I find that most film franchises fall into one of two categories. The first are those that begin as original films with self-contained stories and that are never meant to be expanded upon, but which make tons of money at the box office and are then sequelized to death (e.g., the Halloween films). Among the franchises in this category, it’s usually the case that only the original film is any good, while its sequels are often pretty dang bad (with only a few exceptions, like James Cameron’s Aliens). Then you have the franchises that are based on pre-existing sources (e.g., novels, comic books, TV shows, etc.), with sequels that are planned even while the first movie is still in pre-production (e.g., the Harry Potter films). In these cases, the original film might be pretty good, but sometimes the second film turns out to be better (e.g., The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, etc.). However, even these franchises tend to deteriorate in quality over time (e.g., the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the last two Matrix films, etc.). They can also sabotage themselves by requiring far more time and attention than their audiences might be willing to give (e.g., Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, which takes far longer to watch than it does to actually read the book on which it’s based!).
The Mad Max franchise is bizarre, however, because it doesn’t really fit into either of these categories. It began as a single self-contained film without any planned sequels, and yet its sequels somehow seem completely necessary. They do not share a continuous storyline, but are instead completely different stories that just happen to feature one recurring character (i.e., Max Rockatansky); yet they still form an arc that is thematically impressive. It’s almost as if the films were planned from the beginning somehow, but they are not based on any pre-existing source; they come straight from the brain of director George Miller, who literally makes them up as he goes along. The only other franchise I can think of that resembles this is Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy (with which the Mad Max series bears more than one passing resemblance). Miller has taken such great care in developing each installment of this series that it has so far succeeded in an area where most other franchises fail: it has never deteriorated into absolute banality, and each of its installments is more or less equal in value to the others. In other words, I find it difficult to review just one Mad Max film; I can’t even choose a personal favorite. They are all excellent (yes, including 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and I feel they are best analyzed together as a whole.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that these films are important to me on a spiritual level; to quote myself, I consider them to be “pure Typhonian gold.” No doubt unintentionally, the saga of Max Rockatansky is a perfect 21st century recapitulation of Seth-Typhon’s mysteries.
(Also, I should warn the reader that my reviews of the first three Mad Max films will contain spoilers. In my opinion, these movies are still enjoyable even if you already know what’s going to happen in them; but if you haven’t seen them yet and you don’t wish to read any spoilers, you might want to check these movies out before reading the rest of this post. In any case, I will do my best to avoid discussing any spoilers for the most recent entry in the series, Fury Road.)
Mad Max (1979)
The original 1979 poster for Mad Max
Most people think of Mad Max as a “post-apocalyptic” story, and this is certainly true with its sequels. But the original film is more accurately described as “pre-apocalyptic”; it takes place in a world where Ma’at has not yet been completely eroded, but is already well on its way to reaching that point. It’s never explained why civilization seems to be falling apart; all we know is that (1) Australia has been taken over by viscious biker gangs and (2) the police can barely keep up. Enter Max Rockatansky, a cop who succeeds in killing a member of one of these gangs, and who thereby incurs the wrath of Toecutter (the gang’s leader). No matter what Max and his fellow cops do, they just can’t seem to get a break on this nutcase; even the justice system has turned against them, releasing Toecutter’s goons almost as soon as they’re thrown in jail. Then these crazies kill Max’s best friend, and then they smear his wife and kid all over the road. And that’s when Max gets MAD.
While no sequels were planned during the making of this film, you might say that it’s really one long “origin story” since Max Rockatansky doesn’t actually become “Mad Max” until the last 20 minutes or so. And let me tell you, that final segment is one of the darkest and most disturbing thrill rides you’ll ever see. Normally in this kind of film, the hero kills all the main villain’s goons first; then he and the arch-nemesis have a major showdown, complete with some catchy one-liners and dramatic music filling the air. But here, Toecutter is one of the very first villains to die, and his death is completely unceremonious. While drag racing against Max, he gets run over by a semi-truck…and that’s all there is to it. Then Max goes after Toecutter’s goons, picking them off one by one and showing no mercy. It gives me chills just thinking about how scared the baddies all get now that their great leader’s gone. It shows us that Max could have easily defeated Toecutter and his gang from the very start; the only thing holding him back was his commitment to the law. Now that he’s been pushed far enough to toss away his badge, he’s become a human F5 tornado that can never be stopped.
