I went absolutely ga-ga over Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw it twice in theaters, and immediately bought the Blu-ray Mad Max collection when it came out—all four films packaged together. For me, Fury Road was an incredible cinematic experience. It was the first Mad Max film I had ever seen in theaters, and indeed the first Mad Max film I had ever seen, period. So, to rectify that, I watched all of the previous movies in quick succession. This “review” isn’t going to be a discussion on what works and what doesn’t work in a Mad Max movie—the franchise is undeniably amazing and I won’t even entertain a thought to the contrary. Instead, I’m going to discuss my favored theory on how to make all the films work and co-exist as a whole given that George Miller has said, point-blank, that he doesn’t worry about a timeline or sensible connection between the films. Miller views each film as a separate story about this one guy, just sort of throwing Max into different narrative scenarios and seeing how he’ll cope. But, regardless, I’m going to venture down the path of fan-theory that, normally, I hate. I’m going to tell you about the theory I read online somewhere and instantly, wholly, believed.
Mad Max—the original film—is an origin story. As it is the most believable, least fantastical, film of the series, I tend to take it at face value. I think we, the viewers, are watching things as they unfold for Max. This is how he became “mad” in both senses of the word. He loses his wife and child to a crazy, lawless motorcycle-gang leader as the world is still falling apart from various unseen disasters. This is how he becomes the Road Warrior, how all of his personality is condensed into the single survival instinct. As he narrates in Fury Road, this is how he becomes the one who runs from both the living and the dead.
Here’s the fan theory that I subscribe to. The rest of the films in the series are not simply the viewer watching events as they unfold. They are legends being told to us (the viewers) as future humans who have gone through and survived the terrible Wasteland times. This is obviously the most evident in Road Warrior, which ends with the Feral Kid revealing himself as the narrator of the movie. The FK is an elder of the Northern Tribe now, telling the story to us (his children/younger tribesmen) of how the first Northern Tribe people came to inhabit whatever land they inhabit. So it is not only clear but explicit that the entire movie preceding that moment has been the retelling of a legend. Now, the theory is that both Fury Road and Beyond Thunderdome are, similarly, legends being retold to the audience.
Here’s why I like the theory. It allows for the weird/impossible timeline between the movies. It also allows for the insane things that happen—the things that seem too unbelievable to actually ever happen (unlike the stuff in the first film, which all seems plausible, given the circumstances). And, more importantly, I think the theory explains the recycled elements that are present in all the movies. It’s no secret that Fury Road is basically just Road Warrior on steroids, with Immortan Joe filling the role of a more fleshed-out Lord Humungus. But there are plenty of other re-used elements within the films. Not only that, but several of the actors are recycled as well. Hugh Keays-Byrne plays both Immortan Joe and Toecutter—both the original villain-boss who killed Max’s family and the highly elevated villain-boss whose captive wives Max helps escape and who Max eventually kills. Bruce Spence plays both the Gyro Captain from Road Warrior and Jedidiah the Pilot from Beyond Thunderdome. In both of these instances, the characters can clearly be seen as having some thematic connections between them that, I think, could be attributed to legends warping over time, becoming grander and grander in their retelling—and it’s the retellings that we see, or so the fan theory goes. There’s a clear reversal in the case of Toecutter and Joe (i.e. Toecutter takes Max’s wife from him forever; Max takes Joe’s wives from him) which I think could feasibly happen with a story being telephone-gamed over time. But in the instance of Gyro Captain/Jedidiah, I think the parallels are too clear and straightforward to ignore. In both movies, Spence’s character starts out attempting to steal from Max by means of his flying equipment, then sort of disappears for a while before eventually aiding and leaving with the group Max has befriended as Max stays behind. Could not both movies be the same story? Or, more likely and more preferable (to me), could they not be two different moments in the legend of the mysterious Road Warrior Max that have become, through retelling, blended and mixed? The same goes for Fury Road. All three sequel films have elements that mimic and echo those of another, but none is a clear retelling of the same exact story.
Now, some have said that Max from Fury Road is actually an older Feral Kid before he becomes the leader of the Northern Tribe. They’ve said this to explain the change in actor from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy, to explain why Max acts a bit differently in this movie than he does in the previous ones (specifically the scene in which he gives Imperator Furiosa the rifle rather than shoot it himself), and to explain the strange way he finally announces to Furiosa his name: “I’m Max… That’s my name” (almost like he’s trying to convince himself). But this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The narration at the beginning makes it clear that this is supposed to be Max himself, and George Miller has revealed that he doesn’t bother with trying to make all the narrative details line up perfectly—he’s just trying to make a film that captures that Mad Max essence. I think the reason that Max acts differently in this instance is the same reason that Joe has the same face as Toecutter and the characters are able to stand/jump on racing vehicles without falling off—the film is a legend that has been warped and twisted while keeping its kernel of truth: there once was a man, named Max, who came into our lives, changed things for the better, and then left to fight his own demons across the damned Wasteland.
In a way, that makes the films more tragic, doesn’t it?