A prequel starring a younger/less famous actress as an iconic character? This has all the trappings, on paper, of a Solo: A Star Wars Story-style mistake.
While the film hasn’t officially been green-lit, but this morning’s news is as close as we’ve gotten to a follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road. Word comes from Warner Bros. that it will not be Mad Max 5, but rather a prequel spin-off focused on Furiosa, co-lead and breakout action heroine played by Charlize Theron in the 2015 Oscar-winning classic. Anya Taylor-Joy will be playing a “young” Furiosa in a new movie co-starring Chris Hemsworth and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. It is presumed that the film will chart the journey by which Furiosa went from a war captain under Immortan Joe to a revolutionary figure in the franchise’s post-apocalyptic world. George Miller is directing from a script penned by Miller and Nick Lathouris. Okay, so is this what anyone wanted?
The good news is that Mad Max: Fury Road was arguably the best movie of the previous decade and my pick for the best modern action movie ever made. It earned rave reviews and, despite being a big-budget ($150 million) sequel to a decades-old franchise sans the original star (with Tom Hardy subbing in for Mel Gibson), managed to buck the odds by A) being a terrific Hollywood blockbuster and B) being relatively well-received by audiences and critics alike. That said, it wasn’t that big of a hit even in the summer of 2015. It earned a terrific $153 million domestic from a $46 million debut but ended up with “just” $373 million worldwide. In a less IP-driven time I’d imagine the franchise would have quit while it was ahead.
Fury Road didn’t play in China, so it’s possible that Furiosa will earn about as much in America and overseas as Fury Road plus a boost from China. That’s a very presumptuous assumption considering the theatrical industry as it exists in America even before the pandemic and China’s current preference for local blockbusters and DC/MCU comic book movies. Moreover, to the extent that audiences who couldn’t give a fig about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome embraced Fury Road, it was partially due to Charlize Theron’s iconic turn. I’m as big of an Anya Taylor-Joy fan as any genre nerd, but this isn’t that far off from expecting folks to show up to a young Han Solo movie starring Alden Ehrenreich (who I also quite like) instead of Harrison Ford.
Furiosa wasn’t an established character from a prior source material, like Harry Potter, James Bond or Batman. Like Han Solo, Furiosa was an original character who came to life partially thanks to a specific performance from a specific actress. This may prove to be as unwise as trying to make a Die Hard movie sans Bruce Willis, a Matrix movie without Keanu Reeves or an Indiana Jones flick without Harrison Ford. If Star Wars couldn’t make this notion work commercially, then what hope does the far less mainstream Mad Max have? Charlize Theron is not happy about being recast, and considering she’s not exactly ancient (45!!), I don’t blame her. IP notwithstanding, it’s not unlike swapping out then-42-year-old Angelina Jolie for then-29-year-old Alicia Vikander for MGM’s Tomb Raider reboot.
Adding Chris Hemsworth to the cast is bitterly funny. He’s had his share of doomed franchises to his name (Men in Black International comes to mind). He also co-starred in Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman and then got a solo spin-off/sequel which kicked Stewart out of her own franchise. This is almost the opposite even as the original actress still loses a plum gig. Hemsworth keeps getting plum opportunities because he’s exactly the kind of guy (handsome, funny, talented, charismatic, etc.) who would be an old-school “butts in the seats” star had audiences not prioritized characters (like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) over conventional star vehicles (like Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway in Blackhat). Yahya Abdul-Mateen II will be joining the fun, which is a nice get for the Watchmen/Candyman/Get Down/Aquaman actor.
On paper, this project looks like a major studio/major filmmakers repeating the mistakes of Solo or Pacific Rim: Uprising. I should admit that I was just as cynical about Mad Max: Fury Road until WB unleashed that jaw-dropping SDCC sizzle reel back in 2014. Miller has made four good-to-great Mad Max movies, produced one of the greatest live-action kid flicks ever made (Babe) and directed that film’s weird and ambitious sequel while snagging an Oscar for a blockbuster toon about environmentally conscious dancing penguins (Happy Feet). Still, there’s a risk in putting too much stock in the abstract character of Furiosa (as opposed to character+actress), especially in a prequel that will presumably spend the whole movie leading up to her being the one-armed bad-ass we know and love.
A follow-up to a lightning-in-a-bottle hit movie sans that film’s stars and with a new, less well-known actress playing that previous film’s breakout character? A prequel that A) may spend the entire movie merely building up that character into the one we loved in the first place and B) may not be able to help but explicitly deal with the whole “sex slavery/rape bondage” material that Fury Road merely implied and otherwise avoided? A seven-to-eight-years-later sequel to a breakout hit that broke out partially because of a specific “Hollywood is finally making big movies for/about women!” moment in the cultural zeitgeist? For reasons specific and generic, this has all the trappings of another Solo: A Star Wars Story. I was wrong about Fury Road. I hope I’m wrong about Furiosa too.