In my opinion at least, the theme of this story is “becoming chaos to defeat chaos,” and Max’s fall from grace mirrors that of Typhon. If we may compare the cops in this film to the Gods (in that they fight to sustain Ma’at in their world), Max is the one “God” who ends up saying, “You know what? Fuck Ma’at.” And in so doing, he becomes the single most powerful and frightening “God” of all. He’s even wounded in his leg (just as Seth is wounded in His “thigh” or “testicles” by Horus), and he wears a leg brace in each of the remaining films. As such, Max becomes an incarnation of the dark wounded God who can never die and who roams the lawless wilderness to ritually defeat evil (even while coming dangerously close to becoming evil Himself). Furthermore, Max’s descent into madness can be compared to the death of Osiris; both are extremely terrible events, but just as the latter would end up reinforcing Ma’at later, so too will the former enable Max to defend Ma’at in the sequels.
To be honest, this is the hardest film in the entire series for me to watch; I never even saw the whole thing in one sitting until February of this year (believe it or not). I find it much more disturbing than the other films due to its extreme pessimism; it doesn’t even grant us a brief glimmer of hope. The first time I ever saw part of it was back in the early 1990s, when I was only eight or nine years old. I caught the scene when Max’s wife and kid get killed, and I didn’t sleep well for weeks. Years later, my brother Tony became a huge fan of the film and tried to get me to watch it with him. I was in college at the time, and I had already seen a lot of violent shit in other movies; but even the first 20 minutes made me want to stop watching for some reason. I don’t know how to explain it, but the violence in Mad Max is different than it is in other movies; I just find it more shocking for some reason (both because of what it shows the viewer and what it doesn’t show). Now that I’ve seen the entire film, I recognize how brilliant and perfect it actually is; but even as an adult, I still find it hard to watch.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
The original 1981 poster for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Several years later, the apocalypse that Mad Max promised has already ended, and human civilization is completely wiped out. All that’s left now are small bands of stragglers for whom the most valuable commodity is neither food nor water, but gasoline. As such, fuel becomes the rallying point for two diametrically opposed social groups: (1) a community of settlers who are defending an oil refinery (in the hopes of using it to rebuild civilization), and (2) a tribe of nomadic sociopaths who want only to rape and kill (and who require more gasoline to do so). Next thing anyone knows, Mad Max shows up…and he’s in need of some fuel, as well.
After seeing how the nomads treat their neighbors, Max tries bargaining with the settlers and is soon dragged into their conflict. He eventually helps them to escape from the nomads, but always with the understanding that he will be paid in gas when all is said and done. This later leads to what is perhaps the single most impressive car chase sequence ever filmed.
Here the theme is no longer revenge, but survival. Max seems to have no other purpose in life but to acquire more things and move on. Of course, this is probably because the post-apocalyptic Australian outback is now full of raging psychopaths who all make the Toecutter and his goons seem like Sesame Street characters; so the appeal of constantly living on the move is very easy to see. But it’s strongly hinted that Max is really running away from more than just hockey-masked pro-wrestlers like the Lord Humungous and his followers; it seems evident that he’s also running away from the memory of his wife and child. When the settlers beg Max to join up with them and help them rebuild civilization, he refuses; he has no interest in the future because he feels there is no future left for anyone anymore. It would also seem that he can’t handle existing in anything but the present; focusing on moving from point A to point B seems to be the only thing keeping him together. This is no doubt the result of having lived out in the wilderness, battling human incarnations of the Backward Face for far too long.
Yet at this point in his character arc, Max takes his first steps back toward Ma’at. Just being around a group of people who actually behave like human beings seems to make him feel alive again. This makes me think of when Seth is captured by Horus, who then intends to kill Him once and for all. (Yeah; tell me another one.) At the last possible moment, Isis has a sudden change of heart and helps Her brother to escape (and when Horus finds out, He decapitates Isis in a fit of blind rage). I realize this only counts as “unverified personal gnosis,” but I’ve always felt that Isis’ display of mercy here is what makes it possible for Thoth to reason with Seth later on. Truth be told, it’s the first compassionate thing that anyone ever seems to do for Seth in His entire myth cycle, and I figure that having Isis be so nice to Him (even after all the shit He puts Her through) is what makes His heart start to defrost. In much the same way, the settlers’ compassion towards Max (carefully restrained as it may be) helps motivate him to fight for something other than just his own survival again.
