Intro: godfathers of the wastelands[This article is spoiler free.]
One of the reasons why the Australian hero Max Rockatansky, since his debut in the late 70s, has so thoroughly captured the hearts and imaginations of American audiences is that he fits the template of the Wandering Gunslinger archetype whose notable variations have included classic Western movie characters like Shane (Alan Ladd) and the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood).
The Wandering Gunslinger archetype is in turn a spiritual descendent of the literary/cinematic archetype of the Ronin who’s been portrayed for centuries throughout the Japanese arts (as in the numerous plays, kabuki and films depicting the Chūshingura, or the 47 Ronin). Although traditionally the arts tended to romanticize the ronin, historically speaking many ronin actually just became ruthless mercenaries and thugs rather than the noble heroes they were often depicted as. Nevertheless, this article is not about East Asian history or even film history but about pop mythology, and from the vantage point of mythology the Ronin and the Gunslinger are both wonderfully symbolic archetypes blessing Mad Max to carry on their work in an era faced with its own unique set of problems.
But just to provide a little more context, for a samurai his daimyo (or feudal lord) was everything. Samurai were trained and bred to believe solely in the cause of serving their lords by way of the much glorified code of bushido which was, in some ways, designed to make the servants believe in the cause of unquestioningly serving their masters (just like the War Boys in Fury Road are conditioned to unquestioningly follow Immortan Joe). During the Tokugawa Period, however, with shifting social structures, many ronin were essentially screwed over in terms of the fewer and fewer options they were left with to maintain their former status in society. Even just earning a reputable living became difficult for many. Their very survival began to come into question, and their singular allegiance to their lords and unwavering faith in what they’d been taught to believe now meant nothing. It is no wonder, then, that many ronin turned to crime and brutality.
A world of fire and blood
Now let’s return to how this relates to Mad Max. Symbolically, the psychological significance of a samurai losing his lord is immense and parallels both the Mad Maxian archetype and the post-apocalyptic world he inhabits. Essentially, a ronin who is newly without a lord has lost the fulcrum that once held his world of meaning together—he has suffered a personal apocalypse. He has been spiritually uprooted and thus wanders the land to find a new cause. Some ronin go astray and end up raping and pillaging. Other ronin may end up wandering indefinitely, simply surviving day to day, lost in a sea of futility. The blessed ronin, however, are those who find another cause, preferably this time a cause not dictated by blind allegiance but rather guided by their own consciences. And although it often did not work out this way in history, the mythical ideal of the ronin archetype is to rediscover the cause of serving and helping one’s fellow human beings amidst chaos and meaninglessness.
Here, I am very much talking about Mad Max whose own world fell apart in the first film in 1979 and who, upon wandering the land, eventually discovered meaning again, not through mere survival but through service to what was left of humanity. And when I talk about Mad Max I am also very much talking about you. About us.
Many of us, in our own different ways, have become like lordless samurai. We too have been duped, misled or become disillusioned by any number of things: our own romanticized fantasies, over-ambitious dreams that fell apart in front of our eyes, by a myriad of societal and cultural conditioning that lured us with promises of the good life, the American dream, if only we worked hard, paid our taxes, played by the rules and behaved ourselves. We did. But the good life did not come. Not only did it not come but sometimes what we got was the opposite of the dream. We were left without an existential foundation, the very ground of meaning torn from beneath our feet. For those of us for whom this description has ever applied in some way, we are the ronin, the disillusioned cowboys. We are Mad Max. (And because I am speaking from the viewpoint of mythology, when I say “we are Mad Max” it is gender neutral. If you prefer to say, “I am Imperator Furiosa,” nothing would delight me more so long as you have heroes who inspire you.)
