It’s one thing to decide that Mad Max: Fury Road works as a movie on its own. It’s a whole nother job to try to make sense of the four movies as a coherent narrative about a character called Max Rockatansky.
In the beginning, when I was hobbling into the cinema to watch the first two movies again and again, it all made some kind of sense. In the first movie, Australia’s falling apart with biker gangs contesting the roads and towns with an amped up federal police called the Main Force Patrol. By the time the movie ends, Max has lost his family and most of his friends and is cruising the highways as a vigilante with nowhere to go. Then in Mad Max 2, everything’s gone to hell and Max is cruising the wilderness while feral gangs lay siege to the last scattered outposts of decency. The world, we’re told in an ominous voiceover at the beginning, has fallen apart, and Max is just a haunted shell of a man. It feels like five or ten years might have gone by, hard years that brought out the worst in nearly everyone.
By the end of Mad Max 2, Max has redeemed himself a bit. He’s saved the innocent and dusted up the ungodly and then limps off into the sunset, while the voiceover tells us that he lives now only in the memories of the kid he saved, now an old man telling stories to the Great Northern Tribe.
All of this pretty much makes sense, narratively. The first movie brings Max to his lowest, the second movie begins with him still reeling, and by the end he’s got it together and found some peace for himself.
Enter the third movie. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome starts with Max once again on his own and apparently once more just out for himself, and once again he spends the whole movie gradually getting pushed into helping out a whole bunch of innocents who he initially just wanted to abandon. And there’s a big chase, because it’s a Mad Max movie, and this is what they do. The movie was made a couple of years after Mad Max 2, though I’ve no idea how much time is supposed to have passed in-universe. There’s a bunch of kids stuck in an oasis who are all survivors of a plane crash. Logically, the plane crash should be around the same time as the final collapse of civilisation, and about the least creepy interpretation of what happened next is that none of the kids we see were born after that crash, so it’s six, seven, maybe eight years after the fall, and I feel like I may be doing a lot more thinking about this than anyone did on set.
Still, it feels like that shot of redemption at the end of Mad Max 2 didn’t really take, because Max is having to go through that whole thing again. Including the innocents getting to flee to a better homeland, and a voiceover at the end from one of the kids about how she’s keeping the story of Mad Max alive so that people will remember him.
Thunderdome didn’t do super well compared to its predecessors on the money front (it cost more and made less, never a winning combo in Hollywood) and George Miller went off and did a whole bunch of other things for 30 years, none of which featured truck chases and ass-less chaps, and Mel Gibson went off and became objectively way crazier than any of his characters, and finally, long after I’d stopped even wondering if they’d ever try it again, Miller made Fury Road.
And stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Max is once again a lonely outcast dragooned into rescuing innocents in a big truck chase so that they can get to a promised land and he can find some redemption and then wander off alone into the wilderness.
Well, what the actual hell? Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of things which are all kinds of fun to keep doing again and again in the same old way. And Mad Max movies certainly qualify. But this is the third time he’s lived the same plot, at a higher and higher intensity each time. By the second time that John McClane had to spend Christmas Day fighting terrorists, he was starting to grumble out loud about how weird it was that this kept happening to him. And the chronology is doing my head in. Max is looking pretty fresh for a guy who was a fully grown policeman back before the collapse. Tom Hardy is 38 years old, and looks not too far off that as Max. Gibson was a fresh faced 23 when he first played Max. Imperator Furiosa expressly tells her long lost siblings that it’s been 7000 nights since she was kidnapped into child slavery by Immortan Joe. That’s 20 years, pretty much. And Immortal Joe’s lunatic economy looks like it’s been in place for long enough that a whole generation of people has grown up knowing nothing else. I can put together a line which would have Max walking around middle-aged or so while all this happened, but it’s a pretty tight time line and he has to be a pretty young cop who started his family weirdly young. Or I can throw my hands up in the air and accept that it’s a movie and the timelines make no sense.
It’s easier to make Fury Road’s time-line make sense if you pretend that Thunderdome never happened, even easier if you think of it as a reboot directly after the first movie and Mad Max 2 never happened either. But there’s all kinds of little callbacks to the earlier movies...
Or you could adopt a Mad Max version of the James Bond fan theory that James Bond is just a work name for a whole bunch of spies one after another. (1) That kind of makes sense; the wasteland’s full of lunatics who need redemption, and the stories are told long after the fact about a variety of lunatics who show up at different times and places.
But I think it’s simpler. I think it’s all one long nightmare for Max, who keeps dreaming ever more horrible futures in which he has to redeem himself after the straightforwardly horrible disasters of the first movie. That’s why all the movies feel the same, run the same and end the same. Max is in hell, and we are with him, enjoying the show.
(1) This explains a) why Bond keeps looking different b) why he’s still in early middle age instead of on his pension fifty years after he first showed up in the movies c) why he has to keep introducing himself as “Bond. James Bond.” d) why he hasn’t died of a million different STIs yet.