The third of George Miller’s Mad Max movies—Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—is easily the least favorably received installment of the iconic post-apocalypse action-adventure franchise. One can imagine why, since Beyond Thunderdome tones down the series’ trademark insanity, trades action for plot, and it ultimately hinges everything on an entire village of little kids. But all of this is a shame, really, because these things are what make Beyond Thunderdome the strongest movie of the entire series, story-wise. In no other chapter do we get deeper character development, world-building or thematic depth. And yet, this is the movie that closed the hood on Mad Max for some 30 years. Alas; it deserved better then and it deserves better now.
The story takes place several years after the end of The Road Warrior, and Max Rockatansky still wanders the wasteland of post-apocalypse Australia. After he is robbed of nearly everything he owns, he chases the thieves to Bartertown, a settlement with its own police, its own energy supply, and a thriving market for swagmen to make a deal. Bartertown’s bandit queen, Aunty Entity, offers Max his stuff back if he can deal with a thorn in Aunty’s side named Master Blaster. Master is a brilliant dwarf who rides piggyback on his giant, mute friend named Blaster, and together, they run the underground pig farm/methane refinery that provides Bartertown with power. Having pushed his luck with Aunty one time too many, Master is now a marked man, and Max picks a fight with Blaster to be settled in Thunderdome, the Bartertown arena where all disputes are settled by mortal combat. Max defeats Blaster but refuses to kill him in an act of unexpected humanity, and so, Aunty exiles him to the desert to die. There, he is saved by a colony of lost children who believe Max to be a long-lost father figure finally returned to them. When cruel circumstance forces Max and some of the lost children back to Bartertown, Max knows they can either subject themselves to slavery or stage a rebellion within the bowels of Bartertown and bring the whole place to its knees. And Max isn’t about to be anyone’s slave. Now now, not ever.
In Mad Max, we saw a world teetering on the edge of collapse. In the Road Warrior, we saw a world where anarchy and insanity reign supreme. In Beyond Thunderdome, the focus has moved on to what it might look like when this world finally starts to rebuild itself. And while the method of civilization’s destruction seems to keep shifting with each new chapter of the series—from energy crisis, to conventional war, to nuclear war—by the time Beyond Thunderdome begins, we see that the downfall is no longer a pressing concern, or an aftermath to endure, but a multi-generational disaster.
We see this most in the children of this story, most of whom are roughly the age that the Feral Kid from the Road Warrior would be (had he stayed with Max), or Max’s own son Sprock would have been (had he survived). It’s one thing to do whatever it takes to deal with the inevitable spasms of lunatic violence when civilization suddenly stops working. It’s quite another to raise the children who are born into it. In this story, the adults all remember what once was. For the kids, it’s some kind of Neverland, and that places a unique burden on those who can neither turn their backs on the innocent, nor feed them convenient myths to make reality more bearable. This might be a story of wrist crossbows, pig shit and head-on collisions, but it is also about family, whether it’s the parental bond Master feels for Blaster, Jedediah feels for his boy, or Max feels for the lost children. The time for living purely for oneself through mayhem has ended. The time to re-embrace responsibility has begun.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Bartertown itself, a hard-edged vision of civilization 2.0, run by a tough and enterprising woman self-aware enough to know that the most important thing to be after the Fall is alive. Figure that out, and it doesn’t matter who you used to be, only what you decide to be next. And so, we see the new beginnings of industry, commerce, and even the rule of law. Aunty’s rule might be brutal, self-serving and unfair, but it’s better than nothing. She’s part of the wasteland’s problems, sure. But she is also part of their solution, as unpalatable as it may be. Even Max can’t forget how he was hardly much different than Aunty herself once, enforcing laws not because they made things better, but because he enjoyed the thrill of it.
When Max fails to live up to his assassin’s bargain with Aunty in Thunderdome, a moment of truth ensues in which the audience reminds Aunty that as much as she would like to kill him, she is obligated to let him go. Two men enter, one man leaves, is what makes Thunderdome work. And yet, Aunty can’t let that happen, so she turns things on Max, making this not about how she abused her own rules to dispatch a political rival, but about how Max is a dealbreaker whose presence threatens the very idea of Bartertown. The place might be about building a better tomorrow, but it’s still a place where the law and justice aren’t the same, and Max proves it when he eventually reduces Bartertown to ruins and ultimately earns Aunty’s grudging respect not for what he did, but for why he did it. Aunty Entity proves herself to be Mad Max’s most compelling villain, for when Max undoes everything for which she has worked, she vows vengeance, yes, but first, she vows to rebuild. And when she does catch up to Max, she spares him because she knows that humanity’s going to make it, it will need them both.