Mad Max: Fury Road and the Heroic Cycle

The power, ferocity, and lean storytelling of Mad Max: Fury Road made it one of the most powerful films of 2015. With an insane attention to detail and an unrelenting pace, George Miller’s return to the post-apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky was both a brand new take on the action film and a welcome return to its simpler roots.

With an incredibly linear story and an intense focus on a very small narrative told in an epic way, Fury Road avoids unnecessary exposition and extraneous scenes that would bog down the adventure. However, this doesn’t mean that the film is simple or lacks meaningful arcs for its characters. Quite the opposite, in fact. Miller packs huge arcs and a massive world into the film, he simply does it in an incredibly lean manner that doesn’t call attention to itself. Miller does this by sticking close to the story beats found within The Heroic Cycle. First analyzed and defined in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Heroic Cycle is the multi-part structure that defines countless character arcs. This monomyth can be found in some of the earliest stories ever told and is seen in countless films today. Whether storytellers realize it or not, The Heroic Cycle is a major component of all types of fiction.

Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the clearest and strongest examples of The Heroic Cycle in recent film. It both sticks to the cycle’s aspects and alters them for a more exciting narrative, while using their ancient qualities to elevate the tale to a mythic proportion. By examining it through this lens, we can understand both Miller’s film and storytelling as a whole better. Here, the Cycle is presented in the 17 steps outlined by Miller, but their order in the film is somewhat shuffled for both Max and Furiosa.

Call to Adventure

The hero is living in the mundane and normal world when information or an agent comes to bring him or her into a new adventure. In some cases, he or she provide the impetus for adventure.

Max: We find Max living in The Wasteland alone, haunted by hallucinations of those he could not save. He admits to only caring about survival, but his quick capture by War Boys forces him into a new adventure, one which will transform him.

Furiosa: Unlike Max, Furiosa has decided upon her adventure before the audience ever sees her. She’s created her own call, which is the first proof that she is a far more active protagonist than Max in Fury Road and will be the one to experience the most classic version of The Hero’s Journey.

Refusal of Call

When the call has been given, the hero refuses to heed it due to fear, inadequacy, duty, obligation, or some other circumstance that would stop the adventure before it began.

Max: Given that Max is strapped to the front of Nux’s car during the beginning of Fury Road, you can interpret that his refusal of the call actively occurs for an extended period of time. Trying to ditch Furiosa and the Brides is his most literal refusal, but his need for survival slowly transforms into a heroic battle for freedom.

Furiosa: In line with the idea that Furiosa creates her own adventure, she has no refusal in Fury Road, once again proving her ownership of this iteration of The Heroic Cycle.

Supernatural Aid

After a commitment has been made to the quest by the hero, his or her magical helper or guide will appear to the hero to provide aid on the journey.

Max: The heroic journey experienced by Max is far more scrambled in order than Furiosa’s and his Supernatural Aid is the first example of this. It is only after he has been thrust across the first threshold by the desert storm that his Supernatural Aid appears – Furiosa, The Brides, and The War Rig, which materialize from the desert heat once he awakens from the sand after Nux’s brutal wreck.

Furiosa: Likewise, Max is Furiosa’s Supernatural Aid, as he is suddenly thrust into her life once she starts her escape from The Citadel. Although they are at first at odds, and engage in an amazing hand-to-hand fight, he quickly begins helping her, first for his own survival and eventually for more noble causes.

Crossing First Threshold

This is the true beginning of the adventure where the hero leaves the known world and steps into the unknown, where danger lurks and the rules are unknown.

Max: While he may be an unwilling participant at first, Max is thrust across the first threshold when he is unhooked from the front of the hot rod and plunged into a massive sand storm. Working to save himself, he also saves Furiosa, acting as Supernatural Aid.

Furiosa: One of the perfect examples of Fury Road‘s use of The Heroic Cycle, Furiosa is quickly confronted by The Buzzards after she suddenly leaves her designated route in hopes of escaping Immortan Joe. These spiky car-driving scavengers guard the gateway to adventure and must be killed before the journey can continue.

Belly of the Whale

Here is the final separation from known world. By entering this stage, the hero shows that he or she is willing to undergo a metamorphosis during the journey, which may happen gradually or all at once during a later stage.

Max: An example of The Belly of the Whale in gradual form, Max slowly separates from the known world as he accepts his part in Furiosa’s adventure. The development from being at odds with Furiosa to teaming up for survival to actively working to help her succeed in stopping Immortan Joe shows his metamorphosis from being practically an animal to being a heroic man once again.

