Vehicles of Action: The Avengers vs. Mad Max

Two of the biggest Summer blockbusters are wildly different kinds of action film—Chet Betz looks at the kinetic art of each.

Movies Features The Avengers
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The action in Avengers: Age of Ultron is Hollywood. Joss Whedon’s film is a vehicle for his banter and for his thorough (if perhaps misguided) character juggling, but mostly for the demanding Marvel movie-verse agenda. As a transition between one of the most successful films of all time and Marvel’s absurdly stalled-for, two-part ace in the hole, Infinity War, Age of Ultron tries to find a way to do its interstitial narrative work while also trying to one-up the first Avengers film. This it does primarily through its action.

It gilds the lily brazenly. And while Ultron doesn’t classify as a turd, it gets the turd’s coat of polish. There is more action in Age of Ultron than in any other Marvel film—there are more money shots, and if you thought NYC got banged up, wait until you see the hang time an Eastern Bloc city’s got when androids dream of devilry. The film’s strongest when it’s just having fun and not trying to wow you with the results of millions of man hours behind computer screens. In fact, for all but the Marvel devout, The Avengers Do Vegas might have been just as enjoyable, if not moreso. Because the action in Ultron isn’t bad, it’s just emblematic of its industry.

Whereas, the action in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a thing of beauty, poetry, rhythm and detail and momentum. The film is action—it understands the geography, the ballet of it. Excruciatingly, it executes its craft with a lot of real shots of real vehicles and actors and brave, brave stunt players doing mad things for real cameras, which accomplished cinematographer John Seale guides to giddy heights. The unholy crusade of such a venture bleeds gasoline dreams and literal buckets of sweat, and it pours all that into the engine of the film’s final cut, finely tuned by editor Margaret Sixel. Fury Road understands how action itself can be a vehicle that with breathless pace carries forward narrative and character and theme inside of it—its passengers rather than its burden of a load, driven by those things even as it drives them forward—into the realm of the tragic, the mythic and the indelible. What’s that? The rattling, guzzling maw of our mortality and our sentience waging war.

Miller came out of the raw DIY dirt of the Mad Max trilogy’s desolate dawn and then made some kids and then made kids’ films. Some good kids’ films because, let’s be real, Babe: Pig in the City is a jam, but still there’s that feeling of repression there. And yet in this 30-year hiatus from Max you can see where carefully storyboarding talking pigs and dancing penguins lends to the craft in Fury Road even as the repression lends to its insanity, it’s joie de vivre via monster trucks and war rigs, its grotesquerie and somehow lived-in imagination, its unhinged exuberance for the dark side of glory.

It is Post-Apocalypse: The Rock Opera. Pounding drums march before valor bathed in doom. A pallid guitarist shoots flames with fiery licks. There’s a scene in Fury Road where War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) watches his compatriots tossed about in wreckage and flames by a mother of a funnel cloud and the shot holds, holds, holds on out until the last rag-doll victim is flung across the path of Nux’s car, flames nipping in the air behind him, while Junkie XL’s score swoons with odd awe. You might describe it as a Pyrrhic moment, Miller reveling in the work of his FX team and the score provided and letting death be glorified so that the viewer can inhabit the mindset of the kamikaze, the suicide bomber, the monkey controlled by religion, promised Valhalla: Nux in his car, pulling gas lines, spraying his mouth with chrome in prep for his passing into legend, now exclaiming, “What a day! What a lovely day!”

In Age of Ultron, when you see a horde of CG robots you are supposed to marvel because, gosh, look at that horde of robots. The theme here is matter-of-fact: Geek out while you watch millions of dollars poured into realizing comic book fantasies. The most visually intense parts of these Marvel films are, for all intents and purposes, being directed by a committee, a community of people, influenced by decades and decades of comic book art and by cinematic forebears and by each other and whatever else Marvel is working on—and this aesthetic stews down, simmers down, into the same clarified butter. Now pour it on your popcorn. At one point Ultron, the monstrosity borne of artificial intelligence birthed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), chops off Andy Serkis’s arm. Andy Serkis runs away. The uninformed can only assume he is going to become some important, robo-armed villain in Iron Man 4 or it was just another moment of pointless visual porn in a film stuffed to its brim with that kind of thing. But then compare this to the lack of arm/robotic arm for Fury Road’s protagonist Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and how both sides of that coin figure integrally but subtly until delivering the film’s key fist-pump moment.

Fury Road’s vehicular action is spectacular and, honestly, some of the best that cinema has ever given us, but there is a Max vs. Furiosa hand-to-hand skirmish that would be a real shame to overlook. Not only is it executed with the same ferociously controlled power of the rest of the film’s action, it elegantly carries its characters and narrative forward. Up until this moment, Nux and Max had been enemies, Max a kidnapped and belittled “blood bag” for the War Boy driver (these soldiers drawing near-spiritual sustenance from such human vessels), but as the action of Max vs. Furiosa unfolds, Nux perceives what he thinks to be an ally in gratifying his leader and god, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The film swiftly makes that transition for Nux as he is still chained to Max, and in their newborn alliance creates a dynamic with the blood transfusion chain that binds them. The chain goes from a handicap, an obstacle for Max’s fight with Furiosa, to an aid as they use it to trip her. This scene culminates in Max firing warning shots at one of Immortan Joe’s refugee brides/breeders, Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), and wounding her calf. It is a minor injury but one with major repercussions later in the film. In Fury Road there are a lot characters and a lot of shots fired, but every one of them matters, and for every action there is a reaction. These actions and reactions form a narrative nucleus that fissions and fusions into pure cinematic energy at the end of the film’s two hours.

