On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.
George Miller has always been a critical favorite, but Mad Max: Fury Road—his extremely belated return to the franchise that made his reputation—surpassed all reasonable expectations. (That’s especially true when you consider that Miller’s last non-documentary feature that wasn’t expressly aimed at children was Lorenzo’s Oil, way the hell back in 1992.) On Rotten Tomatoes, Fury Road is 97% fresh, with only 10 reviews out of 325 designated as negative. Its Metacritic score is 89, signifying “universal acclaim.” Most remarkably, Fury Road was voted the single best film of 2015 in multiple year-end critics’ polls, including the Village Voice’s, Indiewire’s, and The A.V. Club’s own. When a bunch of egghead critics go apeshit for a big-budget action flick that’s basically one long chase sequence, to the point where they collectively prefer it to any number of tiny art films that explore the human condition, something truly seismic has occurred.
Given this ecstatic reception, it may seem ludicrous to suggest that, awesome though Fury Road clearly is, it could have been a whole lot better. Nonetheless, after recently seeing the film a second time, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s missing one absolutely crucial element: Mel Gibson.
That may not sound like an especially contrarian viewpoint. It probably isn’t, in a general sense. I haven’t seen a lot of people express relief that Gibson was replaced by Tom Hardy (unless they now despise Gibson so much, based on his offscreen behavior, that they don’t ever want to see him act again). On the other hand, neither have I read many reviews that consider Gibson’s absence a serious liability. For the most part, it seems to have been shrugged off as irrelevant—Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the movie’s true hero, and Max spends much of the film as a human IV stand, so who cares, really? Sure, it might have been preferable to have Gibson reprise his signature role, but the film doesn’t need him.
Such indifference strikes me as a failure of imagination. Admittedly, when you’ve got a great movie staring you in the face, it’s difficult to conceive of a hypothetical version that’s even better. So let’s try it from the opposite angle, using another popular 2015 sequel: Creed. Sylvester Stallone would never have allowed this, but imagine that Creed had been made exactly as it exists, except with a different actor in the role of Rocky Balboa. Make it any actor you like—someone you think might be a superb Rocky. Would the movie still work? Possibly. Might it even be terrific? Sure. But would it command the same emotional response, founded upon decades of accumulated affection for the series and for its former protagonist, as the Creed we actually have? Not a chance in hell. The new film’s passing of the torch—not just from one generation to another, but from one demographic to another—is far more meaningful because the aging, rueful icon many of us grew up with is doing the passing himself. Another actor playing Rocky, no matter how brilliant the performance (what the hell, make it Daniel Day-Lewis; he could probably pull it off somehow), just wouldn’t have the same effect. There’d be a distance.
That’s the version of Mad Max: Fury Road that we actually have—which makes it all the more miraculous that it’s as magnificent as it is. The first time I saw the movie, I was primarily aware of Gibson’s absence during its brief, hallucinogenic flashback visions, experienced by Max at moments of extreme stress. These flashbacks (assuming that’s what they are; there’s no other logical explanation for them) aren’t from any of the previous Mad Max films, but they still imply a backstory in which Max failed to save a little girl from being killed, and remains haunted by that failure. They’re the closest Fury Road gets to putting us inside Max’s head, and go a long way toward explaining his behavior. And they might have been more effective played against Gibson’s reactions, since we can readily conjure up memories of his brutal past experiences as Max. Hardy, by contrast, is Mad Max in name only (and he doesn’t even actually say his name until the end of the movie), with no mental associations. So his tragic backstory, seen only in quick snippets, feels expository rather than dramatic. It provides information in a way that encourages us to fill in the blanks, while withholding the key visual cue—Gibson’s face—that would make doing so emotionally satisfying.
Watching Fury Road again not long ago, however, I found myself repeatedly thinking about how much more powerful certain moments would be had Gibson returned… and also about how unlikely it is that he would have agreed to play this comparatively subordinate incarnation of Max. (Officially, Miller replaced him because he decided he didn’t want Max to be that old, or for his star to carry so much off-putting personal baggage. Gibson might have lobbied harder had he been excited about the part, though.) The role as written didn’t really require an actor of Hardy’s caliber, but it absolutely did require a star with his lack of ego, which Gibson has never to my knowledge demonstrated. Hardy has no problem playing second fiddle to Theron, and that willingness serves as an implicit torch-passing à la Creed, crossing gender lines rather than racial ones. But while the scene in which Furiosa steadies her rifle on Max’s shoulder and hits a target he repeatedly missed works fine as is, think how much more potent and meaningful it would have been with the Mad Max we know from the previous films serving as her human gun rest. Theron and Hardy are essentially equals—neither has been in a Mad Max film before. Gibson ceding the spotlight to Theron would create an entirely different dynamic. What is now theoretical would become visceral.
I should note for the record that a fan theory exists regarding Hardy’s character in Fury Road—namely, that he’s not the same Max played by Gibson, but is The Road Warrior’s feral kid as an adult. This would invalidate my entire argument, but since I don’t buy their argument (which is mostly based on the fact that Hardy-as-“Max” has a music box similar to the one Max gave the feral kid), I’m not worrying about it. And even if I did buy it, that just means this Max should have been played by Emil Minty. Recasting any major role has an inevitable downside, and it can hamper even a movie as blatantly superb as this one.