You probably don't know Nathan Jones. He was a professional wrestler who quit because, at 6'11" (2.1 meters), travel became incredibly painful. He didn't fit in an airplane seat or on any motel mattress, and good luck driving a rental car from town to town with legs that long. He quit WWE in 2003 and went into film. To date, I don't think I've seen him in a film that acknowledged his size could be a problem in life. He tends to play villains, because it's easier for average people to see giants as powerful and dangerous.
He plays Rictus Erectus in Max Mad: Fury Road. He lumbers through the movie with very few lines. When he speaks, it sounds like the character has a learning disorder. That's typical of giant villains.
Since he has no individual agency, always acting in obeisance to his murderous father (Immortan Joe), his only further characterization is a breathing apparatus strapped to his back and plugged to his nose. He chases heroes, overpowering any he gets his hands on because Dad told him to. Late in the movie, a hero finally manages to stab Jones's breathing machine. Jones crumples, possibly suffocating, and my whole theater laughed.
I mean, the whole theater laughed except me. But my lungs are probably what'll kill me, so I'm biased.
Immortan Joe, the movie's arch-villain, also has a lung disorder. He's introduced as a man covered in scars and tumors, struggling for air until his respirator is attached. His fearsome mask is actually a decorated breathing mask. The scene clearly communicates that this man is ugly, sick, and evil. To many audiences, it reads that he's evil because he's ugly and sick. Like father, like son.
There are no other characters in Mad Max: Fury Road who expressly have breathing problems. Rictus Erectus is the only character who has an explicit intellectual disability. When we meet The People Eater, Immortan Joe's field lieutenant, he is our first and only obese character*, whose ankles are so badly deformed that he probably cannot stand (we never see him stand up in the movie). Immortan Joe's other son is Corpus Colossus, the film's only dwarf, whose legs are so deformed that he is always seated (the actor Quentin Kenihan suffers from Osteogenesis imperfecta). Immortan Joe has given Corpus Colossus the role of running the watchtower from his chair, which would be cool if their entire operation weren't despicable. These are the villains that our heroes must rescue attractive women from.
Before seeing the movie last night, I didn't read a single person criticizing any of this. Plenty of critics praised Fury Road's Feminism, and it does many important things with women, in both representation and plotting. Many words have been written about it (one fine piece here), and many more will and should be - that side of the movie is great. To its ideology, all of the misshapen villains I've described form the greater shape of the Patriarchy. They control women's lives and treat them as things. Their sickness and infirmity is possibly intended to display how awful they are inside. This, too, is typical of villains.
My body's been trying to kill me since I was twelve years old, so I'm quite used to this message. But presumably audiences didn't care, or subconsciously agreed with the messaging. It helped make Captain Hook and Ursula more dislikable, so why not Joe?
Other viewers probably saw Furiosa as a pass on the issue. Furiosa is a former commander in Immortan Joe's army, out to free a few sex slaves (oddly, just the attractive ones) in service of "redemption." Furiosa is an amputee, with a prosthetic left arm, though the movie insists she's more than this. She is a badass. She's the best shot with a gun among the heroes, and only she takes over the wheel from Max. Never does anyone ask how she lost her arm; no one even points it out. It is a quiet execution of a lovely thing, which was written about in a beautiful Tumblr piece here.
Some people say you don't deserve praise for just doing what you should do. Usually, this is crap. When the culture is awful to you, it's good to encourage people who recognize and try to do better. So:
Yo, Charlize Theron, George Miller, and everybody else who had a part in creating this part of the film: thanks! Furiosa rocks.
But I'd like to talk about more than her.
For instance: Nux. Nux is my favorite character, and my greatest disappointment, and requires a big, juicy Spoiler warning. Though he's in amazing physical shape, he has a pair of tumors that will eventually kill him. He's a goon for Immortan Joe until an accident that gives him a crisis of faith. In a moment of despair, he's shown kindness by one of the escaped sex slaves, named "Capable," and joins her side. Nux is endearing, the only action-hero who's actually happy in the movie. He just wants to belong with people. There's a lot to remind you of Peter Jackson's Gollum.
Nux is also the only hero who deliberately kills himself. He doesn't get to live; he gets to crash a truck, thus killing Rictus Erectus and blocking the road so the heroes can escape. Rather than finding a new family to belong with for what natural life he has left, he finds a new group to die for.
It was rotten since he and Capable were the characters I most wanted to see another movie about. It was doubly rotten that he died taking out Rictus, the giant who may not have even understood the conflict he was in. In a Pixar movie, characters like Nux and Rictus might be granted understanding and growth. Fury Road is a movie about explosions, though, so the two of them burn while the pretty people drive off to triumph.
End of Spoilers, and some other things.
If you focus on Furiosa as the co-lead character, I can see not minding that all the people in command are special needs monsters. The movie has a positive representation of one person with a visible disability, so why let all those others bother you? Even if her team is mostly very able-bodied and attractive, fighting off the schemes of vile special needs people, she's evidence that the film doesn't believe in that stereotype, right? Right...?