Now as ongoing readers of Pop Mythology know, our ideal of a hero is not one who has any wealth, power or an abundance of resources, necessarily. Our heroic ideal is simply one who makes great efforts to help people in different ways—one who, in fact, not only helps people but has the courage to even put others above herself at times. And for many people, it is not that hard to be willing to help others when things are going well. It is when things are not going well that this becomes difficult, and it becomes increasingly difficult as circumstances get more difficult. And when is it the most difficult? When the situation gets so bad that one’s very survival starts to hang in the balance. As it did for the historical ronin. As it does for almost everyone in the Mad Max world on a daily basis.
The Mad Max world as envisioned in the first trilogy was one in which humanity has returned to its pre-civilized roots wherein the self-preservation instinct overrules everything else. In which hordes of survivors turned to barbarism and savagery out of fear. Because they fear it is the only way they could ensure their own survival. But those who have power are not content with just survival. They must have it all. (Doesn’t sound so terribly remote from our own world, does it?) Artists have continued to explore this theme over the years right up to works as recent as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or, even more recently, in The Walking Dead comics and TV series in which the sparse “good guys” who are left are sometimes forced to resort to morally dubious actions due to increasingly dire situations.
Note that for the purposes of this piece, I am going to put aside some of the social/political themes that run through these post-apocalyptic works like subtextual pipeline. Indeed, in Mad Max: Fury Road these themes are visualized in such a dramatic yet ambiguous enough way such that people with different causes and belief systems can project different interpretations on it to suit their own persuasions. That’s all well and good but for now we will focus simply on the question of how to live a heroic ideal in a world of “fire and blood” and on the equally pressing question of whether this is even possible or desirable when one’s survival is in doubt.
First of all, there is no need to confine the Mad Max vision to the domain of nightmarish prophesy. In some ways, we are living in the Mad Max world now. The way in which we are is in psychological terms of the increasing aura of fear dominating our collective psyche, a fear that causes some to instinctively become more selfish and shelter themselves from a perceived coming storm, accumulating as much as they can while they can and hoarding it to ensure survival. I’m not even just talking about survivalists or “preppers.” I’m including regular people, both those in power and those not, who do this subconsciously in more subtle ways.
Certainly, many of the problems we grapple with today have always plagued societies in some form or another. And fears of an impending apocalypse have been around since biblical times (Fury Road even has some interesting biblical imagery). But it seems that never before have we been quite as beset as we are now by mounting and self-perpetuating fears, perhaps partly due to the omnipresent media that permeates every aspect of our waking consciousness. And while fears of a supernatural apocalypse are merely as superstitious as they’ve ever been, we are increasingly faced with legitimate threats to our collective survival.
Now just imagine, within this context of societal fear, when individuals are confronted by crises in their personal lives as well: this might include but is not limited to losing their jobs, their health insurance, their savings, sometimes even their homes. The savagery of the Mad Max world may be intentionally exaggerated but they resonate with people because they reflect people’s own fears about not being able to survive.
My name is Max
The Mad Max movies may not have much in the way of plot or characterization, but they don’t need those things to speak to my soul. It’s because their underlying mythical themes inspire me in a time when mounting uncertainties make me increasingly scared, scared to the point there’s a constant buzzing of fear in my bones as I go about daily actions. Therefore Max is an archetype that I think about and reflect on often. I need the courage he inspires in me, and I want to see how long and how well I can hold onto my heroic ideals even as my self-preservation instinct kicks into overdrive. And though there is a very real and practical need to focus on my own survival, I also don’t want to lose that part of myself that believes in investing in human beings. I do not want to become like the savages that populate the wastelands, taking and hoarding, figuratively speaking. I do not want to be like the ronin who became ruthless out of fear. I want to be like Max. Because even when Max is tempted to turn his back and serve his own interests, and sometimes comes very close to doing so, he is one of pop mythology’s greatest heroes because his heart and conscience ultimately win out.
