A petrol-head’s dream wrapped up in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Violence, fast cars, and the occasional 1980s mega pop star – this is what Mad Max is all about. The Mad Max franchise is more than just a cult must-watch for lovers of Eldritch automobile monstrosities, it’s Australia’s auspicious introduction to the international cinema stage; the beginning of the showcasing of thoroughly antipodean productions that would seriously rival the output of those from North America – Mad Max was even the most profitable film of all time for twenty years (making over $100million from a $400,000 budget) until it was usurped by The Blair Witch Project in 1999.
George Miller’s terrifying vision of the future truly put Australia on the map of international film, and opened the door for the nation’s talent to make their distinctive marks in Hollywood – most prominent of all being the American-born, Australian-bred Mel Gibson who was thrust into prominence through his starring role in Mad Max (1979) and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most undoubtedly controversial but impactful star filmmakers. What really was remarkable was the series’ almost flawless transition into the 21st century, its soft reboot Mad Max: Fury Road storming through cinemas in 2015 and becoming one of the most memorable movies of the 2010s in the process.
So, how do these truly legendary films hold up against each other? For this Ranked list, we’ve watched all four Mad Max movies and compared each in terms of artistic merit, full throttle adrenaline, critical reception and audience perception to decide which are the best and, first, which are the worst films from the George Miller fronted franchise. These are the Mad Max Movies Ranked.
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4. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
The third instalment in the original Mad Max trilogy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome seemed determined to draw in wider audiences than the largely adult crowds of Mad Max 1 & 2, embracing the franchise’s first PG-13 rating and casting megastar Tina Turner in an attempt to wow at the North American box office.
To some degree these efforts paid off – when in conversation about the Mad Max franchise, Beyond Thunderdome is time and time again brought up with fondness. It could very possibly be bestowed with the title of “fan favourite”, which makes perfect sense considering it was the most accessible of the bunch, especially to audiences born after the original two films were released. However, when compared with the other Mad Max instalments, it is apparent that Beyond Thunderdome is the weakest film of the franchise by miles.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome sadly has the most confused script of the series, lacking any clear direction. Its origins as two separate movie ideas is very apparent, with half of the film surrounding the internal struggle of power within a brutal civilisation controlled by a methane energy crisis whilst the other half focuses on a “Lord of the Flies” type of tale, with feral children in the desert seeking a new home in a fabled utopia. Both concepts have their own appeal, but their combination means a lack of breathing space for either to develop into fully fledged themes or narratives, therefore leaving both underdeveloped.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is in no way a tiresome watch however, with plenty to entertain. The script, although messy, never fails to keep us invested in Max’s tragic tale as the lonely wanderer in the wastelands (a notable trope of the Mad Max films that is repeated time and time again). Despite its more kid-friendly film rating, this Mad Max entry is still stuffed with action and violence, including the requisite car chase and a gloriously camp showdown in the aforementioned Thunderdome – Max and Blaster quite literally fly though the air wielding blunt instruments in one of cinema’s most memorable fight sequences.
In the case of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, creator George Miller’s reluctance to make the film is its most evident deficit amongst an incredibly strong series of joyous watches. The filmmaker had lost his friend and producing partner Byron Kennedy to a helicopter accident prior to filming, and despite creating a thrilling gateway into the madness of the Mad Max series against such odds, Beyond Thunderdome lacks the vigour of the pair’s previous films, making it the worst film in the franchise.
How mad is Max?
Max is quite mad, and his raggedy appearance (with uneven pupils to top off the look) serves to further compound his insane reputation. Flying around the Thunderdome armed with a chainsaw about sums it up. Through the course of the film, Max is attempting to grasp onto his lost humanity as seen when he takes a stand against abusing the vulnerable, but then he does punch a teenage girl right in the face. Swings and roundabouts.
3. Mad Max (1979)
For many younger audiences whose first introduction to the Mad Max series was Fury Road, Mad Max definitely falls under the purview of the TV Trope “Early Instalment Weirdness”. Naturally, it is the first movie that introduces defining elements of the whole franchise – the dystopian nature of the world, insane motorbike and car stunts, bloody violence, Hugh Keays-Byrne, random saxophone playing, Max Rockatansky’s unwilling involvement in a wild chain of events, and of course his unquenchable thirst for vengeance – but it can’t be denied that this film has a completely different tone and pace from the rest of the series.
Newcomers may very well be flabbergasted by an incredibly slow-moving first half with a Max that is nowhere near the most enigmatic character on screen – Mel Gibson’s Mad Max is initially a big blue-eyed romantic who willingly bends to the letter of the law and not at all the anti-hero we expect him to be. In the midst of this confusion, we then suffer devastating whiplash as the film’s entire plot unfolds within the last twenty minutes at a neck-breaking pace, leaving us with breathtaking results.
A work of genius or insanity? The answer is: a bit of both.
Mad Max’s transformation of pace and the intensity of Max’s character arc result in an ending that pays off the almost agonising build up a thousand times over – the label of “Cinematic Masterpiece” wouldn’t go amiss in this context.
Whether Mad Max is your introduction to the series or not, the film feels incomplete (which isn’t a huge surprise as this movie is a definitive example of guerrilla filmmaking on a shoestring budget). In this sense, Mad Max is more akin to the prequel movie of a main series, like what X-Men Origins: Wolverine is to X-Men, and in watching this 1979 release in retrospect, so much more is expected from the story than what Mad Max gives us – it’s a terrific introduction that leaves us thirsty for more, but lacks the overarching intensity that the Mad Max franchise has come to be known for.
How mad is Max?
This is the movie where you can find Max at both his sanest and craziest. We go from a traditional (albeit boring) hero who likes nothing better than being sweet to his wife, to a cold-blooded and merciless killing machine. You can even pinpoint the moment in those big blue eyes where you see his mind snap.
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