I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road twice in the past week. Crucially, I paid New York City movie ticket prices to see Mad Max twice in the past week. Next week, I will all-but-definitely pay to see it a third time. I don’t do that. Ever. But I did it for Fury Road. Hell, after getting out of the theater the second time, I immediately went online and bought an adorable cat-themed fan poster. When it arrives tomorrow, I’m going to hang it above my bed. These are things I’ve never done before.
But here’s the thing: Mad Max is The Best. Those are the only words worth using to describe it. The. Best. In every gosh darn motherflipping way, it is the fucking best. And so when I was trying to think of something to write about the film, it occurred to me that I would have to write about just how much The Best it is. And how better to do that than to compare it to five beloved films (in no particular order) from the past five years and explain why they are not as good as Mad Max: Fury Road? There is no better way.
Let’s do this.
Why it’s beloved: Gravity is a technical marvel. It’s the kind of film you have to see in theaters, because the scope of it is literally infinite. It’s about swirling alone in the blackness of space, where the slightest mistake can kill you at any moment. We gave it a 100. I wouldn’t have given it a 100, but I understand why Matt did. It’s a technical marvel, and you spend much of the film wondering how the heck they did it. (Short answer: Computers. Long answer: Extremely complicated technical rigs and setups and choreography. Also, computers.) Seen on the biggest possible screen in 3D, there’s nothing quite like it.
Why Mad Max is better: But the issues arise as soon as you decide to think less about the impeccable technique on display and more about what it is they’re displaying. Mad Max may not have the same quality of CG or 3D that Gravity has, but it’s the same sort of spectacle. For every moment Gravity had that made me gasp, Mad Max had ten. But it’s not just about the look of it. Gravity‘s fundamental failing is its inability to let viewers figure things out for themselves. Everyone just keeps talking, even when it literally threatens their lives. They should be conserving breath. But instead, the audience needs to be told everything, or else… I mean, how could we possibly figure it out? Gravity assumes we’re dumb.
Mad Max doesn’t.
Mad Max knows that we can figure things out. Only a handful of things are ever explicitly stated, and it never feels like dialogue for the sake of dialogue. They don’t sound like they’re speaking to the audience. They sound like they’re speaking to each other. Like people. We’re shown things rather than told them. You learn everything you need to know from damn good filmmaking, not an overlong screenplay.
Why It’s Beloved: In my review of The Raid 2, I hailed it as the best action film ever made. I had a lot of reasons for that. You’re welcome to read about them. But now, just over a year later, I’m at a crossroads. I say that The Raid 2 is the best action movie of all time, but…
Why Mad Max Is Better: This has been eating at me since about halfway through my first viewing of the film. If The Raid 2 is the best action movie, but Mad Max is a better movie, and Mad Max is an action movie… does that make it the best action movie of all time?
I still don’t know the answer, but I do know this: Mad Max is, on the whole, a superior viewing experience.
The action in The Raid is beyond incredible, and the “fights” are undoubtedly better than the ones in Mad Max, but after the first viewing, those long sequences of political blather start to grate. By the third time I saw The Raid 2, I was rolling my eyes. (Worth noting: The original The Raid doesn’t have this problem. It is also not as good as Mad Max, but it is fundamentally closer to Mad Max than its sequel is.) It’s fine, but it’s definitely not as good as what Mad Max has to offer. The few moments of downtime in Mad Max are all excellent. They drive forward the characters and/or the narrative in interesting ways. There isn’t a single wasted frame in the entire goddamn movie. You could cut half the political bullshit in The Raid 2 and the film would be better for it. But every last second of Mad Max is essential.
Given a choice, I would probably rewatch individual action sequences from The Raid 2 over those from Mad Max. But if I had to choose one film to watch all the way through over and over and over again? No contest. Mad Max is is.
Why It’s Beloved: Joss Whedon took a group of superheroes and made an ultimately fascinating and extremely enjoyable team film. With the added charm that is so uniquely Whedon, I mean, what’s not to love? It’s big, it’s funny, and it’s got people wearing silly costumes.
Why It’s Not As Good As Mad Max: The second time I saw Mad Max, I went with my friend Brian. He doesn’t really like Joss Whedon. After Guardians of the Galaxy (also not as good as Mad Max: Fury Road) came out, he said, “That’s the movie that proves Joss Whedon is a hack.” After we got out of Mad Max, he said it again. “This movie clinches it.” He called the movie “life-changing.” He would definitely give it a 95 or higher on the Flixist review scale. He would not be wrong to do so.
I didn’t name The Avengers 2 here intentionally. Not just because the critical response has been much more muted, but because the film’s treatment of women has come more under fire than the original The Avengers (not that it was the best there either). Point is: Joss Whedon is known for writing strong female characters. That’s his claim to fame. But none are as strong and as badass as the team in Fury Road. Let’s be clear: A 78 year old woman does her own stunts. But here’s the thing: A 78 year old woman has stunts to do. You know what that is? The. Best.
Suck it, Whedon.
Why It’s Beloved: Last year’s Academy Award Winner should not have won the Academy Award, but that didn’t stop it from being an incredible film. But what really makes it so freaking amazing is the way it uses its technical prowess to create something uniquely cinematic. When most films are so same-y, it takes something like Birdman to kick you awake and remind you that movies can be and are magical things. Film is a magical medium. It takes reality and can bend it almost to the breaking point without you even noticing it’s happened. You think you’re looking at a straight path but it’s curving you around. And suddenly you realize that you had no idea what was happening and now you’re on a different path entirely. Birdman‘s one-take conceit does all of that and more.
Why It’s Not As Good As Mad Max: But it doesn’t do it as well as Mad Max. Mad Max isn’t a two hour take; it’s a two hour car chase. But here’s the thing: That car chase feels so much more real than anything in Birdman. Even ignoring the way Birdman breaks the rules in order to bring you into Riggan Thompson’s head, it shatters illusions in order to wear its point on its sleeve. Birdman hits you over the head with its message because the characters monologue about it constantly. It’s all very nihilistic, and though it’s (extremely) compelling, it’s less compelling than watching people develop during a car chase. The characters in Mad Max develop subtly but poignantly. No one in Birdman really develops at all. And while that may work with the narrative that’s being told, watching Michael Keaton be sad after monologuing about things is far less momentous than watching Tom Hardy give a tiny thumbs up to a woman who he had been pointing a gun at minutes before.
Why It’s Beloved: Drive was the best movie of 2011. It was the first film that I saw at a press screening that I would later pay to see. And… I’m not actually sure there has ever been another example of that. I love the film. The nearly silent but completely deadly driving protagonist was pretty darn compelling. And though it has ultra-violent action in it, it’s the journey of a Real Human Being that made everyone love it. (I mean, that soundtrack, though.)
Why It’s Not As Good As Mad Max: You may have guessed that I intentionally reduced the character of Driver to “nearly silent but completely deadly driving protagonist” in order to make the comparison between him and Max even easier, but the reality is that they both fit into the same mold. But the difference is that Driver spends the film trying to keep a woman safe because she can’t fend for herself. What Max is doing is far more interesting. He’s helping Furiosa and the others, not saving them. He doesn’t have to be the one to get revenge, because at any given moment, he’s not the biggest badass in the truck. The focus on cooperation between two equals without any need for a romance makes Mad Max an ultimately more meaningful film.