But those anti-heroic tendencies, that instinct to be selfish, also make him a hero well suited for our times. When the fear rises, the temptation to take what you can and ignore the suffering of others is great. It is highly significant that in every movie in the series except the first (in which his life and world fall apart, like the ronin), Max has a defining moment when he must choose between being selfish or overcoming his fear and helping others despite his survival instinct screaming, “Run!” This is why this article focuses on Max rather than Furiosa who is actually the more central hero in Fury Road. But that’s precisely the point: this isn’t Max’s holy mission, it’s Furiosa’s. He has every reason to rationalize that it’s not his battle to fight. Furiosa represents unflinching commitment; Max represents the struggle of selfishness vs. selflessness. The latter is the easier struggle for most of us to identify with. And as with him, the struggle against our own selfishness isn’t ever overcome once and for all. It is a daily struggle in which we must choose again and again: is it going to be about me or is it going to be about us?
“But I’ve lost so much,” one might say. “Am I still to give attention to the plight of others when I have so little?”
I used to ask myself that question a lot too. But I believe, somewhat counter-intuitively, that in some ways he who has lost everything actually has everything to give. Since he has nothing left to hoard or be afraid of losing, it is easier to be content with survival and to spend less time accumulating and more time giving. This is why the various wandering hero archetypes are often those who have little in the material sense. They go from place to place helping others with few physical and emotional attachments holding them down.
Out here, everything hurts
In the Mad Max world, both the fictional one and our real one, everyone is scared—that much is certain. The key is how we deal with the fear. The Immortan Joes of the world use power as an opiate to hold their fears at bay. Power gives the illusion of immortality and wards off the sense of futility. But unless they use their power to serve it is fleeting and meaningless, and not even the siring of heirs will provide the immortality and meaning they seek. The War Boys of the world, on the other hand, don’t have any power so instead they pledge themselves to a dream or cause, only the dreams and causes are too often manufactured by the Immortan Joes.
The Maxes and Furiosas of the world see through the hollowness of both the hoarding of power and the blind following of it. But they don’t always know what to replace it with either, not at first. So they wander. But wander as far and as long as you like, I assure you that the immortality and sense of meaning you crave comes through serving humanity in your own, different and unique ways. If you do that, then when you die those you have touched will remember you (“remembering” is a big theme in Fury Road) and they will mythologize your memory just as, in The Road Warrior, the grown-up Feral Kid mythologizes the memory of Max.
Earlier I acknowledged that the Mad Max films don’t have detailed plots or characterization. But Max’s reticence, and the two-dimensional quality of him, makes him as archetypal as they come. This serves the purpose of making it easier to project ourselves onto him. And as with most mythical heroes, his combat prowess should not get in the way of identifying with him because the violence in myth merely symbolizes the struggle of life itself. So we project ourselves onto Max (again, in a gender neutral way) and we ask ourselves: when pushed to the edge into extreme situations, would I still help others? Would I choose the path of selfishness or selflessness?
If you’re not entirely sure of the answer, here’s an easy way to figure it out: who’s cooler, Max or Immortan Joe? Your answer to that reveals your answer to the other questions.
And just so we’re clear that the cause of helping others does not have to be impractical or unrealistic, I do believe that to help others one must first be surviving, and there are times that in order to do this the hero must focus on herself. But for the committed hero, the words “selfish” and “selfless” eventually shed their surface distinctions because from the big picture the hero’s struggle for her own survival is connected to the struggle of others. For how effectively can you help others if you are not alive and okay yourself?
So don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that if you are starving and there is a morsel of food in front of you, you should give it away. Eat the food. Let it nourish you. Build your strength. But sooner or later life will call you to action, and the call will never come at a convenient time, just as it is never convenient for Max who just wants to be left alone. But if characters like Max and Furiosa stir something within you, then dare to take the next step beyond passive consumption of stories and come with me into the realm where myth and reality become one. And all it takes is that when life calls upon you to serve, so long as your most basic needs are being met, you resist the temptation to say, “Wait… just a little bit more for myself first.”
Instead, when life calls you say, “Yes. Here I am.”