I went and saw Avengers: Age of Ultron a couple weeks ago and came out of the theater surprised at just how much I’d enjoyed the movie. Sure, the ending dragged on too long, the plot took some incomprehensible twists, and the film was so jam-packed with product placements that at times it resembled an all-star infomercial, but I’d long since resigned myself to the knowledge that that sort of thing is just par for the course in a big budget action movie. Age of Ultron was a smart, fun ride in spite of numerous scenes so bad even Joss Whedon hated shooting them – that, I assumed, was the best you could hope for when you go to see a movie with a budget that exceeds the GDP of a small country.
And then I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that took me firmly by the balls, strapped me to the front of an apocalyptic hot rod monster truck, and gave me a nonstop 80 mile per hour reminder of exactly what an action movie is capable of. Afterward, I was less forgiving of Age of Ultron’s flaws. Why did we have to see Jeremy Renner’s dumb family? Why did they rely on CG instead of just building a fully functional Iron Man suit and flying that around a real levitating city? Why didn’t Age of Ultron have a dude wailing on a double necked electric flamethrower guitar while riding a hot rod made of amps?
Come to think of it, why doesn’t every movie have that? The Empire Strikes Back, Scarface, Shakespeare In Love – I can’t think of a single movie that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of high-speed speed metal.
Here’s the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road: Apocalyptic road warrior Charlize Theron betrays her mutant warlord boss and helps his harem of sex slaves escape in a huge armored 18-wheeler while he and his army of goons give chase. This all gets set up in about 20 minutes, freeing up the next 100 for car crashes, explosions, double crosses, acrobatics, near misses, sweet jumps, triple crosses, and numerous other literal and figurative twists and turns. This is not a dialog-heavy movie; with so much going on the characters really don’t have time to say much besides what’s necessary to survive that moment’s immediate life-or-death crisis.
Director George Miller is well aware that nobody is buying a ticket to see a Mad Max movie because they think it’s a dialog-driven character study. When first conceiving the plot, Miller didn’t write a script – he created 3500 storyboards of the chase. Since the days of The General and Safety Last, people have been going to the movies because they want to see death defying spectacle. Fury Road is openly and unapologetically all about spectacle.
And the real genius of this spectacle-focused extravaganza is that it’s anything but a dumb action movie. It’s actually one of the smartest action movies I’ve ever seen. What little dialog there is is on point, but every character is so richly realized and expertly acted that, as Miller has stated, an audience in Japan could watch the movie with no subtitles and still keep up with the plot. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult have all invested so deeply in their characters that they can convey pages' worth of dialog with a look or a gesture – their characters grow and evolve constantly throughout the script, and for the most part you’ll watch these changes play out on their faces rather than listen to them tell each other about it. And all of this nuanced character development is happening with an army of bloodthirsty psychotic mutants in souped-up war jalopies right on the protagonists’ tailpipe.
I absorbed all of this with a wide, uncontrollable grin plastered across my face. The audience I saw it with was the sort of audience that applauds after huge moments, but there’s so few breaks in the action in Fury Road that they only had one or two chances to catch their breath and clap before the movie ended. And afterwards, as we all stumbled out onto the quiet street full of normal, slow moving cars, I found myself wondering – why isn’t every action movie like this?
There’s a scene in Age of Ultron where Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow confesses to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner that she’s unable to have children. And taken in a vacuum, the scene works, because Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo are great actors. But taken in the context of the larger movie, it’s hard to square this sensitive indie film moment with scenes where the Hulk destroys an entire African city or Black Widow snaps a lucky bad guy’s neck between her thighs.
Nobody outside a theater showing Age of Ultron is raving about the Black Widow/Hulk infertility conversation. No kid is reenacting that with his action figures. The movie’s focus is action – so why take a break for a scene like that? Is that really what your audience is paying to see?
I guess that’s not fair – Marvel movies have to check a lot of boxes in order to stay true to the comics and keep the fanbase from rioting in the streets. But in a perfect world, more movies would take a page from Fury Road’s book and trim out everything that isn’t actively enhancing the film’s action and momentum.
That’s not to say that action movies should shy away from emotional complexity. They just need to approach it differently – saying more with less, integrating it into the action, keeping things moving at all times. If that turns a 145-minute action movie into a breakneck two hours, I’d say that’s an improvement.
I never thought I’d be the one advocating for any genre of movie to get less talky and more blow-uppy. Maybe a couple weeks from now I’ll calm down a bit and take back everything I’ve said. Right now, though, my adrenaline is still pumping and I saw the movie eight days ago – I guess I just want every action movie to give me this kind of buzz.