The Road Warrior is actually the first film in this franchise that I ever saw all the way through. It came on a local UHF station in Philadelphia – good ol’ Philly 57 – one night in the late 1980s, and my mother let me watch it with her because it was edited for television. I have to admit that I didn’t really “get it” at that point; I was all about dinosaurs and space aliens, and since this film has neither of those things, it didn’t really engage me that much. Yet Philly 57 also used to show Godzilla films all the time, and they were showing ads for the world premiere of Godzilla 1985 (which is my personal favorite entry in that particular franchise) during the commercial breaks. To this very day, Godzilla and Mad Max continue to be linked deep in my subconscious as a result of that bizarre convergence. I wouldn’t see The Road Warrior again until 1998 – when it was shown on TNT’s Monstervision (with Joe Bob Briggs) – and that was when I truly fell in love with it.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
The original 1985 poster for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
The third film of the franchise begins an unspecified number of years after The Road Warrior, and it too places Max between two clashing civilizations. The first of these is Bartertown, which is controlled by two conflicting leaders: (1) Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) and (2) Masterblaster, who is actually two different people (a dwarf and a special needs giant) who work together as a team. Whenever a dispute happens in Bartertown, those having the fight must settle their differences with brute force in a ring called “Thunderdome.” Seeking to consolidate her own power over Bartertown, Aunty Entity hires Max to start a dispute with Masterblaster and then kill the “Blaster” half of this character in Thunderdome. But when Max realizes that Blaster is mentally handicapped, he has mercy and refuses to kill him. This unfortunately doesn’t save Blaster, who is soon assassinated by one of Aunty Entity’s goons anyway; then Max is cast out into the desert to fend for himself.
While traveling through the desert wilderness, Max discovers the second civilization in this film: a community of orphaned children who survived a plane crash that occurred during the apocalypse. Having no one to take care of them or educate them about the world, these kids have developed a religion together to help each other make sense of their surroundings. In this religion, the pilot who flew their plane when they were babies – “Captain Walker” – is a preternatural Savior who will one day return to bring them out of the wilderness and back into civilization. What’s more, the children immediately assume that Max is Captain Walker and that he will now reward them for all the faith they have put into him since they were small. Max is flabbergasted by all of this and tries to get away; but as he sees more of what the children are like, he begins to realize they must be saved…and if Captain Walker won’t come back and do it, then Mad Max will. (Especially when Aunty Entity begins to take an interest in the children, too.)
This entry in the series gets a lot of flack for its more optimistic tone, but I think it’s equally as brilliant as its predecessors. Its theme is redemption, and it all hinges on the dichotomy between Bartertown and the lost children. Bartertown represents the horrible present, which is ruled by hateful adults who prey on each other constantly (either literally – as in Thunderdome – or figuratively, as in the political squabbles between Aunty Entity and Masterblaster). The children, in contrast, are peaceful and know nothing of the adults or their vicious ways; they’re united by their common faith in a future destiny and a mythical past. Of course, their religion is clearly an example of modern (or post-modern) myth-making that they’ve used to make sense out of their surroundings; but it does turn out to be true in the end. They are indeed delivered from the hostile present to a better future, but it is Mad Max – the dark, wounded warrior of the desert – and not their squeaky clean Captain Walker who saves them. Furthermore, Max potentially rescues the entire human race by protecting these children, for there is every indication that they will rebuild the world after Max’s generation has died out. They are humanity’s last hope for a chance at ever reaching “beyond Thunderdome.”