"Special needs" people are hard to group together; there are going to be very intelligent people it could represent that don't identify with it, or dislike the phrase altogether. It's a group that includes people for very different traits: my neuromuscular syndrome is very different from my friend's schizophrenia, and neither of us have it like our friend who lost her legs in Afghanistan. There are communities that are supportive, but it's stiff saying you're representing all of us through an amputee character. It's stiffer saying you're doing it through Furiosa, and not through everyone else whose conditions may be closer to ours, and who are all so vile we're supposed to cheer when they're killed.
For Fury Road in particular, there's an uncomfortable dynamic of having all these "freak" villains pursuing underwear models. The rescued sex slaves are called "his favorites," meaning Immortan Joe has others, and it's easy to assume that Furiosa left all the unattractive sex slaves behind. We never find out why it's these women in particular who are most worth saving among everyone who may be trapped in Joe's rape scheme. Rather, we simply know that the beautiful people must be rescued from the ugly and infirm.
This is intensely common messaging in film and television. It harkens to The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which featured a similar band of deformed killers as the villains. The 2006 remake did little to alter the monstrousness of deformed people. They would all fit right in with Joe's gang here. Yet Fury Road is more bothersome because so many friends told me how Feminist and thoughtful it was. They got my hopes up.
Fury Road doesn't say Immortan Joe is evil because he's infirm (neither does The Hills Have Eyes say that of the deformed marauders). Joe is evil because he imprisons, he rapes, and he withholds water from people in a drought. He forces women to bear his children - and the movie might think this is more awful because his children are typically malformed in some way. There's a quiet moment where it's suggested that Joe lost an infant son who was "perfect in every way," and the cinematography expresses to us that this is what he craves.
I have to tell myself that it's coincidental, in striving to show that Joe is a rapist monster, that the movie is saying Joe is monstrous for wanting a healthy child. I have to tell myself that, rather than implicitly believe it of the film, because society sure doesn't mind saying how useless I am, how I'm unworthy of healthcare, and when my pain is so bad that I stagger, that so many New Yorkers don't mind shoving me into the street to get by faster. For years I was convinced I was unworthy of any person I found attractive. She deserved someone better, stronger, healthier. It was nobler for me to die alone.
The messaging is so deep that, even typing this to bring attention to it, I feel like I'm transgressing. Like I shouldn't post this. Someone else's feelings are more important.
Immortan Joe and I don't have much in common, except his breathing sounds like mine has on so many nights, and he moves with a pain that looks familiar. That's a tricky thing about representation. You can send off messages you never intended.
So I insist to myself that anything problematic about Fury Road is unintentional. The infirmities are a personality trait pallet that Fury Road just traffics in, and this is okay. I mean, you can convince yourself it is. The pallet is something audiences are already trained to accept, just like the misogynist garbage that Fury Road subverts. In fact, George Miller may have chosen to traffic in the "ugliness of evil" to help mainstream audiences accept the progressive treatment of women in his film. As it is, you still get journalists who think the movie is odd for having too many women in it.
TOM HARDY'S FACE IN THIS IS THE STANDARD TO WHICH ALL MEN MUST NOW BE HELD WHEN FACED WITH SUCH A QUESTION pic.twitter.com/OYBpWYDQQV— Kaye Toal (@ohkayewhatever) May 27, 2015
When they're making commercial movies that confront this kind of prejudice, you can't just dismiss it as problematic and unworthy of viewing. Rather, this is probably what happens when well-intended filmmakers try to push forward. Fury Road is encouraging.
For that - for Furiosa, for the theme of "We Are Not Things" - I'm grateful. There is artistic DNA for more inclusive blockbuster films in here. One hopes that, in all the planned sequels for Fury Road, the writers and casting directors begin to course correct other elements of their game.
The movie's fun, and even as I saw the second horrible villain with breathing problems that resembled my own and those of my friends, I wanted to forgive it. And I did, mostly, frequently, and let the movie be the dumb fun it was with the progress it had. What bugs me most a day after my viewing is that no one I know of seemed to care about any of this.
Ironically I've got to wrap this up so I can go to a doctor's appointment. Thank you for reading and considering. Before I go, there are three links I want to share:
-Braden Richards is a father in Ohio who needs a double lung transplant to survive. The procedure costs more than $25,000 that his family does not have. Currently, generous donors have helped to a little over $12,000. If you have any spare money, even the cost of a movie ticket, please consider donating to help his children keep him in their lives.
-While I have no relationship with them, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing an anthology called Defying Doomsday, about disabled survivors in the post-apocalypse. It's an awesome idea. Submissions are still open for stories between 3000 and 7000 words. Their Pozible was funded, but you can still donate. If it seems like something you want to contribute to or read, please click the above links.
-I've mentioned a few times that one of my favorite videogames of the past generation is State of Decay, an open-world zombie game where you find survivors to build your party and base. Your quest-giver is Lily Ritter, a radio dispatcher with Lupus. She can't go into the field herself, but she can gather intel on where there are supplies or other people in need of aid. The game is great on a lot of levels, but it felt worth mentioning here.Correction: * @spidey_j points out The People Eater is not the only obese character. In one of the early scenes were see several obese women in Immortan Joe's tower having their breasts pumped for milk. They get another moment in the epilogue. It's ironic that I forgot about them in this paragraph, when I was specifically thinking of them when later writing about who Furiosa chose to save. Melissa McEwan wrote a piece on why their presence was meaningful to her here.