in heroic roles as often as men – and when they are, it's often while wearing a catsuit, a la Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow, currently helping save the world in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
"I want to live in a world where a little girl can dream of being a hero just as much as a little boy can because she sees multiple examples of heroic women," Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender parity in entertainment, told the Associated Press.
And Hollywood actresses, including "Fury Road" star Theron, have also been speaking out about the lack of quality roles for female film stars.
"Just the representation of women in film, it hasn't been that authentic and true. So when something comes along where women are represented in a truthful manner, all of a sudden, people really respond to it. And it's kind of like, 'You guys, this isn't anything new,’ ” Theron told the AP.
Not only aren't female action heroes a new phenomenon – neither are strong women in the "Mad Max" series. Ms. Weaver, an Oscar-winner, became an icon after 1986's "Aliens." The already iconic Tina Turner played a central role in the 1985 "Road Warrior" sequel, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome."
“I think it was a pretty radical notion back when 'Terminator 2' came out," Hansen says of female action heroes. "But that seems like such a long time ago now, so it seems ludicrous that we’re still talking about that.”
[Editor's note: This post was updated after Adam Clarey released a video in which he said he prefers not to be identified as a 'men's rights activist.']