Indeed, this chapter of the Max saga is the closest to being my “personal favorite.” Hopefully, other Companions of Seth will be able to see why it makes me think of Big Red saving the unborn Ra from the Backward Face. Max is Seth, the children are Ra, and the denizens of Bartertown are scales on the body of the chaos serpent; yet what I find especially interesting is that almost none of the villains are completely evil. Again, the theme of this film is redemption, which is most obviously seen in how Max sacrifices his own chance of escape to save the kids. This is the first time we ever see him do anything completely selfless in his entire character arc, causing him to finally transform into a true blue hero. Yet this transition is also echoed in both Aunty Entity and the “Master” from Masterblaster, as well. Both seem pretty villainous when the film begins, but by the end, Master has thrown his lot in with the children and Aunty Entity decides to let Max go. Perhaps Max’s transition to selfless hero has not only had the direct effect of saving the children; perhaps it’s also shaken the Backward Face’s grip on the minds and souls of the other adults in the story, as well.
I can’t recall that much about the first time I saw Beyond Thunderdome, for it was when I was only three years old. My mother took me with her to see it at the theater when it was first released. I have a very dim memory of seeing a gigantic Mel Gibson towering over me in his black leather duds, and I remember asking my mother, “Who’s that?” And when she replied, “That’s Mad Max, honey,” I remember wondering, Who’s Max, and what’s he so mad about? The next time I saw this movie was on TNT’s Monstervision in 1998 (right after Joe Bob Briggs took me to school about The Road Warrior), and truth be told, I enjoyed Beyond Thunderdome even more than its predecessor. Again, I realize that most people consider this to be the “weakest” entry in the franchise…but I think this movie is beautiful, and if someone were to say, “Pick a favorite Mad Max movie or I’ll puke on your shoes,” this is probably the one I’d pick. (And I wouldn’t just be saying that to save my shoes.)
Summary of the Original Mad Max Trilogy (1979 – 1985)
Mel Gibson as “Mad Max” Rockatansky
In my opinion, the original Mad Max trilogy is perfect in every way. It consists of three completely different stories: a gritty revenge tale, an even grittier survival epic, and a surprisingly optimistic redemption story. Only the first of these stories centers entirely on the character of Max Rockatansky; the other two are really stories about other people (into which Max just happens to roam). Each film is very enjoyable as a story unto itself; but when they’re all considered together, they represent an arc of descending into chaos, turning back in the midst of chaos, and then rising back into order again. Furthermore, the entire trilogy makes me think of three very important moments in the life of Seth-Typhon: the death of Osiris, the release of Seth by Isis, and the salvation of Ra. These theological events – as well as the Red Lord Himself – are each reflected in the character of Max, who transitions from being a good guy (in Mad Max) to being a not-so-good guy (in The Road Warrior) and then back into being a good guy (in Beyond Thunderdome). With all this in mind, I had two immediate concerns when it was first announced that George Miller was planning a fourth Mad Max film, and that Mel Gibson would not be playing Max this time around:
(1) Mel might have ruined himself by making the world’s first Catholic-endorsed splatter film (2004’s The Passion of the Christ) and by later revealing himself to be a raging anti-Semitic prick; but he was still awesome as fuck back when the world still knew him first and foremost as Mad Max. He totally owned that role, so how the hell could anybody else ever fill those shoes?
(2) The original trilogy is already thematically perfect; it comes full circle with its progression from the first film’s descent into isfet to the third film’s resurgence of Ma’at. So after Beyond Thunderdome, there was really no need for any further Mad Max stories; creating more could potentially sabotage what the original films accomplished, so a new Mad Max film seemed like a really bad idea.
I also had a third concern, which was far less important from an objective point of view, but which was still pretty important to me personally: would there be anything of Seth in this new movie? Would it have the same spiritual effect on me that the first three films all have?
Well, here are the answers to these questions…
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The 2015 poster for Mad Max: Fury Road
In the years since Beyond Thunderdome, Max Rockatansky has had many other adventures and has helped many other people. But many of these people also died horrible deaths – including a little girl he seems to have adopted at some point – and Max is relentlessly haunted by them. So when Fury Road begins, our hero has become an empty shell, and he doesn’t put up much of a fight at all when he’s captured by a band of psychopaths known as the War Boys. Max is then taken to a place called the Citadel, where the War Boys use him as a “blood bank” for their injured warriors.
