Every Mad Max movie ranked

Chris Tilly
Max and his dog in the wasteland of The Road Warrior.

The original Mad Max celebrates its 45th birthday today, while the Furiosa movie is about to debut in Cannes, making now the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with the franchise and rank the Mad Max movies.

Mad Max has taken cinema-goers on a wild ride since Mel Gibson first donned his leathers and entered the wasteland to play Max Rockatansky back in 1979. 

The brainchild of visionary writer-director George Miller, the movies play out in a dystopian Australia of the near-future, where society has crumbled, and the populace is in need of a hero. Step forward patrol officer Rockatansky, who embarks on a suitably mad journey across the four movies released thus far, with Furiosa’s standalone entry set to hit screens this summer.

The following feature lists those movies from worst-to-best, though we’ll start out by stating – for the record – that no Mad Max movie is bad. While rest assured we’ll update this article when we’ve seen the fifth film in the saga.

4. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Max Rockatansky in the Thunderdome.

Mad Max 3’s Thunderdome is inspired. As is the casting of rockstar Tina Turner as tyrant Aunty Entity and the inclusion of frigging Master-Blaster. But while the movie is a fun watch – particularly during the first half – Beyond is also the least of the Max movies. Especially when it tips into sentimentality during the home strait, before tapping out with a song that might have been a monster hit, but isn’t nearly as rock ‘n’ roll as a movie like this requires.

Part 3 initially finds Max traversing the post-apocalyptic dunes on a crazy car pulled by camels. Then being drawn into a conflict at ‘Bartertown’ where he does battle with tiny Master, and massive Blaster, in the iconic Thunderdome arena – the film’s high point, undoubtedly. 

But a low then follows, thanks to a bunch of teens living on Planet Erf and chirping about Tomorrow-morrow Land. They put Max on a collision course with Eternity, but that only results in a chase that’s inferior to the one that concludes Mad Max 2. While in terms of story, it’s also something of a retread – thematically at least – with Max Rockatansky rediscovering the humanity he lost in the first movie, but then found in its sequel. 

3. Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max standing in front of his police car.

The original Mad Max was inspired by the two years George Miller spent working as a doctor, and seeing how much damage a car could do when smashing into the human body. The idea started out as a documentary about race tracks in Australia, which developed into a fictional tale of a journalist reporting on crashes. Then finally, a story about a traffic cop. But Max is no ordinary traffic cop.

Rather Rockatansky is the top pursuit man in the Main Force Patrol, and we know he’s good because when a tough guy sees Max on his tail, he starts crying. But our hero is beginning to like the chaos and anarchy on the roads, stating: “It’s a mad circus out there, and I’m beginning to enjoy it.”

This is a bad sign, made worse when Max kills a crazed member of a crazy biker gang. In retaliation, they murder his best friend, followed by Rockatansky’s wife and child. Unsurprisingly, this tips Max over the edge, the movie kicking into high gear as he kills each and every member of the crew by means that are as violent as they are creative.

The chaos of that imagery matches the insanity of the characters onscreen, while this first feature is also the only Max movie that ends without hope. But it’s also a film you can watch without sound, as Miller’s visuals alone tell the story. The radical result resonated across borders, and quickly became a global phenomenon, grossing more than $100 million worldwide. Which made Mad Max the most profitable film ever at the time, and set the stage for the movie magic that was to follow.

2. Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior (1981)

Mad Max in front of a rig holding a shotgun.

Because Mad Max didn’t get a proper release across America, Mad Max 2 was retitled The Road Warrior in the States. But whatever you call the movie, it’s an action masterpiece that features some of the most mind-blowing stunts ever committed to celluloid. But the vehicular mayhem doesn’t come at the expense of story, as George Miller went back to basics when formulating the film.

Miller read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and studied cowboy movies, samurai stories, and tales of the knights of the Round Table, to see how myths are shared across space and time so he could tap into some global collective unconscious. The result is this western on wheels, about a stranger defending a group of settlers against a gang of marauders and rescuing them through bravery and self-sacrifice, in the process saving himself.

The movie kicks off with a prologue explaining how two warrior tribes went to war, leading to countries crumbling, cities exploding, cannibalism catching on, and brutal scavengers ruling the roads. Making this a burned up world that perfectly matches our burned-out protagonist, who lost all hope at the end of the last film, meaning he’s now a shell of a man.

But Max (kind of) makes friends with the eccentric Gyro Captain during early scenes. Before making an enemy of “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla” Lord Humungus, getting drawn into a battle between good people trying to protect their homes and evil raiders hell-bent on their destruction. There’s some back-and-forth between both sides, and the odd skirmish, until a huge explosion triggers car-mageddon.

Shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Dean Semler, the 15-minute chase that follows is an all-timer, pitting punks against warriors as they plow through the desert on souped-up and tricked-out rigs. Max ultimately saves the day, paving the way for his new friends to form the Great Northern Tribe. But there’s no place for Max there, with this unlikely hero heading back into the wasteland, where he’s destined to serve a greater purpose.

1. Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

Vehicular insanity in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Fury Road gives us a new Max in the shape of Tom Hardy but tells much the same story for the third time, wherein Rockatansky wants to do his own thing but ends up doing the right thing. Though while the tale is the same, the visuals are anything but, with this fourth film bigger and better than anything that’s come before. Audiences can process information faster today, so George Miller shot Fury Road accordingly, and the result is arguably the greatest action movie ever.

It’s also actually about something this time around. Villain Immortan Joe is a dictator who has brainwashed his War Boys, essentially turning them into suicide bombers for some fictional greater cause. At the same time, his kidnapped brides are the victims of human trafficking, with the movie effectively kicking off at the start of Act 2 – after their escape – and focussing on Joe’s efforts to retrieve his property.

As with all Mad Max sequels, this leads to vehicular carnage, but here it’s on a truly epic scale, with heroes and villains speeding through dust clouds and tornadoes as they battle with lances atop poles. Most of which George Miller somehow shot practically. Though at greater speed than ever previously achieved, with Fury Road featuring more than double the cuts of Road Warrior. 

These incredible scenes are soundtracked by a wild Junkie XL score, one that the director has been planning for decades. “I’ve never been able to figure out how to fit rock ‘n’ roll music into a Mad Max film,” Miller revealed back in 1985. Well, here he achieves that ambition, through the shredding guitar of the iconic Doof Warrior. 

While it’s also here that Fury Road pulls off a masterful switcheroo. As while the title character appears to be the hero of the movie, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) now takes center stage. Indeed, Max is a passenger – both metaphorically and literally – for much of Fury Road, deferring to Furiosa throughout the chase. Then handing over his rifle in a symbolic passing of the torch, one that will be built upon in this summer’s sequel that also serves as a prequel.

Making this the most progressive of the Mad Max movies. And also the best, with Fury Road the film where technology finally caught up with George Miller, enabling this master craftsman to finally put all the insanity in his brain on a movie screen, to mind-blowing effect.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga debuts at the Cannes Film Festival next month, while you can head here for previews of movies hitting cinemas this month.

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About The Author

Chris Tilly is the TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Newspaper Journalism, and over the last 20 years, he's worked for the likes of Time Out, IGN, and Fandom. Chris loves Star Wars, Marvel, DC, sci-fi, and especially horror, while he knows maybe too much about Alan Partridge. You can email him here: chris.tilly@dexerto.com.