Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Deliver the Threat with Mad Max: Fury Road

Warning: post includes spoilers for the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. (duh, right?)

Mad Max: Fury Road is George Miller's rousing sequel to an iconic late 20th century classic. It is praised highly by critics and topped to the brim with amazing special effects and non-stop action.

On a storytelling level it did a lot of things right. Great worldbuilding, a simple albeit engaging plot, and for a movie with perhaps a grand total of fifteen minutes of dialogue, significant character development. Perhaps one of the most subtle yet well done storytelling techniques in the film, however, is how well it delivers on the promise of its threat.

In storytelling, threat is an attribute of the antagonist, whether the antagonist be a character, an empire, the environment, or any number of other potential opposers. Threat can be looked at in two ways:
  1. The antagonist generally poses a threat to the protagonist's desire or goal (this idea is often called "stakes", which can be summed up as: what does the protagonist stand to lose if they cannot overcome their opponent?).
  2. Threat is also the level of danger the antagonist poses, and usually rises as the story progresses.
Well-executed levels of threat do great things for a story. It increases tension, demonstrates the power of  both the antagonist and the protagonist, and increases in-story realism.

Threat is a demonstration of the antagonist's capability, and once a certain level of threat has been promised, it cannot easily be rescinded - else events in the story won't "ring true". It's not enough to be told  an enemy is powerful. It must be demonstrated to the audience. Luckily, Mad Max: Fury Road had quite the impressive demonstration.

Mad Max: Fury Road's main antagonist: Immortan Joe.
For the first twenty minutes of the movie, we see how capable, cruel, and intense Immortan Joe and his War Boys are. Our hero, Max, is captured almost immediately at the beginning of the film, and despite impressive efforts to flee, is wrangled back in by the sheer number of opponents. A scene later, thousands of worn, ragged, worshiping people stand in the valley below Immortan Joe's fortress, waiting for him to unleash a torrent of water only he can provide. Inside the citadel, we witness the juxtaposition his gluttony has created. While people run ragged on the outside, his fortress has water, crops, and women enslaved to either breed or produce milk.

When our other hero, Imperator Furiosa, takes her war rig off course a scene later, Immortan Joe realizes her intent to free his Five Wives, and calls his army of War Boys to action. We see the crazed, bloodthirsty reaction of the troops from the perspective of Nux - a War Boy ready to die in glory to please Immortan Joe.

All of this is build up: the promise of the threat. It's the promise of the antagonist's power, resources, and cruelty. For the sake of breaking down the first major conflict, I'd like to draw your attention to two of the big promises this setup makes:

  • Immortan Joe possesses a large army of vicious, loyal, bloodthirsty men trained for combat
  • The willingness of members in this army to seek glory above all else (glorified death)

As Imperator Furiosa storms across the desert in her war rig, the first of the above two promises is delivered: a massive army of War Boys led by Immortan Joe chases her across the sand. An unexpected threat not driven by the primary antagonist enters the scene in the form of factionless scavengers, compounding these two threats together, and thus increasing tension. With Furiosa's rig chased by two opponents and Max tied helplessly to the front of War Boy Nux's car, the movie does a fantastic job of putting us in the mindset of the characters: how the hell are they (am I) going to get through this?

Poor Max.
Nux and his War Boy companion begin to demolish the would-be scavengers in an impressive display of force consistent with the promise of might in the setup. It delivers on the promised threat of skill and intensity, which instills in the audience a sense of reliability and trust in the plot.

In order to fully repel the scavengers, one of Furiosa's men (from the same War Boy army) sprays his face in silver in a telltale symbol of sacrificial glory and willingly (joyfully even) lunges from his car, sacrificing his own life to destroy an enemy vehicle in one of the coolest moments in the film. This delivers the second of the two promises mentioned above: Immortan Joe's forces are very willing and very ready to die for his cause. This delivered promise further increases tension as well as audience engagement and trust in the plot. We have no doubt about the antagonist's power, meaning our heroes are in real danger.

A War Boy sacrifices himself to repel the scavengers.

That said, it's no surprise the entire audience goes rigid when Nux sprays his face in silver and starts pumping gasoline into his car. We see it, Max sees it, and because we all saw the threat delivered once, we're certain it will be delivered again. The movie will pull no punches. This crazy War Boy is going to do it. 

In a satisfying display of brutality, survival instinct, and a little bit of madness, Max punches through the back window as Nux lights a flare. Max lunges forward, pitting his strength against Nux's to keep the inevitable explosion at bay. In a moment where everyone holds their breath, Furiosa's war rig destroys the car before it has a chance to ignite.

The collective sigh of the audience when the camera zoomed in on that extinguished flare proves just how much tension was jam packed into that scene. This tension was made possible because the audience was engaged - they trusted the story's threat level, saw the threat demonstrated, and because of this, were easily able to put themselves right next to the characters as it happened.

And this was just the first leg of Max and Furiosa's journey.


If you're in the audience, threat is key. Subtle when done well, but key. You want to feel like you're there with the protagonist in the moment. You want whatever threat is promised to be consistent and acted upon throughout the whole story. Could you imagine this movie with the same setup, but a different execution? If the War Boys cowered or hesitated to give their lives, would it have felt as in sync with what was presented previously? Probably not. If done right, the proper execution of threat creates thrilling, engaging, intense rides just like this movie.

If you're a storyteller, here are some things you can take away from Mad Max: Fury Road's use of threat:
  1. Promise an attainable threat that works for your story. Create a threat that highlights your antagonist's strengths, but will be manageable and realistic for the protagonist to overcome.
  2. Build on threat when possible. Like the factionless scavengers, you can increase tension and threat level by throwing in unforeseen circumstances which can compound or enhance the primary threat delivered by the antagonist.
  3. Deliver the promise. Don't build up a villain who is immortal, has unlimited resources, and is the heart of all evil, and then have him let the hero slip by time and time again out of contrivance. Uphold the power of the threat you create.
  4. Characters should overcome threat through skill - not coincidence. You want your audience to feel a sense of thrill and accomplishment when the protagonist succeeds. Being saved by an unprecedented outside force may be convenient, but it doesn't pack a punch, and weakens the deliverance of your threat.
Mad Max: Fury Road was an awesome movie for so many reasons, but I was blown away by how well Miller managed the threat level. Threat is a vital aspect of most stories, and this is just one of the many works that do a great job with it.

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