At this point, we are introduced to the villain of this story, Immorten Joe, a masked nut who seems to have been in the military prior to the apocalypse and who is horribly disfigured due to radiation poisoning. Immorten Joe has built himself up as a God, and he is worshiped as such by the War Boys and the peasants he tyrannizes within the Citadel. The War Boys are so devoted to Joe, in fact, that they’re perfectly willing to destroy themselves for him, since they believe that doing so ensures their entrance to Valhalla after death.
Immorten Joe also has several wives and a huge passel of mutant children, for he is apparently obsessed with producing as many male heirs as possible. (He won’t stop until he gets one that isn’t a freaky-lookin’ mutation, either.) Joe certainly doesn’t have much regard for women’s rights, and this is probably why his only female warrior – a lady with a robotic arm named Imperator Furiosa – decides to help his wives escape from the Citadel. It seems that Furiosa actually comes from another civilization called the Green Place, which seems to have been far less tyrannical and militaristic; but she was abducted and drafted into Immorten Joe’s army as a child. Now she hopes to find the Green Place once again and to bring Joe’s wives with her. At the same time that she and the girls make their great escape, Max also escapes from the War Boys; he then encounters the women, dukes it out with Furiosa for a bit, and decides to aid her in her quest (once he realizes that she doesn’t want to kill him). So Max and Furiosa search for the Green Place together while they are relentlessly pursued by Immorten Joe and his whackjob army of psychos – and let me tell you; nobody gives our heroes any time off for good behavior.
I’ve never seen anything quite like Tom Hardy’s performance as Max before. When different actors play the same character, they usually “make the character their own” in some way. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is not Sean Connery’s, for instance, and Christian Bale’s Batman is not Adam West’s. But rather than taking this approach with Mad Max, Tom Hardy has actually done just the opposite: he made himself into the character. So while watching Fury Road, I often felt like I wasn’t watching Tom Hardy at all, but Mel Gibson from 1985 (as if this new film had been made only a few years after Thunderdome). This was surreal enough to start with, but then I realized that I wasn’t really watching Mel Gibson from 1985 either; I was watching Mad fuckin’ Max, who belongs to neither Tom Hardy nor Mel Gibson. It’s almost as if Max is a real living person who actually exists in some other dimension, and that Gibson and Hardy were merely allowing themselves to be “possessed” by his spirit. So this takes care of my initial concern about Fury Road; Tom Hardy not only gives an excellent performance here, but he also succeeds in making Max seem even more timeless than he already was.
Speaking of Max “belonging” to anyone…The theme of this film is self-ownership; Max, Furiosa and Immorten Joe’s wives are not fighting for gasoline or supplies, but for their right to exist as autonomous beings. This theme is most obvious with the women, but even Max has been turned into someone else’s “property” at the start of the film, and the War Boys are also “things” that Immorten Joe “owns.” It would seem that Ma’at has indeed become stronger since Beyond Thunderdome, for there are now multiple neighboring civilizations that exist in Max’s world (i.e., the Citadel, the Green Place, the Bullet Farm and Gas Town) rather than just two that are locked in a dichotomy. But isfet has also re-emerged; it appears as a false messiah – an “Akhenaten” or “bad Pharaoh” if you will – whose delusions of grandeur are bringing the people he rules to ruin.
(I also think it’s interesting that when Fury Road begins, we see that Max has taken his trajectory at the end of Beyond Thunderdome to its logical extreme; he has become so selfless that he has literally lost his identity. He goes through most of this film without telling any of the other characters his name, allowing them to objectify him as “Fool” or “Blood Bank” instead. It’s only later that Max starts to regain his sense of self and insists on being identified by his own name.)
Given all of this, I can happily report that Mad Max: Fury Road is not one of those empty-headed “cash-in” sequels that sabotage their predecessors. In fact, I would say that it’s every bit as necessary to the series as the original films. The way in which it builds upon the arc of the original trilogy is so organic that, again, it almost feels as if George Miller had the whole damn series planned out back in 1979 (even though he didn’t and has never claimed otherwise). First the hero loses everything he has in a world that’s falling apart; then he runs away from his past and avoids the future in a world that’s gone to shit; then he regains hope and fights for the future in a world that’s starting to rebuild itself; and now he fights for autonomy in a world that has already been rebuilt. This progression couldn’t be any more perfect, making Fury Road an indispensible addition to the Mad Max universe.