Furiosa: While the sand storm may be Max’s threshold, it’s Furiosa’s Belly of the Whale. By driving head-on into a massive storm, she commits fully to her mission to save The Brides. Additionally, the storm eliminates the War Boys on the War Rig, which fully separates her from her known world – one ruled by Immortan Joe.

Road of Trials

A series of trials unfolds on the hero’s path, testing him or her in many different ways. It is not uncommon for the protagonist to fail at least one of these ordeals. Going through these trials causes transformation to unfold and these often happen in sets of three.

Max and Furiosa: Once our protagonists have been linked together in the fight for survival, even though they do not want to be at first, both Max and Furiosa undergo The Road of Trials together, each fighting in his or her own way. These trials include the Motorcycle Gang, the death of The Splendid Angharad, and The Bullet Farmer, which force the group of heroes closer together along the way, change Max, and strengthen Furiosa’s cause.

Meeting with the Goddess


The hero experiences an all-powerful and unconditional love that reflects what an infant would experience from a caring mother.

Max and Furiosa: As the goddess is an analog for a mother’s love, the group’s encounter with The Many Mothers, aka The Vuvalini, fits this stage of the journey like a glove. For the first and only time in the film, our heroes are met with a new group that bring them love and compassion, rather than anger and violence. Furiosa lost her mother at a young age and has survived in the harsh and cruel male-dominated world created by Immortan Joe. The Vuvalini bring love only a mother can and give hope for a better world. Of course, they are also kickass warriors.

Temptation

The hero comes face to face with material temptations. If these are embraced, he or she will abandon or stray from the quest and the true prize to be found.

Max and Furiosa: The realization that the fabled Green Place no longer exists means that Furiosa’s goal in her quest is gone forever in the film’s nadir – its ultimate low point. The despair and meaninglessness that results leads to Furiosa and her fellow women deciding to ride out into the salt flats while Max prepares to return to The Wasteland as his hallucinations return. But Max’s realization that they can return to The Citadel and defeat Immortan Joe helps the entire group reject the temptation in order to achieve the quest’s true goal.

Atonement with the Father

Here, the hero has to confront the person, place, or thing that holds the ultimate power in his or her life. While this is frequently the hero’s father or father figure, this can be anything. Often, the figure has life and death power.

Max and Furiosa: Being that much of Mad Max: Fury Road deals with the destruction and evil caused by men, there is no single clear confrontation with a father figure, but rather an ongoing battle with one. Immortan Joe posits himself as the father figure of many and the one man who holds power over life and death, such as his claims concerning death and rebirth, grabbing the sun, redeeming the world, and ruling Valhalla. The battle against Joe proves that he has no true power over life and death. breaking his power over The Wasteland.

Apotheosis

Our hero dies a physical death or dies to the self in spirit (or both at once), which moves him or her into a state of divine knowledge, compassion, bliss, and love, providing him or her with the ability to truly succeed in the journey.

Max: A crossbow bolt to the forehead nearly kills Max, but the young girl in his visions has him instinctively react, slowing the bolt with his hand. Although it shallowly lodges in his skull, it knocks him out and puts him in a state of near death. The girl urges him back to life and Max fights like a man possessed afterward. This metaphorical death to the self alters the protagonist into a more compassionate man. It is only through this experience that Max is able to tell Furiosa his name, which in itself is a return to his humanity.

Furiosa: While Furiosa has been a noble and badass warrior throughout Fury Road, Immortan Joe has been the villain she has been running away from throughout the film. It is only due to her possibly fatal stab wound during the return journey that she is finally able to confront Joe face to face. Fear is overcome and her selfless act of attacking Joe exposes him as merely a man, not the god he proclaims to be. She uses her robotic arm, a tool of her disability, to kill the man who symbolizes everything wrong in the world.

The Ultimate Boon

The ultimate boon is the achievement of the quest’s true goal, whether it was the intended one or not. Only by going through the previous steps has the hero been purified in order to deserve this gift.

Max: As a haunted survivor, Max’s Ultimate Boon is the restoration of his sanity (for the most part). While it isn’t spelled out, Max sees a vision of his son (this is who says “Come on, pa. Let’s go.”) that beckons him to stop the women from travelling out into the salt flats. In this moment, he permanently shifts from a being focused only on survival to being a hero. In addition, the vision of the young girl he could not save changes from being a frightful spirit to a helpful one, which plays a massive role in his Apotheosis.

