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Monday, August 3, 2015

Movie Monthly - Road Warrior

Edited by Robert Beach

Welcome back to Movie Monthly where every month it’s a new theme. This month is August Apocalypse. We’ll be looking at a bunch of films that take place in the wide world of creativity, pyrotechnic adventure, and human ugliness that is the post-apocalyptic wasteland. While I don’t normally focus on bigger films, our first one up is going to be Mad Max 2: Road Warrior. This is partially because Mad Max just saw an incredibly successful revival this year with Mad Max: Fury Road, but because I wanted to talk about Road Warrior through the lens of being an LGBT reviewer.  

Mad Max is an Australian sci-fi action franchise created by the very eclectic George Miller. The initial trilogy was a major staple of ‘80s pop culture that served to reinvigorate the post-apocalyptic genre after its decline in the later ‘70s. Before Mad Max a lot of post-apocalypse films were grounded in the trippy, hallucinogenic nature of ‘70s sci-fi, using the end of civilization as a chance to focus on all kinds of strange worlds and weird imaginings; however, after about 1978 this emphasis died away as Star Wars became the new dominant force in science fiction.

Mad Max was a gritty bone cruncher of an action film set in the earliest days of the post apocalypse; it’s still excellent in its own way with a lot of really evocative line development, a skill that served the franchise well in building a dedicated fan base. It wasn’t until Mad Max: Road Warrior that Mad Max really came into its own definition as a brutal and explosive action series defining how we imagined the apocalypse.

Road Warrior is set in a pretty well collapsed point of the apocalypse.  Most of civilization is gone and roving bands of marauders and survivors now populate the wasteland with gasoline as an essential source of power. What would become the standard set-up for the series, Mad Max is basically a traveling nomad who stumbles onto someone else’s major conflict.

In this case, the conflict is between a group of more heroic survivors who’ve claimed an oil refinery and a pack of villainous marauders trying to take it from them. From there Road Warrior is a collection of action sequences as Mad Max cuts a deal with the survivors to help them take their gasoline on the run from the marauders and their powerful leader Lord Humungus.   

Road Warrior is one of the greatest action films to ever end up unacknowledged by the current era. The acting is very solid, this being in the days when Mel Gibson was just starting out and wasn’t as crazy as he is today. More than that, the action, set design, and cinematography are just amazing. The action scenes are an immersive and thrilling display of practical effects and stunt work that set the bar for big-scale car chase action up till Furious 6. The cinematography is a master class in the art of how to use a camera; despite everything constantly moving and characters maneuvering over moving vehicles, you always have a sense of geography and center.

Finally, the set and costume design are simply iconic. Every post-apocalyptic story you’ve seen over the last 20-30 years draws inspiration from Road Warrior.  Additionally, the story is a great example of strength through simplicity. Casting Mad Max as a wandering hero in the vein of Beowulf or Conan helps the story create a full and textured world without needing to tie it into Max’s own arc. The whole theme of the film ends up around how the world of the wasteland changes people, with Max as just the best example of that for us to follow.

What I really want to focus on, however, is the villain: Lord Humungus.  Lord Humungus is a commanding presence that towers over the entire film. He’s portrayed as the ultimate product of the wasteland, a natural leader to his own men and a calculating strategist with a flair for speeches that you wouldn’t suspect based on his over muscled physique. Humungus dominates the film so well because of how unique he is within his own conflict; there’s no one in the refinery camp to match him. The refinery leader, Pappagallo, is a well-spoken leader, but he’s more of a first among equals, ruling something closer to a moderate democracy.

Humungus is unquestioned in his authority but bring a sense of honor to his command, engaging with his men with a legitimate respect and understanding despite his place at the top.  He’s unquestionably the villain and rules by a “Might makes right” philosophy, yet he’s a villain we can like despite his evil ways. Even “Villain” is a little too strong a word for who Humungus is, he’s more representative of the wasteland and post-apocalyptic world as a whole; he’s the wasteland personified in all its harshness and nobility, not good or bad, simply being. He’s also clearly gay. 

This is why I’ve always loved Road Warrior and still regard it as my favorite of the Mad Max films, even though Fury Road is the superior movie. Gay characters in fiction, especially genre fiction, are often slotted into a few select roles. They’re rarely allowed to play the villain, and if they are, it’s usually in a serial killer capacity as an attempt to draw parallels to real-life killers. It’s incredibly rare to see a gay character allowed to be the incredibly powerful and honorable warlord that Lord Humungus is.

Even though Humungus being gay is never explicitly stated in the film (this was the ‘80s after all), it’s slathered all over the subtext and extends toward many of his foot soldiers as well. Growing up, Lord Humungus as a gay character was incredibly important to me because he is so admirable despite his harsher aspects and because the idea that he was gay didn’t need to define his character. Humungus is an honorable leader because he’s a well-developed, fully realized character who just happens to also be gay.

What’s more, Lord Humungus doesn’t fit into any of the standard depictions of gay men in most fiction. He’s not overly effeminate, but he’s also not an upper-class asexual, a physically imposing man of ambition and powerful emotion. Best of all, he’s allowed to be an imperfect character. He doesn’t need to be amazing all the time to show off how much the film loves gay people; he gets to be flawed in a comprise between personal nobility and ruthless pragmatism.

Growing up as a bisexual boy, seeing a character like Humungus was so important to me because it was an example that not being hetero-normative didn’t mean you had to be a certain way. Mostly, I saw already a lot of myself in Humungus’ character, so when I realized that I was bi, I already felt a connection to him beyond just similar sexuality.

As a queer nerd, I saw Lord Humungus as one of the only examples in genre fiction that showed we could be the star of a story without needing to dwell on sexuality. That sexuality didn’t mean you had to act a certain way or be a perfect person. It really goes to show how important and meaningful representation can be when done well and especially how useful representation through villainy can be.

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