All Hail Aunty Entity! SHE Runs Bartertown!
It’s a mark of the Mad Max series’ quality that its worst entry is still a thrilling, beautiful, inventive film. Beyond Thunderdome, Mel Gibson’s swan song as Max Rockatansky, and for many years the last film in the series, is undeniably uneven. Its middle act meanders. The young actors who play the feral children do work that ranges from excellent to intolerable. Bruce Spence doesn’t get enough to do, and his thieving pilot Jedidiah is a less dimensional, less fun derivative of his Gyro Captain from Mad Max 2.
But while Beyond Thunderdome is undoubtedly weighed down by shrill children, underused actors and an overstretched act, when it does click it is as astonishing and beautiful as the other Mad Max films. The battle in the Thunderdome is a grand fight scene. The final chase and Max’s first moment behind the wheel of a car are thrilling. The compassion and empathy that are the series’ strongest through line are on full display. Master and Blaster come together as MasterBlaster, thriving in a world that would otherwise have no place for them. The children who make it to the remains of Sydney work to turn it into a safe haven for the Wasteland’s lost souls. Max himself, even at his most burnt out and selfish, retains a deep well of inherent decency. Beyond Thunderdome is, flaws and all, mostly a darn fine film. But thanks to Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity and her Bartertown, Beyond Thunderdome is occasionally a full-on awesome movie.
Aunty Entity is unlike any of her fellow Mad Max villains. She has a long-term plan for herself and the world as the ruler of Bartertown. She built Bartertown from the ground up, and commands the absolute loyalty of her armed forces. She rules by laws that require her citizens to behave in a more or less civilized manner, and she genuinely cares for some of the people in her life. Even after Bartertown is destroyed, she has a real shot at rebuilding it thanks to both her charisma and the strength of the ideals she has instilled in her people.
Make no mistake, Aunty Entity is a vicious, ruthless antagonist. She hires Max to assassinate Blaster and undermine MasterBlaster’s challenge to her authority, and deliberately omits the fact that Blaster is a severely developmentally disabled man when she lays out the hit. Her laws keep order in Bartertown, but are designed to keep her in power whilst sating her citizens’ bloodlust. And she’s not above bending them to get what she wants. When Max and the children rescue Master from prison, she summons her armada and gives chase, with no compunction about the fact that she is trying to kill children.
Yet there are shades to Aunty Entity’s villainy. She manipulates her people into calling for Max to face the Wheel after he exposes her contract on MasterBlaster, but she lets Max spin the Wheel (which includes an option for complete exoneration) fairly. When Max destroys Bartertown, she rallies her armada with a sincere vow to rebuild. Even when she comes close to recapturing Master, she has open affection for him, and tells him that they will go home together. And, after the dust has settled and she has Max helpless, Aunty shows him mercy, spares his life and acknowledges him as a peer. There is a fascinating complexity to her. It helps that she’s played by Tina Turner, who has a few great monologues, and does well with the both rage that every Mad Max villain experiences at some point and her uniquely quiet moments.
Above all else, Aunty genuinely wants Bartertown to thrive, not only for herself, but for those who live there. It’s a hard, brutal place, one that thrives on the carnage of the Thunderdome and the exploitation of lawbreakers in MasterBlaster’s methane factory. And it is by far the nicest place in the Wasteland in any of the films. It runs on deals and trade, and because of that it has a functioning economy that anyone (barring prisoners in the methane farms) can use. The pre-collapse Australia of the first Mad Max was plagued by shortages and the slow disintegration of society and civilization. The settlers of Mad Max 2 are faced with deals that put all of their lives and livelihoods on the line, and they have absolutely no choice in the matter. Fury Road’s Immortan Joe’s only trading partners are his direct allies, the People Eater and the Bullet Farmer. Given their aggravated responses to Joe’s crazed attempt to recapture his escaped wives, those relationships are tense even with the alliance.
Bartertown can boast that it is generally safe; the town itself is fortified, visitors are forbidden from carrying weapons, and disputes that cannot be talked out are resolved in the Thunderdome, rather than the streets. The Australian Main Force Patrol of Mad Max is understaffed, underfunded and easily outgunned by the Toecutter’s crew, who are free to wreak havoc more often than not. The settlers of Mad Max 2 spend the entirety of the picture slowly losing to the Lord Humungus’ siege, and ultimately choose to make a final break for the coast rather than defend their oil rig in perpetuity. And everyone who isn’t a part of Immortan Joe’s inner circle in Fury Road is enslaved and brutalized in one way or another.
But what really sets Bartertown apart is that it’s the one place in the Wasteland, and one of the very few places in the series overall, where Wastelanders have a genuine chance for leisure. Bartertown has legalized sex work across genders, a bar, and even regular nightlife. The Thunderdome is a blood sport designed to give Bartertown’s inhabitants a chance to indulge in violence, and it is simultaneously a genuine social event. Aunty Entity keeps a saxophone player on her staff to demonstrate her power through luxury, but he’s still a musician who gets to ply his trade in a world where survival would ordinarily supersede his passion. In Bartertown, people have a chance for something resembling a regular life. Everyone loses that in Mad Max. The settlers in Mad Max 2 eventually build a great tribe, but it takes them years to do so. And the only hope for those in the Citadel is the revolution started by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s Splendid Angharad and carried to conclusion by Furiosa, Max and their allies.
However vicious it is, Bartertown is like no other place in Mad Max’s Wasteland. And Aunty Entity is like no other villain. They’re the best parts of Beyond Thunderdome’s storytelling, and they light up the film whenever they’re on screen.