Disability in the Dystopian Future of Mad Max: Fury Road

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Approximately 15% of the world’s population has some kind of disability, but in pop culture people with disabilities are rarely seen: only 1% of characters have some kind of disability in American television shows.

It’s not a trend that more genre films have managed to shake. The Hunger Games, for example, is a franchise that actively sanitized its characters with visible disabilities — Peeta’s prosthetic leg is gone from the adaptation, as is Katniss’ deafness and subsequent hearing aid. The villainous Snow, however, retains his chronic illness, his unwellness still a signifier of his sickening politic views and morals.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) Warner Bros

Mel Gibson sporting Mad Max’s leg brace in The Road Warrior (1981)

That’s the way disability is normally retained in our dystopian futures — as a way to signify evil, a darkness about a character. And while Mad Max: Fury Road still falls into this trope, the entire franchise is one that has managed to include disabled characters as active participants in the world of the ravaged future. Disability in Mad Max is common — disabled characters populate the ravaged post-apocalyptic world, just as they do our modern world. In the original Mad Max, Max and his family visit their friend May, whose farmhand, Benno, has an intellectual disability. He’s clearly a valued person in May’s life and is never denigrated for his disability. In Road Warrior, Max must team up with the mute Feral Child, a skilled fighter and a member of the ad hoc family that forms in the film. Max also has a leg brace that requires maintenance at least once. The mechanic of the settlers he helps across the desert does not have use of his legs, and he sits in a swing attached to a crane to get around their encampment.

Disabled characters are also featured quite prominently in Beyond Thunderdome. Master Blaster is meant to be a strange and striking figure, a hulking man as the base of a small, powerful man. Master is the “brains” of the operation, played by Angelo Rossito (no stranger to embracing disability as the grotesque; he also appeared in Freaks). Blaster is the brawn, a hulking figure in a BDSM diver’s helmet who is renowned for his strength and fighting prowess. Their appearance fits the surreality of Bartertown, meant to unsettle.

But the characters do not only serve to be another oddity in an odd world. Aunty Entity makes a deal with Max to kill off Blaster, ensuring her authority over the town she helped create, and Max initially agrees. In the Thunderdome, however, he knocks off the mask and reveals the face of Blaster for the first time. He has stereotypical indicators of an intellectual disability, possibly Down syndrome, and Max refuses to go for the killing blow.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) - Master Blaster

Master (Angelo Rossitto) & Blaster (Paul Larsson) in Beyond Thunderdome

“This wasn’t part of the deal,” Max says. There’s a recognition there that killing a man with an intellectual disability is beyond the pale — Max isn’t willing to kill someone who may not understand the convoluted politics that led to his death, someone who is clearly being manipulated by those he trusts. Master even apologizes to Blaster for allowing this, saying, “He’s got the mind of a child.”

Certainly, it’s not the most nuanced view of intellectual disability, and the character is not given much agency, but he does command respect. George Miller’s apocalypse is not one that presumes people with disabilities are unable to be survivors.

It’s no surprise, then, that the post-apocalyptic world of Fury Road also accepts that people with disabilities will continue to exist, live, and possibly thrive even as the world ends around it.

Disability As Evil

Fury Road‘s apocalypse comes in the form of radiation, spoiling the soil and poisoning the population. It’s an equal opportunity threat: radiation and the harsh environment can sicken all classes of people: from the Citadel’s leader, Immortan Joe, to the tumor-laden War Boys, to The Wretched, the lowliest members of the Citadel’s population who are shown to have disfigured faces, tumors, and missing limbs.

It’s a double-edged sword of representation: in the lay population, disability is normalized. The War Boys live and fight knowing their lives will most likely end due to whatever cancer causes their tumors. But disability is also being used to highlight the grotesque. We are meant to be shocked and disgusted at Immortan Joe’s diseased skin, hidden under armor. His face is unknowable, only a savage mask that serves as a respirator. One of his sons is Corpus Colossus, played by Quentin Kenihan, an actor who is also a disability advocate. He has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease), and is fairly well-known in Australia. His character is a callback to Master Blaster, and Kenihan actually mentions this in an interview, saying that the role is something he could have played even with his short stature.

“And my brother always said to me I was small enough to play Master Blaster in Thunderdome so who would have thought over 20 years later George would ring me up and offer me this amazing part?”

