The Road Warrior: the Mutt of the Wasteland

An underdog is defined by how the world treats them. How they are surrounded by characters that break them down, and see the character as nothing more than a nobody to trample. Their weaknesses are characterized by beliefs that don’t mesh with the popular ideologies around them, and the mistreatment they face as a result is internalized by the underdog and externalized in how they act.

From the first car chase in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the audience is told that years prior, Max’s family and best friend were brutally killed by a biker gang whilst he was still a police officer. After exacting his revenge on each member of the gang, and years into a post-war apocalypse, the weight of being unable to save them evolved into a belief that getting close to anyone will only result in more damage to himself. This has led him down a path of self-imposed alienation, to the disapproval of everyone around him, and the friction Max encounters in this episode are all based on his cruelly pragmatic way of handling relationships with fellow survivors. He’s kicked down again and again by those he’s protecting, the residents of a small gasoline-pumping compound. Offscreen voices that call him a “parasite”, “mercenary trash” who is “trading in human flesh.” Nevertheless, he helps the survivors get what they want — a prime tanker to transport their cargo of gasoline away from the vehicle-bound army outside, marauders following the tyrannical Lord Humungus. When he returns after successfully collecting the truck, he’s offered to stay, to be given “a future”, by the compound’s leader, Pappagallo. Knowing the dangers of community and interpersonal connections, he refuses. The leader antagonizes Max about his lost family, proudly boasting that his subjects still have their “dignity” and telling him he belongs to the trash. Max is hated by both the good and the bad. This hatred becomes internal, and manifests through his inclination to con and trick his way through the wasteland, stealing gas and making false promises — after all, that’s what people do to him.

Each faction, like the survivors under both Hummungus and Pappagallo’s leadership, subscribe to a safety-in-numbers approach to survival. Reliance on one another through ties of love or loyalty are a requirement. Even the most sadistic member of Humungus’ entourage, Wez (a mohawked psychopath in leather chaps), is not seen without his ‘Golden Boy’, a blonde, submissive partner, until the latter is abruptly killed. Wez goes into a rage until Hummungus constrains him, whispering that they all “lost someone they love”, and to wait until they get inside the compound, “then you can have your revenge”. This indicates the ties each member of the gang has with each other, the trust and pain they share as a unit. Max rejects this symbiosis; he pushes others away at the risk of getting attached because, in his experience, that can only lead to worse chances of survival for all involved. Max, the underdog, goes against popular ideals of both moralities, leaving him solely to his own survival and a threat to both sides.

There is one exception to Max’s self-induced alienation — his companion, an Australian cattle dog referred to only as “Dog”. Dog serves as an animal mirror to Max, and parallels are drawn between them frequently, giving added depth to how far he’s strayed from his human beliefs. Comparisons can be seen in their visual similarities: Max and Dog are both costumed with matching red handkerchiefs, eat from the same tin, Dinki-Di dog food, and Dog is even trained to use a jerry-rigged mechanism to use Max’s iconic sawed-off shotgun. The most overt comparison between the two doesn’t exist in the film, but can be found in the original script; Dog is mentioned to have only three legs — a direct mirroring of Max’s braced leg which was shot out in the first film. Max becomes part of the natural environment through these comparisons to wildlife, especially when he is in ‘scavenger mode’, approaching a vehicle looking for leftover gas. A snake is laid overtop the gasoline tanks as a trap. Max, with laser precision, imitates the snake before gripping it by its head. He’s taken on the pragmatism of the natural world, devoid of the moral bracings of either the panicked, innocent compound survivors and the overt brutality of Humungus’ army. Anytime he swoops into an area in search of provisions, the squawks of a crow is heard to reinforce this sentiment. These comparisons to the natural world establishes an underlying hierarchy within the factions, with Max at the bottom rung of wasteland survivors.

An underdog’s story comes to an end when the subject reaches some form of redemption, the character proving to themselves most of all that the trials they’ve gone through were worth it. They need to see a change in their self-perception; in its most simplified form, through subverting outcome and destroying the expected winner, the more powerful opponent. This is only a piece of Max’s personal third act, and subsequently became a long-staying tradition in all future Mad Max entries. After being antagonized and spat on by the compound survivors, his final sacrifice is the key that ultimately saves their lives, coming after he reaches his worst point in the film. He loses both the black-on-black, a souped-up police interceptor that has been, since the first film, an extension of his mechanized self, and Dog, who distracts a marauder from the wounded Max and is killed by a crossbow to protect him. Both these losses eradicate a part of him, parts of his connection to the person he was. But with the death of the black-on-black, Max is forced to evolve. The vehicle was a block, an image of his refusal to move on and change since the loss of his family three years prior. Having finally lost the last fragment connecting him to the man he was before, he is ready for vindication.

Over the miles of terrain ahead of them, the plan is as follows: Max will use the prime mover, hooked up with the tanker and the compound’s best fighters, and head south, with the scavengers at their heels. Meanwhile, the rest of the civilians will get out in a bus and head north. A final chance to prove his usefulness after his past lone-wolf philosophy went up in flames along with the black-on-black. Max’s final sacrifice comes when he powers the tanker truck down a long stretch of road, facing down Lord Humungus’ own vehicle in a twisted-metal game of jousting. Using the last of his strength to save a young compound survivor before obliterating the villain, and his vehicle, to pieces. The tanker buckles off the highway and topples over on itself, sending dust and debris flying as 80 000 lbs of metal collapses into the streetside ditch. The audience gasps because, at this moment, we believe Max to have failed. The tanker is flipped, the gas given to the marauders on a silver plate. When he crawls out, though, he sees the cargo he’d been carrying all along had been nothing more than sand. Even if, still used as a pawn and “failing” his task by crashing the mover, he realizes he took part in protecting something other than himself. We see him do something he hasn’t done since the first film — he smiles. His arc completes itself when Max’s philosophy is broken for good: being part of a whole, helping others doesn’t lessen his chances of survival, nor does it wound him. It heals a part of him that felt unable to save his family years before. He remains a piece of the wildlife, a mutt to the ‘civilized’ world, but inside this unavoidable failure he finds emotional closure.

The tragic inevitability of Max’s story is that he can never stay. Each entry closes when he’s given the chance to start a new life with the enclave of people that he saved. But this isn’t an offer he ever accepts. He’s too far gone, a natural underdog, even if part of himself he thought was dead glanced back. Like with every Mad Max film, he walks away, and fades into the background of the survivor’s public consciousness, a piece of the background.