This essay is dedicated to Blake Collier, who first prompted me to write it, and to Henry Cook, who first introduced me to the film.
“Who killed the world?”
This question haunts the 2015 masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. Though it is only uttered twice in the film, the state of Fury Road’s world demands it be asked. The barren desert landscape bears witness to the pretense at the heart of humanity’s boast of progress. “Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself,” a voice in the opening sequence pronounces. The environmental disasters and catastrophic warfare that brought the world to this point were made possible by the developments and decisions being made now as well as those that precede and determine our present. More than a question, it is an accusation: who is responsible for the murder of civilization and the ecosystems upon which it depends?
The desolate future envisioned in the Mad Max films lays bare the emptiness which always threatens the human effort to build something meaningful. We fear the atavistic impulse that would revert us to fighting like rats over the scraps left by the detonation of civilization for at least two reasons. First, we shudder when we recognize the likelihood that we ourselves would succumb to the savagery of the war of all against all. But second, we fear we would not be strong enough to defend ourselves from the monsters that accompany such cataclysms.
There is a phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Slavoj Zizek seems to have popularized this rendering of Gramsci’s apothegm1 but what Gramsci wrote in his prison notebook was, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
But perhaps we do not have to choose between the different meanings in these renderings. After all, do not monsters arise out of the painful fractures pocking our world? Out of the death throes of the order to which humans entrust themselves to stave off death and meaninglessness? Monsters seem to arise in every effort humans make to bring about something new. But such efforts always carry the taint of the old era, carrying forward the death drive that infects and undermines our best ambitions. The risk inherent to any such action is becoming a monster.
In the distressingly near future universe of Mad Max, monsters emerge out of the void following the collapse of technological modernity. Morbid symptoms were already showing themselves in the decline of the old world, producing monsters who would draw followers on the premise of fighting against those very symptoms. But they never defeat them; they only exacerbate those symptoms. Such monsters—despots, charismatic demagogues, cult leaders—always trade in our fears of defilement to draw us into further defilement in their campaigns to rid the world of the infection we sense is fraying our social fabric and damaging our planet. But to fight defilement with its own weapons only ever brings our efforts to ruin. In a fallen world, infection, defilement, and monsters implicate one another as they are different facets of the wound in our world.
The Reign of Monsters
The Mad Max films present us with the end of a certain order and in so doing depicts the end, the outcome, of that order. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the end of history. But what comes after its end? Fury Road depicts one potential future, and we would be wise in our current moment to heed the parallels between the future and our present.
Totalitarianism is always more than a political arrangement. It is a religious phenomenon, commandeering the human instinct to give away our allegiance and our worship. This basic drive in human beings is exploited in totalitarian regimes to create twisted parodies of the Kingdom of God so as to wage war against the present.
One need not be a religious believer to recognize this. In his analysis of Enlightenment morality, Theodor Adorno quotes a character from a story by the Marquis de Sade: “Take its god from the people that you wish to subjugate, and then demoralize it; so long as it worships no other god than you, and has no other morals than your morals, you will always be its master.”2 The despots unleashed over the last century and into the present era enfeeble us with hopelessness, with misinformation, with expedient disasters, and when we have been broken down sufficiently, they commandeer our worship. Having perceived the moribundity of our world these monsters emerge from the shadows to finish it off.
The Mad Max series made possible the tradition of the charismatic tyrant without which there is no Duke of New York, no Governor or Negan, none of the larger-than-life post-punk demigods of dystopia we have come to love. But these demigods among the post-liberal ruins have proven to be glimpses of the demagogues that were to come, that have arrived in our present.
Fury Road’s tyrant is Immortan Joe, a survivor of the old world who has installed himself as the god-dictator of one community in the Wasteland. He rules from an impregnable stronghold of rock towers he has styled the Citadel, his regime enforced by his fanatical War Boys and his total monopoly on fresh water which he doles out to the Wretched— the homeless, disease-stricken, and disabled masses who flock to the Citadel for “survival.”
They are the base Immortan Joe exploits to replenish his ranks: the fittest of their children are taken and indoctrinated into the Cult of V8 to serve as soldiers absolutely loyal to Joe. His domination is total; if he withholds the resources he meagerly offers, the Wretched perish. “I am your redeemer!” he bellows to them as he releases a torrent of water to be snatched up and fought over. “It is by my hand you will rise from the ashes of this world!” Joe has erected an entirely new social imaginary, the purposes, language, and rituals of which are formed entirely around his death cult. The complete and utter demoralization he subjects them to deepens their enslavement, closing off any possibility of something different or something better. Religion sustains an economy constructed around scarcity, degradation, and war.
