So if you follow me on Twitter, you may have picked up some vague hints that I kinda liked Mad Max: Fury Road. And you may have guessed that I would have something to say about Imperator Furiosa. Well, you’re wrong. I’m going to talk about Nux.
Nux is the film’s most unexpected character. While Furiosa is unusual and well executed, she still belongs to a recognizable archetype. Nux does not. Spoilers follow.
The opening sequence is fairly standard. Max gets captured by and tries to escape from a horde of warboys. The warboys seem like typical movie mooks: Identical, unthinking, and expendable, decked out with scary makeup. But we soon see that Fury Road‘s treatment of the warboys is anything but typical. When Furiosa veers her truck off the road to make her escape, a warboy from her entourage thumps on the window and asks what she’s doing. It’s a throwaway moment, but in contrast to so many armies of mooks that do nothing but mindlessly attack, it’s refreshing to see one behave like a normal human being by noticing when something out of the ordinary happens and wondering if anything is wrong.
And the warboys are normal human beings. They aren’t clones, zombies, robots, or mutants. While they fight for Immortan Joe with suicidal devotion, they aren’t mindless. We discover this in the next scene, when Nux is introduced. He’s a half-dead warboy being pumped full of Max’s blood to keep himself alive. When Immortan Joe discovers that his “wives” have run away with Furiosa, he rallies the warboys and the chase is on. Nux asks his friend what’s going on and, when he finds out, he begs and negotiates to go along, even though his friend thinks he’s too sick.
What an unusual scene. It’s as if the battle for Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers began with all the orcs marching towards the fortress, then cut to a couple of orcs back at the camp talking about what they hope to accomplish in the battle. In this exchange, Nux demonstrates a range of humanizing emotions: Excitement, disappointment, frustration, and most of all, a desperate, childlike desire for affirmation from Immortan Joe, despite all evidence that he’ll never receive it. He already demonstrates complexity far beyond the cardboard cutouts from so many movies.
The warboys die in great numbers, like mooks in any action film. But Fury Road supplies them with a motivation — and it’s a deeply understandable and sympathetic one. Genetically impure, warboys are doomed to short, painful lives. They want to be remembered and they want their brief existence to have meaning, but in Immortan Joe’s Citadel, the only way to do that is through a spectacular death in battle, after which they are promised entry into a glorious Valhalla. When a warboy sprays chrome on his face and yells “Witness me!” before a suicide attack, he doesn’t see himself as disposable cannon fodder, but as a warrior fulfilling his destiny.
For Nux, however, that’s only the start of his journey. He repeatedly attempts attacks that should have left him dead, but instead he finds himself in the hands of the people he was trying to kill, having failed humiliatingly at his one life purpose. The wife who finds him, Capable, could have easily killed him, but instead she shows him something he’s never experienced before: Compassion. She introduces him to the idea that his life might have purpose beyond a violent death, setting him on a new path that carries him through the remainder of the movie.
Nux’s character arc is a rebuttal to the idea of toxic masculinity. Raised to be a warboy, he spent his whole life saturated in a culture that glorified violence, but embracing that culture only lead to death, and it immediately rejected him when he failed to live up to its expectations. It’s the women who see him as having value beyond his utility in combat. Once freed of the restraints of toxic masculinity, he proves to be helpful, resourceful, and self-sacrificial.
There’s an interesting counterpoint between the character arcs of Nux and the wives. The wives are kept in a very helpless “feminine” state, and once they escape, they must learn survival skills to hold their own in a dangerous world. Conversely, Nux begins the movie as a very “masculine” character, and in order to find his place in the world, he needs to learn gentleness and vulnerability.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph of feminist storytelling for far deeper reasons than simply because it has a tough female protagonist. It’s feminist because of the plurality of ways its characters relate to or deviate from traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine. And central to that is Nux, who shows that growing from a boy to a man takes more than a fast car and a pile of guns.