And yet, before that Fury Road takes a breath to count its heroes’ ammo, and then later shows you what happens to each one of those bullets. It is the action flick as a tragicomedy of errors, coming at you at a hundred miles per hour. Comparatively, Ultron is a sitcom, complete with pauses for audience laughter and applause.

For all the impressive sights to behold in the finale of Age of Ultron, there is a sense of disconnection from the product as a whole. It feels weightless and disjointed, the movie cycling through the different Avengers doing ostensibly cool shit with their powers, but individually within their own little set-ups. The humor is layered on top through the dialogue, the Vision (Paul Bettany) smashing Ultron with Thor’s hammer then Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remarking that you need the right kind of balance on the weight to get that swing. Robert Downey Jr.’s face, aglow in Iron Man HUD, quips incessantly. Captain America throws his shield around and strikes patriotic, postcard poses. Prominent foreshadowing would lead you to think that Hawkeye is going to die and then someone else you don’t care about dies instead. The Hulk, as you might suspect, smashes. Black Widow bosses the smashing. Robots flow in, indiscriminately, in never-ending legion from whichever part of the screen from which the CG animators care to bring them in. There is a moment where the film depicts each of the Avengers in close-up as they battle Ultron’s droogs and for that one brief moment the movie finds some semblance of an action grace note before blustering onward into the tedium of an interminable light-and-sound show.

Whimsy, fear, humor and pure visceral ecstasy are ingrained into the images of Fury Road, entwined with its DNA, and everything that happens has an inexorable inertia to its sequence. It is the apotheosis of the old Charlie Chaplin routine or Buster Keaton set-piece (an influence the film doesn’t just speak to in its scene construction but with its rampant shutter speed and frame rate experimentation), driven to its logical conclusion, to the illogic of our shared madness, of wanting to survive then wanting to die then pushing past both of those desires to something even more basic: To move or be moved, to rest and then move again. At one point Max has the misfortune to find himself on a pole-cat’s swaying apparatus, and as a vehicle explodes Max arcs up into the screen with his head turned toward the destruction, fixated on it, even as he swoops back out of sight to whatever mayhem surely awaits at the bottom of his trajectory.

Thing is, we know what lies there because Miller and his spouse/editor Sixel give us that information, diligently and fervently. The final climactic scene of Fury Road is linear but multifaceted, and as it barrels forward more and more things are lost or stripped away by the speed with which it hurtles through the nets of consequence it’s set up. There’s a moment where Nux, fresh off fixing one of the War Rig’s engines, sees Max in crisis and kicks him over to an approaching enemy vehicle. This is the beginning of the film’s climax entering its transcendent stretch, Miller and Sixel finding perfect action beat after perfect action beat as the means with which to connect their characters.

Unlike the literal teaming up in Avengers, Fury Road doesn’t tell us about teamwork, it shows us people who care about each other doing anything they can to aid the survival of anyone else they care about—and you feel the desperation and the terror that none of them will likely make it. The film hones in on this essence, the sublimity of survival when extended as an embrace, a latticework of relationship with these relationships set against the stark relief of violence, metal tearing through flesh, dust blowing through everything, flames erupting in different corners of the screen, the crushing weight of Fate bearing down.

And suddenly Miller is in his Whiplash-drumming mode. These characters become slaves to the beat. Junkie XL’s score boils down to a resounding keeping of the time. The cuts are quick, precise, vivid, unforgettable, each shot meted out in equal measure. It feels as if the film is about to tear itself apart. When Furiosa claims her vengeance and her redemption, it hits like a semi. There is a bit more action after that, but it is surreal and sad, death’s afterglow. A dream on the other side of the apoplectic.

Age of Ultron is more like a pleasant daydream after you’ve watched a cartoon. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Fury Road demands more. Age of Ultron is action as pre-viz art converted straight to post-production art with actors’ line readings in between. Which isn’t meant as a condemnation of that specific film—this is the nature of what action has become in Hollywood—and Ultron does it better than many. But Fury Road remembers Spielberg’s hey-day with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It remembers the Friedkin that made French Connection and that bridge scene from Sorcerer. The Cameron that made Aliens and T2. The Verhoeven that made Robocop and Total Recall. It remembers its own predecessors in the Mad Max films. It remembers when action wasn’t all about: Hey, what can our computers do? It remembers when action was about: Hey, let’s build some crazy contraptions and ask people to do death-defying things and we can give it every last bit of ingenuity that we have; we can grind on against all reason and propriety for the sake of capturing lightning on film and editing that something down into visuals that bark, howl and soar. Let’s make action that renders our stories mortal, that makes our narrative bleed, so that we honor them in our thoughts for days and months and years. Stories of flesh and dirt and metal and gas—elemental stories.

Fury Road remembers all of this, is haunted and driven by it, as it looks out over the wasteland to the horizon, and it asks what’s next and how far down does the pedal go, what lies beyond and how furiously can we get there. So after a triumphant denouement that’s all societal paradigm shifts and silent glances and harmonic soundtrack crescendos that could get Vangelis chuffed, George Miller’s new magnum opus ends with a quote, a noble one, about searching to find our better selves in the midst of a hopeless world. And that quote, at the end of such a film as Fury Road…well, it reads like an engine roaring to life out of nothing.


Based in Columbus, Ohio, Chet Betz moonlights as an editor for Cokemachineglow.com and has written for Kill Screen Magazine. He has young twins and he makes them listen to Coltrane. You can follow him on Twitter.

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