We live in a cinematic era of serialized storytelling filled with standards and rules that would have been easily ignored decades ago. The idea of recasting a role, for instance, is now a major concern. Betraying continuity would be considered a huge offense by many. We have moved beyond the franchise to the universe. For that to really work, both directors and studios must honor the integrity of the worlds they build with great diligence.
And then here comes a new Mad Max, starring Tom Hardy instead of Mel Gibson, taking place who knows where and who knows when in terms of any overall story, and basically doing whatever it wants whether series fans like it or not. Judging by anticipation levels, series fans seem to like it a great deal. So why, in this age of serialization, does Mad Max get a pass? The answer is pretty straightforward -- the Mad Max series has just never given a damn about continuity.
Among the three films we have so far, the original Mad Max ironically ends up as the outlier by having the most typical narrative. The film definitely takes place in a heightened version of our world -- law and order appears to have been disintegrating for a while -- but a recognizable civilization stands. The world is still the kind of place where a young hotshot police officer can have a pretty wife, a cute child and a functional house for shelter. Max even has the luxury of a friend.
That alone is strange. Max himself barely resembles the Mad Max icon we’ve come to associate with the series. He wears a police uniform rather than the cobbled-together outfit of necessity we later see. More than anything, he has an overt character arc. The Max we’re used to changes those around him while remaining unchanged himself. Here the world transforms him from one kind of man to another. Through tragedy, one that symbolizes the crumbling order all around him, something close to the Max we know gets unleashed. But even this new Max has a long way to go before becoming the guy we see at the beginning of The Road Warrior.
Writer and director George Miller has no interest in bridging that gap between the two Maxes, nor does he care to show us how the world went from unstable yet standing to completely obliterated between films. There is talk of a war, but it is vague. You can go online and put together a shockingly detailed version of what happened to Max’s world between Mad Max and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but most is just conjecture; very little information actually comes from the films. Miller just doesn’t care. He is a director of great micro-details -- just pause a character in any of the three films and look at how much goes into what he or she looks like -- but also one of great macro-disinterest.
Which is just as it should be. These aren’t films about Max or his story. He is an avatar for heroism in a difficult world, a myth to comfort kids around campfires. It’s no wonder that after the first Mad Max, both sequels are actually tales being told by those he helped. Through their eyes, this man becomes more than a man, his actions more daring. Fury Road will very likely follow the same pattern, and it is for this reason that it doesn’t really matter who plays Max Rockatansky. He’s more of an idea than a person. If you look at all the illustrations included in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, you’ll notice that Roland, the story’s main protagonist, never quite looks the same from one painting to the next. Sometimes even his clothes are inconsistent. Max works the same way. He is the blank hero, a costume to be filled.
This also plays into Miller’s weird flippant attitude toward reusing actors. Hugh Keays-Byrne, for instance, played main villain Toecutter in the first Mad Max, and yet Miller uses him again in Fury Road. He wears a mask, but his hair look somewhat similar. Audience members savvy enough to spot him in both films might not know what to think. This is even more overt with Bruce Spence, who plays different characters back-to-back in The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. The fact that both of them fly planes and look like Bruce Spence seems almost like Miller is courting audience confusion as a practical joke.
But that’s how this crazy series does it. And it’s about to do it some more, only now in an age where we don’t really see this kind of thing anymore. It really doesn’t matter when Fury Road takes place. There are cars, there’s a desert, there’s Max, there are people to save, and there are a bunch of insanely dressed villains to save them from. That’s all any of these movies need. Whether it takes place after the wars of Mad Max or after the nuclear holocaust following The Road Warrior isn’t important. We see a burgeoning form of civilization at play in Beyond Thunderdome. Who cares! This isn’t about how humanity picks itself up from the pit of Hell; it’s about how a mythical lone wanderer helps various people in bizarre post-apocalyptic scenarios. And it’s pretty much all awesome.
(This was originally published in the May issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Mad Max: Fury Road at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.)