His role doesn’t get too much screentime — he is the brother who stays to watch the Citadel while his father and brother head out to hunt the escaped Wives. While Master Blaster, however, is given characterization and sympathy by the narrative, and ultimately redemption, Corpus Colossus is a clear villain. Making Immortan Joe’s family all visibly disabled is not meant as a subversion in Fury Road — instead, severe disability is used as shorthand to emphasize how twisted their rule has been and how they are irredeemable villains.

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road, with his son Rictus Erectus behind him

The other leaders of nearby towns are also disabled in a way that is meant to be grotesque, hyperstylized to hammer home their evil to the viewer. The People Eater is a vision of excess — his suits have cut-outs that display his nipples, a chain linking them, and his nose is made of metal, suggesting a deviant sexual appetite complete with syphilis. He has at least one enormous foot, either swollen from lymphedema or tumorous growth. His appearance is meant to be as outrageous as that of The Bullet Farmer, who has bullets for teeth. There is no normalization of disability to be found in these characters, all larger than life and exaggerated.

Disability As Capability

If this was the extent of disability in Fury Road, it would have been a complete departure for the series (and any analysis by me would be far more critical). But while all the prominent villains are disabled, so are our two main protagonists. Furiosa uses a metal prosthetic as a hand, and Max is, well, mad. He has flashbacks, he sees people that aren’t there. He suffers from something like PTSD. (His leg brace also makes an appearance).

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Mad Max and Furiosa

We don’t ever learn the detailed origins of these disabilities — Max’s past traumas shift with each passing film, and Furiosa’s past is murky. They recognize survivors in each other, and their disabilities exist outside of the coding from the Citadel leaders. Her lack of arm isn’t presented as either a strength or a weakness, and while Max’s hallucinations are a hindrance to his fighting, they also save his life in at least one instance. These disabilities are the least exaggerated; their appearances are not meant to horrify or engender pity. These characters are capable while still not being fully abled to the extent that no one ever comments on Max’s small bits of lost time, and neither does anyone ask Furiosa about her arm. These facts about them are taken in stride, parts of their whole selves.

Disability and Women

Immortan Joe desires nothing more than a non-disabled child to carry on his legacy, and perhaps that’s what spared Furiosa from being added to his collection of mothers. While the women of the Wretched seem as likely as the men to be visibly disfigured, the Wives chosen by Joe have no physical signs of trauma or birth defect, seemingly untouched by the poison of the world around them.

Furiosa protects these women, and brings them to what she hopes is the last unscarred part of the earth that they live in, the place she came from before being taken to the Citadel. When she realizes the Green Place is gone, she pulls off her prosthetic arm to mourn, her body as untouched by her role as Imperator as she hoped the Green Place would be.

The other group of women we meet are The Vuvalini, also untouched by the plague that ravages the earth — none of them have metal limbs, and their only affliction appears to be age. There are no tumorous growths or oxygen tanks among them. They mirror the Wives in the sense that the landscape has not poisoned them, not yet. This is not to say these women do not suffer, but they do not bear the physical scars of the wasted world, nor have overt mental illness that is tied with trauma.

It is symbolic, in a way, that as Furiosa slays Immortan Joe, she does it by also sacrificing her prosthetic arm. As she frees herself and others from an oppressive, sick regime, she also loses a visual connection to the harsh aesthetics of her military existence. It’s a physical representation of the past she wishes to atone from. Her lack of arm, what would be considered the disability, is not imbued with double-meanings, but her replacement of it is.

Disability as Setting

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Capable & Nux

While main protagonists and villains embody various ways to represent disability, visible deformity also forms the background of the population around them. Nux is just one of hundreds of War Boys living with a chronic disease — their desire for Valhalla is spurred on by the knowledge that their death will be abnormally soon. We also see one of the Wretched coming out of his encampment, missing both legs. The crowds of Wretched that push their way to water are shown as dirty but also diseased — facial deformities and tumors cover them as well. Disability is a way of living, and that is another way Fury Road tries to have it both ways. There is no recoil from the physically perfect Wives at the end when the Citadel civilians push their way forward, desperate to touch and be with their new saviors; the imperfect body is accepted all throughout the film. But the emphasis on sickness, as a way to show how Immortan Joe’s rule was literally poison to his people, again, makes disability shorthand for consequences of evil deeds. We are meant to pity their plight but also see how deformity is part of the aesthetic of corruption.

Fury Road is guilty of utilizing visible disability to both underscore the grotesqueness of its villains and to highlight the suffering living in a wasteland ruled by monsters would cause. But it also tempers those portrayals by having two explicitly disabled protagonists, their disabilities neutral, neither superpowered nor torturous. The end of the film shows the women literally uplifting disabled members of the Wretched with them as they ascend the Citadel, implying they too have a place in the new world order, just as they have always had a place in George Miller’s Mad Max films.