Furiosa: Happening later than in a typical cycle but far more in line with the three act structure of a film, The Ultimate Boon is found at Fury Road‘s climax – the death of Immortan Joe. By killing Joe, saving The Brides, and taking over The Citadel, Furiosa gains what she was seeking all along – redemption.

Refusal of Return

The hero has found enlightenment and happiness in the other world, as such, he or she may not want to return to the ordinary world, but must in order to provide the boon to his or her fellow man.

Max and Furiosa: Happening much earlier and before finding The Ultimate Boon, our heroes refuse their return in conjunction with their Temptation. Returning to the ordinary world at this point would mean returning to Joe’s cruel kingdom. But it’s the realization that taking The Citadel and stopping Joe is far greater than what they had ever planned that propels the protagonists into the return.

Magic Flight

Having gained the boon may not be enough, and the hero may have to escape with it on the return from the journey. This flight from peril in possession of something he or she did not originally have can be far more dangerous than anything else yet encountered.

Max and Furiosa: Having come together in their mission, both leads experience the same flight – the return to The Citadel while being pursued by Immortan Joe’s forces. This return is far more dangerous than any previous trial as the forces they face are greater than ever. More destruction, more War Boys, and a greater emotional investment into the fates of the characters turn the Magic Flight into the climax of Fury Road and the means by which our heroes capture the Ultimate Boon and return to the ordinary world so that it can be changed for the better.

Rescue from Without

At this point, the hero may have been severely weakened or wounded from the adventure and will need a powerful guide to bring him or her back home.

Max: While not as powerful as Furiosa’s rescue, Max is saved by Furiosa when he nearly falls off the War Rig during battle and is caught by her robotic arm. It saves Max from death and also leads to Furiosa’s near-fatal stabbing.

Furiosa: Once again, Max plays a supporting role to Furiosa’s heroic journey, this time as the guide she needs to return home. Having been stabbed in the side, her lung has collapsed and she is severely bleeding out, meaning that she is on the verge of death despite killing Joe. Max intervenes, opening her lung and using his universal donor blood to restore her, giving her the chance to return to The Citadel and complete her adventure.

Crossing the Return Threshold

Completing the adventure, the hero or heroine returns to the normal world and brings along the wisdom and power found on the adventure. Most often, he or she will be faced with threshold guardians that guard the entrance to the normal world and true success.

Max and Furiosa: Here, we are once again confronted by very literal representations of threshold guardians. Returning to The Citadel, Furiosa, Max, The Brides, and the remaining Vuvalini are stopped from ascending to Immortan Joe’s palace by the remnants of his guard. But their presentation of Joe’s body, which proves his mortality, destroys his kingdom, defeats the guardians, and brings freedom to The Citadel.

Master of Two Worlds

Having succeeded and conquered his or her obstacles, the hero is able to achieve balance between the material and spiritual world, the inner and outer, or the mundane and fantastical, making him or her into the master of two worlds.

Max: A more subtle mastery than Furiosa, Max has conquered his demons and enters into an existence beyond mere survival. By leaving Furiosa and The Citadel, he embraces that growth as a person.

Furiosa: Once again being the character who follows the most classic heroic journey, Furiosa’s completion of her Heroic Journey in the harsh world outside The Citadel literally makes her into the Master of Two Worlds as she, The Brides, and the surviving Vuvalini ascend to the throne of The Citadel.

Freedom to Live

With newfound mastery, the hero is free from the fear of death and gains the freedom to truly live, with he or she neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past, simply living in the moment.

Max: While Max’s return to the Wasteland is ambiguous in nature, it’s clear that the character has grown by leaps and bounds since Fury Road‘s beginning. Having heroically liberated The Citadel, Max can choose a more noble path in life now. The glance he exchanges with Furiosa upon leaving symbolizes great change within his character.

Furiosa: If there was anything that the citizens of The Citadel were not while Immortan Joe ruled, it was being free to live. Furiosa’s ascension and the free flowing release of the aqueduct’s water supply symbolizes the new freedom and humanity bestowed upon both the heroine and her fellow people.

Have your own interpretations of Mad Mad: Fury Road? Let me know in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Mad Max: Fury Road and the Heroic Cycle

  1. Pingback: Out of a Wasteland of Despair, a Spark of Hope – “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

  2. Pingback: “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an Insane Action Masterpiece – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

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