Crafting a Modern Mythology: The Truth About Mad Max

Movie buffs these days seem absolutely obsessed with film continuity these days.  Perhaps it’s the climate of the industry as of late.  In a world where just about every major movie studio has a “universe” of films all interconnected (initially started by Marvel), I could see why some people have a tough time wrapping their minds around the concept of films able to stand apart from one another.  

Recently, it seems those kinds of movies are few and far between, but in those instances fans reach (HARD) to make connections where none seem to be.  Enter Mad Max: Fury Road, another film in the post-apocalyptic franchise of the same name.  It’s been decades since the last film, Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road features an all new actor and all new story.  In fact, despite featuring the same character, the film did little to reference the previous films, aside from the big event that sparked the apocalypse in the first place.  This caused issue with some fans and movie-goers, in that they NEEDED more direct connections to tie everything together.  

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Fury Road is pretty unforgiving in this area, and when the film released a fan theory cropped up that gained a lot of steam, though it made very little sense when you thought about it (as MOST fan theories tend to do).  The theory suggested that the “Mad Max” we see in Fury Road, isn’t in fact the same character as the one played by Mel Gibson.  Rather, it is the adult version of the kid we meet in The Road Warrior.  The theory presented a bunch of supported “facts”, but unless you completely ignore certain aspects of Fury Road, the pieces don’t mesh together.  

This need for explanation, however, drove many to pick up the theory, share it around, and claim that it “explained everything!”  In reality, Mad Max doesn’t need this type of continuity behind it to remain engaging or relevant.  In fact, if you look at the original films, you’ll notice that even those aren’t all too concerned with proper continuity and making connections.  There are big disparities between Mad Max and Road Warrior, and even a few more with Thunderdome.  Some characters act as if they’ve never met, the same actors are used for multiple roles, and the backstory doesn’t always line-up right.  

The likely reason behind it all, is the fact that George Miller didn’t realize the impact the first couple of films would make on people.  He was more concerned with telling an interesting story (as all filmmakers should), than developing a universe in which all things collide.  But the other part of it has more to do with how Mad Max as a character is set up.  Him, along with his adventures, are treated more like a mythology than a canon.  As such, continuity doesn’t HAVE to be present, but rather we can treat each film as a microcosm in and of itself, telling a new tale without needing the others to be relevant.  

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Think of Max Rockatansky not as a specific individual…but as a catch-all.  Greek and Norse mythology are virtually littered with returning characters, themes, and even MacGuffins for our heroes to interact with.  Gods and tricksters are perhaps our most common, but heroes find themselves in a variety of stories as well.  

Homer’s classic The Odyssey is a prime example of this.  Before it was all collected together, the story of Odysseus’ ten year journey home is broken up into multiple parts, each one acting as it’s own individual tale of adventure and consequences.  While they all connect in specific ways to one another, and an over-arching story thread, the idea behind the Epic’s parts are to have them serve different purposes.  There are times in The Odyssey where the events don’t always match up with one another (continuity and timeline issues), but that’s okay.  The story of Odysseus is about so much more than that.

Mythology isn’t history, even though there are connections there for people to associate with.  While historical events happen in Mythology, they’re adapted for a different purpose.  If you keep this approach in mind when viewing the Mad Max franchise, you’ll see a lot of parallels.  

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Imagine Max as Odysseus, where each chapter of his journey (each film) is more important than the overall story thread and keeping things nice and neat.  In treating the character as a mythological hero, the filmmaker is able to tell better and more meaningful stories without having to stress out over making sure everything aligns perfectly for audiences.  Imagine if road Warrior had tried to be more visually in line with the time frame of Mad Max.  How much different would that movie feel?  If it had tried to be a more direct sequel, it’s doubtful the driving story of Road Warrior would have had the same impact.  

By setting itself apart, and refusing to be too beholden to the lore, the various Mad Max films are able to thrive on their own.  They all tell meaningful stories that delve into humanity and what it means to not only survive in a harsh world, but how to retain that humanity about you.  While Max is portrayed as a stoic amoral man, who cares for no one…the reality of that isn’t true.  Despite his own inclinations, he can’t help himself when it comes to defending those who cannot do it themselves.  

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Mythology is filled with heroes who don’t actually want to do something heroic.  Hell, Odysseus’ problems all stem from his hubris and general lack of acting like a true hero.  Things didn’t turn around for him until he turned around and remembered who he was (even Hercules went through this).  In mythology there is always a “call to action” for our heroes to respond to. While some miss this and suffer the consequences, they inevitably step up and do what is right.  This is Mad Max TO A TEE.  

Even though Max doesn’t present himself as a hero, and largely does everything in his power to AVOID interacting with other people, when the call to action comes, he’s not one to turn it down.  He almost always has a trusty companion there to help him out (another common archetype) and generally keep him on the right path when he falters.  Whether it’s the trusty dog, the gyrocopter pilot, or most recently Furiosa they are an influence on his character.  Hell, I’d even argue that his iconic double barrel sawed-off shotgun represents his “magical” weapon (as it nearly always saves the damn day).

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In all of these ways, George Miller has crafted a genuine modern mythology for audiences to indulge in, perhaps even more so than the Star Wars Saga (never thought I’d say something like that, huh?!).  As is true in mythology, the themes and message inherent in the story are more important than sticking to the “facts” and continuity. 

Taking all of that away, let’s say you still crave an “in-universe” explanation for the disparities in the franchise.  I think I can help in this regard too.  Think of how mythology has worked in our own civilizations.  These are stories that were passed down throughout the ages, acting as oral histories for ancient societies (remember for many, these fables WERE considered facts).  From voice over in the Mad Max movies, we know that the stories we’re seeing on the big screen have already happened and are being told by others at some point in the future.  Fury Road established the idea of “History Men” whose sole purpose is to recount the history of the world for their groups and young ones.  

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Knowing this, perhaps it is their own history which is skewed or being treated more as a mythology.  From this perspective Max Rockatansky may have been an important historical figure for them, and as such ANY big act of heroism or importance is attributed to him.  A sort of “superhero” for their mythology along the same lines of Hercules who pops up in dangerous situations to save the day, though the timing isn’t always consistent.  

Something along those lines would go a long way towards explaining the “larger than life” aspects of these stories, and why they’re so over the top in the action they portray.  Mythology frequently take their themes and ideas above and beyond, pushing heroes into situations against ridiculous odds.  The fact that they’re able to do the impossible, while seemingly being a normal person (the “everyman”) is used to inspire people and generations.  To give hope even in the grimmest of situations.  It’s an idea that people within that Mad Max’s post-apocalypse could certainly use, and we are no different.  

Not only does Mad Max work as a modern mythology for our own society, it works much the same way within their own established story.  Max is a legend in a multitude of ways.  While it can be difficult to cope with the discrepancies in the current movie culture of shared universes and connectivity, it’s important to view the franchise as something MORE than that.  It’s a rich mythology filled with strong themes and messages that everyone can learn from.  Let’s not sweat the small stuff like timelines and continuity.