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About Author

Copyeditor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. A mid-twenties Latina, she can be seen casually cosplaying America Chavez and interrogating texts via queer & disability theory.

21 Comments

  1. Claire Napier on

    I didn’t see Corpus Colossus as a clear villain, to be honest—his role didn’t seem to demand evil or allow rebellion or the sort of direct power over others that lets you entertain mercy, and I took it for granted that he was just Joe’s son, given a job that suited the combination of that fact and the needs of his body. He didn’t rail or curse when Joe’s body is revealed and the citadel is freed, he just looked really sad, like “well my dad is dead, and everyone hated him, and… also what happens to me now? Do I get killed?”

    I’d say that disability informed my understanding of his story in that he seemed like the *only* character who never had a moment of agency, beyond slightly bossing his brother; he was the only one denied technology that granted additional manipulation of his place within his environment, which in a place like Joe’s citadel (where travel is power) meant that he wasn’t afforded the option to rebel in any way.

    • Kat Overland on

      I sort of assumed that he was at least part of Joe’s reign — the one left behind to watch over the Citadel. He seemed to be involved in the hierarchy; trusted more than his brother but less of a warrior. So maybe “clear” villain is overstating it, but I don’t think he’s coded in a way that makes him not part of the villainous regime. I interpreted his silence at the end mostly as fear, will they kill me (because I am complicit as well)?

      • Claire Napier on

        He had shiny cry-eyes! :’0

        It’s true I hadn’t considered how he’s left apparently in charge while Joe’s away… but then again, Furiosa sounds like she’s been on Team Joe before the beginning of the film, to the point that she’s trusted with fuel runs. Corpus Colossus might be able to shut Joe out, if Joe happened to leave, but then Joe would come back and his entourage would be alongside him. It doesn’t seem like a tenable enough position to be gaugeable… I’d not suggest he’s sin free or whathav, but I did leave the film thinking I wonder what he’ll be doing in six weeks? Was he evil by nature or evil by circumstance?

        • Kat Overland on

          Interestingly, I wonder if part of the reason he seems less villainous is because he physically the weakest brother shown. My immediate thought was “Master Blaster” when I saw him and Rictus; I pretty much believed he was the ~mastermind, whose political strengths would be more cerebral than brute strength (Rictus does not seem very savvy to nuance), thus probably on pair with Rictus in a way to balance him out, and I figured his chair gave him the mobility he needed to get around the fortress. Basically is this overly elaborate conjecture from like 2 minutes of screentime? “Corpus Colossus” is a pun but also a riff on the “corpus colossum,” the connector between brain hemispheres but also Latin for “tough body,” and I guess I never thought to rank him less than Rictus in the Citadel’s political whatever despite the movie prioritizing physical strength as political power.

          Quentin Kenihan is pretty hype about his character being in the comics so I guess I will seek out this backstory.

          • Claire Napier on

            Yeah. The fact that we don’t *see* his chair move seems important to the way that the film is speaking about disability & his role & so forth. He was the only character I actually wanted to know MORE about, so I’m also pretty jazzed to hear he gets comic facetime!

  2. PlantinMoretus on

    I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Since damn near everyone in the MMFR world has a disability or bodily damage of some kind, it doesn’t mean anything about the characters, it’s about the world. (“Who killed the world?”) The planet is sick, the society is sick, so of course the inhabitants will be every kind of fucked up. The Breeders are healthy because they have been (physically) protected and nurtured (not the rape part, obvs), the Vuvulani because they lived in the Green Place for a good chunk of their lives. I.e. both groups were isolated from the real world by chance, until they weren’t. (“Out here, everything hurts.” ) They are not not-disabled because they are good people, they are good people because they grew up (relatively) safe and healthy. (One of the Vuvulani has a line about there being no need to kill when there was enough to go around.)

    I gotta see this movie again!

    Also, I’m surprised you didn’t mention George Miller’s experience as an emergency room doctor and the many car-accident injuries he treated – which he himself talks about as being one of his inspirations for the film.

    • Megan Purdy on

      But her argument is about the symbolism of disability, not the in-story reasons why these characters are disabled. What does it mean that character A and not characer B is disabled?

      • PlantinMoretus on

        You can’t separate the in-story reasons from the symbolism. Do that and you’re just making stuff up, cherry-picking symbols and projecting your own stuff onto them.