Enter Max Rockatansky, post-apocalyptic drifter, dehumanized bearer of a vocation he never chose for himself.
Loss and Lack
As of the first film of his series, Max has lost everything. This is not unique to him, however. “As the world fell,” Max narrates at the beginning of Fury Road, “each of us in our own way was broken.” Every person he’s encountered from The Road Warrior (1981) on has suffered the total upheaval of their lives in the old world. The immediately recognizable effects of civilization’s collapse should not detract the viewer, however, from recognizing their basic commonality with us. For the residents of this cinematic future, too, are characterized by loss and lack. The difference between them and us is that the trappings of late modern capitalism provide illusory optics allowing us to disguise our lack from ourselves.
Max typifies the plight of the late modern subject: wounded, uprooted, and isolated. Channeling both the insights of Romantic poetry and of psychoanalysis, Harold Bloom remarks that “the truest name for the human condition is simply that it is loss,”3 a claim that is too often ignored or denied by contemporary confessors of religion. This lack may not be the truest thing there is about reality, but it is close to the heart of reality since the Fall. The world did not recently come out of joint: it always has been since that tragic moment humanity absurdly sought something more than the gift they were already given.
But all are not exactly alike in this plight. Max is the one, according to his self-understanding, who runs from both the living and the dead: always fleeing the neo-barbarians that have claimed the Wasteland for themselves and the memories of those he could not protect. He purposelessly makes his way through the wastes, surviving, unattached to any place or to anyone, suffering in isolation the sickness of failure and loss.
“Do you think you’re the only one that’s suffered?” the leader of one community rebuked him in The Road Warrior. “We’ve all been through it in here. But we haven’t given up. We’re still human beings with dignity. But you? You’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing.” Max has sunk hideously low before, simply surviving as little more than a maggot living off the corpse of the old world. Fury Road is true to experience in depicting how emergence out of such a despairing and degrading state does not guarantee the impossibility of its return4.
This is particularly devastating to Max as he had already feared just such an outcome before society completely collapsed. Battling the rogues of civilization’s twilight years as a highway patrol officer, he was frightened of becoming what he was fighting: “a terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys,” as he says in the first film, Mad Max (1979). The boundary separating the forces of order and the monsters arising out of the wreckage of the old world is a porous one, and often, to a large extent, imaginary. But following the murder of his family and the vengeance he exacted he was left without even that bare signifier, reduced to a shell of a man little different from the scavengers he fights against in The Road Warrior.
Max has surprised everyone, likely including himself, by rising to the occasion to take up the mantle of reluctant deliverer, beginning in The Road Warrior. Though he embraces the signifier of loner, something in him comes alive when he comes into contact with the vulnerable and lost, and when their need becomes desperate another Max, one who lives to protect and serve, emerges and fights.
In Fury Road, however, he has lost even the gains in humanity he made in previous films. Max has never been eloquent, but when the viewer first sees him at the beginning of Fury Road he has been reduced to animalistic survival. He hasn’t heard the sound of his own voice for who knows how long—only the voices of the people he promised to help but could not save.
Max’s arrival into Immortan Joe’s dominion isn’t the intentional effort of a liberator. He is taken captive by a band of War Boys, Joe’s worshipful soldiers, and brought to the Citadel to serve as a blood bag, a living transfusion for them. Nor is it his intention to cross paths with Furiosa, Joe’s ablest lieutenant, who has fled the Citadel in the War Rig—the most heavily armored vehicle in Joe’s fleet— with Joe’s “breeders,” the wives he has forcibly taken to produce able-bodied heirs. Nor does he choose to be chained to Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys whose ambition is to earn Joe’s approval by returning Joe’s wives himself.
Several lines of dehumanized powerlessness accidentally converge when Max finds himself aboard the War Rig, along for the ride to find the home Furiosa was taken from: a “Green Place” where Joe cannot harm them.
But the terrible reveal upon which Fury Road turns is the disappearance of that Green Place. Its survivors explain that, like most of the rest of the world, its soil and water went sour, and another gang claimed it for themselves. The ideal home removed from the world’s furor and scarcity does not exist. Furiosa is devastated. All her hopes of redemption, of canceling and making right the wrongs she has committed as an underling of Immortan Joe, hung entirely upon returning there.