(I might also add that this film is simply beautiful to look at. You can pause it at any particular moment, and no matter what frame you happen to catch, it’ll look like a goddamn painting that should be hanging in a museum somewhere. The use of light and color in Fury Road far exceeds anything seen in the previous films.)
As for the film’s possible theological implications…This entry makes me think of Typhon’s relationship with Ishtar. If Max Rockatansky is a human embodiment of Seth-Typhon, then Imperator Furiosa is Ishtar incarnate. And mind you, I’m not referring to Ishtar as the Evening Star (i.e., Her raw sexual aspect); I’m referring to Her role as the Morning Star (i.e., the aspect that rides lions and butchers men on the battlefield). Even if you think my identification of Max with Seth is a stretch, there’s no denying that George Miller had Goddesses and matriarchy in mind when he created Furiosa and her long-lost home, the Green Place. And while Max and Furiosa never become romantically involved like Seth and Ishtar do (which is a good thing, since I think it would ruin the feminist message of the film), they do share a special apotropaic chemistry just the same. You might say I see Fury Road as a tale about the Red Lord and the Scarlet Woman joining forces to wipe out a chaos monster that’s pretending to be a Pharaoh.
While we’re on that subject, Immorten Joe makes me think of the monster
Yamm. In an Egyptian adaptation of Canaanite mythology, Seth prevents Ishtar from being raped by this beast, who was originally the Levantine God of the sea. Yamm was cast out from the company of the Elohim, but he later gained power over Lotan, a seven-headed serpent of chaos, and declared war on the storm God Ba’al Hadad (with whom Seth was identified through the Hyksos). It’s been speculated by some scholars that Yamm might have become the Hebrew God Yahweh, and I can see how someone might draw that conclusion (though the evidence for this claim is far from certain). Nevertheless, I do think that Yamm (as distinct from Yahweh) is an evil spirit of fanaticism, misogyny and megalomania that seeks to be worshiped in place of all Gods. Each of these qualities can be found in the character of Immorten Joe, who can even be viewed as a self-proclaimed “God of the sea” (since he hordes so much water for himself and shares very little of it with the people he rules). The fact that Immorten Joe sees Furiosa and his wives as “property” only reinforces this for me, since that’s exactly how Yamm views Ishtar (i.e., as “property” he can “own”).
These interpretations build upon those that I’ve exegeted from the earlier films. In retrospect, the proverbial “death of Osiris” in the first Mad Max turns out to be completely necessary; for without losing everything and giving up on Ma’at, Max would never “save Ra from the Backward Face” in Beyond Thunderdome. And if that didn’t happen, Max would not be capable of “helping Ishtar fight
Yamm” in Fury Road. Furthermore, the idea that these films echo these theological events in their proper chronological order is especially meaningful to me. It heightens the feeling that Fury Road truly belongs in this series and that it is a completely necessary addition to Max’s character arc.
The Future of Mad Max
Tom Hardy as “Mad Max” Rockatansky
From what I understand, George Miller has already written screenplays for at least two more Mad Max films, and Tom Hardy is ready and willing to reprise the role as needed. I have mixed feelings about this, for on the one hand, I would love to see more Mad Max. I love this character, I love the stories that are written for him, and I love how they seem to tie in with my religion in the ways that I’ve described. On the other hand, I worry (as I worried when Fury Road was first announced) that any further continuations of this franchise will only jeopardize its integrity. As it now exists, the Mad Max franchise is truly in a league of its own. Each installment is perfect, seems totally necessary, and is self-contained enough to be enjoyed in any order. You can walk into Fury Road without having seen any of the previous Max films and enjoy it just the same.
To be honest, I would prefer that no further Max films be made and that the series be left in the state that it currently is; but at the end of the day, that decision really rests with George Miller, and I trust him to make the right one (whichever one that might be). It’s hard for me imagine how he can possibly outdo what he’s already done with this series…but then again, I said the exact same thing before I saw Fury Road, and that film blew me right out of my fucking socks.