        I’m saying that disability in the MMFR world is meaningless. It’s the norm. That’s why no one thinks anything of it. The bad guys’ disabilities don’t mean they’re bad, and the good guys’ disabilities don’t mean they’re good. They just are.

        • Kat Overland on

          You don’t think there’s a deliberate decision to make the disabilities of the villains grotesque versus the normalized disabilities of Furiosa and Mad Max? In-story reasonings for things may often differ from how they come across once media is released to the outside world; disability representation isn’t in a vacuum so in some regards in-story reasons matter less than how an audience might interpret them.

          • PlantinMoretus on

            I think it’s more about the leads/good guys in movies being more visually attractive than the supporting roles or bad guys. That’s just Hollywood.

            I think you’ve started with the premise that the disabilities in MMFR *must* mean something, and then went looking for something to hang on that. But they don’t have to mean anything. Mainstream reviewers and commenters don’t even mention the disabilities, as far as I’ve seen.

          • Kat Overland on

            Well, I’ll have to disagree — as a person with disabilities, disability in media certainly means something to /me/. And I think it’s impossible to look at Beyond Thunderdome and decide there’s no meaning behind how George Miller chooses to present disability.

        • Claire Napier on

          Let me try to bridge the gap a bit:

          Maybe the fact that the heroic women are not apparently disabled is not intended to be an indicator of their goodness, but rather that the suffering wrought by the death of the world, something that has brought a far greater experience of disability to the people, is what has steered them into being bad? The Vuvalini shoot to kill, but it’s defensive and they don’t thrive via oppression; they lived in the green place, which allowed them a more comfortable life and a more gradual changeover from the living world to this one. The wives were prisoners, physical thriving via their own otherwise complete oppression, so their lack of apparent disability is predicated upon their complete understanding of the evil of misuse of a person, i.e. it ensures their goodness. The WarBoys have short lives because of cancer, presumably, and so their inability to live and prosper is channeled into their use as pawns for the regime.

          This doesn’t account for non-environmental disability, so perhaps there’s more than one avenue of thought to take on the subject.

        • Characters don’t think. They’re a value-laden construct conveying ideas and plot and symbols. Everything in the film, from the costumes, to the characters, to the grammar of the cinematography means something, and that meaning is a negotiation between audience and the film.

          That disability may be seen by the characters as netural does not mean that it’s neutral to *us*.

          • PlantinMoretus on

            Audiences seem quite willing to accept all the characters without mentioning their various disabilities. There is little to no discussion of it in most reviews, comments, etc. To me, that suggests that the disabilities *are* neutral to us.

            Isn’t that a good thing?

          • Kat Overland on

            But disabilities are not neutral to us? Media representation generally focuses on inspirational stories played by able-bodied actors. It’s interesting to critique disability’s role in media because disabled people are so underrepresented and disability leads to an incredible amount of discrimination on a micro and macro level out in the world.

  3. Awesome article, Kat! I think you identify some really interesting themes and I really like you’ve linked Max’s PTSD and Furiosa’s prosthetic limb to their survival, i.e. the thing that they live with/through but also aids them in important ways.

  4. Matthew Hisee on

    I’d argue that rather than symbolising their “evilness” the disabilities of Rictus Erectus (he appears to have learning difficulties and he has something wrong with his jaw hence the weird medical brace) and Corpus Colossus are meant to highlight what sort of man Immortan Joe’s is. Chiefly that he’s obsessed with siring a “valid” healthy heir rather than leaving his empire to his other sons because of their disabilities, hypocritically so considering he himself is not a healthy man plus Joe where’s that plastic armour stuff to hid his skin condition suggesting he considers any abnormality to be a sign of weakness.

  5. One thing about the general levels of health/disability amongst the characters/”the wretched”: this is a world without proper nutrition, sanitation, medical care or even immunization – before you get to the general barbarism; assuming a peaceful, cooperative community living under similar conditions would have an enormous spectrum of visible disability compared to our contemporary culture.

    As a disabled person, I was pleased to see disability as a facet of these characters, and as a reality in the MMFR world – for the main heros to have disabilities 1. it doesn’t seem to be for pity’s sake, 2. the disability isn’t meant to link them to evil (ala Luke getting a mechanical hand, to create some kind of connection to his father) I appreciated the sense that there was adaptation at work, in all of the heroic characters.

    As far as the The Vuvalini, I would also argue that geriatric people (of any gender) are going to have to display a high level of adaptation to survive in said world. To assume that they are not at least somewhat debilitated by aging, the conditions depicted is making a lot of assumptions.