[Spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road follow]
A criticism leveled at Mad Max: Fury Road was that the story wasn’t actually about Max himself, it was about Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa.
I don’t have any particular emotional attachment to the Mad Max series, or the character himself, so that doesn’t bother me. But there is truth to the claim – Mad Max is the Point of View (POV) character in the movie, but he isn’t the Protagonist. Furiosa is.
The usual form of most stories is as so :
The Protagonist is faced with some problem or wants to achieve some ambition. The set out to deal with it and struggle, facing setbacks and recruiting allies and tools along the way. These struggles build to a crescendo where the Protagonist faces the Dark Night of the Soul, the climactic moment that threatens to crush their hopes utterly. But they rise to overcome it, transforming from the person they were at the start of the story to the person they need to be in order to solve their problem/achieve their ambition.
So the easiest way to identify the Protagonist is to look for the character whose wants, goals and choices drive the story forward. In Fury Road, that would be Furiosa. It is her goal to rescue the Wives from Immortan Joe and sexual slavery. She sets the plan in motion, faces challenges, recruits unexpected allies (Max and Nox), and faces the Dark Night when she finds out that the expected refuge, the Green Place, is a toxic wasteland. She has to rise up, throw off hopelessness, turn around, and confront Immortan Joe to finally achieve her goal.
Max has a smaller character arc, but it’s not the Protagonist’s arc. He starts off feral, concerned only with his own survival, and by the end of the movie has reconnected with his humanity, willing to risk himself for others, caring again. But he doesn’t face the Dark Night like Furiosa does, and his goals (escape from the Citadel) are not the driving force behind the plot movement. Mostly, he’s a reactive character, rather than active.
He’s Danny Glover to Furiosa’s Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Or Watson to her Sherlock Holmes.
Like I said, I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s an interesting thing to analyze, as a student of the story teller’s craft. Maybe the writers decided that Mad Max works better as a semi-mythic figure, the Road Warrior, who wanders in and out of other people’s lives, a common thread binding together stories in that world. Or maybe it wasn’t that conscious a decision, maybe they just had a cool story to tell in that world and they told it.
At the end of the day, we got an amazing piece of cinema out of it, regardless.