She has no idea what else to do but drive deeper into the desert in search of another paradisiacal escape from the Wasteland’s warlords. But Max knows there is no such escape. “Hope is a mistake,” Max cautions Furiosa when she offers Max a place among the escaping women. Like the fantasy of returning to a better time (a “greater” time?), the delusional consolation of such a place in this world is no hope at all. It is an enticement to despair and death. Max elects to stay behind as he has other times in the past. But unlike those times he is not denying himself the home he has fought to secure for others. He is declining their invitation to flee towards what he knows is only nothingness and death.
In a moment symmetrical to the film’s first glimpse of Max he stands overlooking a sea of sand. This time, however, he isn’t trembling with the anguished burden of his trauma. He is watching people of whom he has grown fond as they diminish into the horizon. Seeing them fruitlessly seek a different way out of the nightmare provokes something different in him, something akin to his past acceptance of the role of deliverer. He races to reconvene with Furiosa and her band to propose an alternative: abandon the false hope of an Eden somewhere out there and find their way home back where they began. The hard way back the way they came, running from the monsters, back to the Citadel.
Max has recognized they can never run far enough to rid themselves of the wreckage of the past. None of us can outrun what haunts us: we can only charge straight into it, face its fury, and fight our way home. This is the way that fulfills the needs of every member of this disparate group: Furiosa’s need to expiate her sins as an instrument of Immortan Joe’s regime; the wives’ need for a habitable home for their children; the Green Place survivors’ need to continue their ecological stewardship. Nux, having passed through the dark night of disenchantment with the uncaring Immortan, finds his old mission repurposed: he will return the wives to their home after all, fighting the monsters of which he was once a part. And Max will take the risk of identifying himself once more with the vulnerable, to be what they need him to be.
Everyone in this unlikely band arrives at a subversion of their original missions, but in that subversion finds something more substantive than those original purposes. So it must be with all of us: the goals and roles we inherit must pass through baptism and undergo disruption to find life-giving connection to reality, one that is more real than the chaos that engulfs our collective existence and our planet, and styles itself as the Real.
The Hope That Is Not a Mistake
Fleeing across the endless desert is madness. But wouldn’t going back the way they have already come to fight Joe and take the Citadel be even more mad? “It feels like hope,” Nux, the War Boy reborn through blood transfusion from Max, remarks. The objective is no longer escape to an impossible utopia, but starting again. Conserving and rebuilding. It will be hard, Max promises, “but at least that way we might be able to—together—come across some kind of redemption.”
Bolstered by substantive hope, the group fights a brutal battle back to a mountain pass where they trap Joe’s and his allies’ war parties. This is the narrow way that leads to life, to a Citadel where there is more than enough water to shower all: a great, heterogeneous throng of newly free men, women, and children hail Furiosa as dragonslayer and are purified in the water Joe has hoarded as a weapon.
The entire Mad Max series depicts Max’s reluctant responses to the monsters of the in-between. Max continually finds his heroism and nobility wrenched out of him when others need him, their desperation piercing through the thick knots of his own self-loathing and shame to release the good man he has always wanted to be. What we have been, what we have done, does not have to determine our destiny. The accusing voices of all that has gone so terribly wrong do not have to debilitate us the rest of our lives. These impediments are real, and they do seek our degradation. As difficult and painful as it is, as unfamiliar as it may feel, there is the possibility of taking action:. to act on the principles that animated us before the trauma came, before we became accustomed to compromise, to survival, or protecting old privileges.
None of us reconcile ourselves to our failures or find healing for our triggers in isolation. In the community of saints—not the perfect or the obsequiously pious, but those who reckon honestly with the lack within themselves and recognize the radical compassion and renewal unleashed in the gospel—our trauma can be repurposed, can spur us on back into the darkness we wish we could hide from but cannot. Alone, we break, and ununified, our world crumbles. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said. The options are never individualistic. We are always already bound together for good or ill.
Max’s task before the world went to hell was much the same as ours is now: to keep chaos at bay, to preserve decency, to resist the pull towards brutality that a savage world exerts upon us; to own the sins of the past, and to diligently guard against the monsters ever seeking a foothold. But we will not be able to do this if our senses are dulled by the benefits of the status quo, or if we tenaciously cling to conspiracy theories that assure us that everything actually is all right, or if we stay in lockstep with our memetic tribe and spurn the needs and complaints of others who are not like us.
Many of us seek redemption for the sins we fear have claimed our existence, but we must reject all self-styled saviors that offer this-worldly “redemption.” None of them can achieve this. Moreover, none of them want to. They only seek your worship for the establishment of their idolatrous rule. A morbid preoccupation with our failures not only renders us vulnerable to despots but fuels their tyrannical programs. Counterfeit messiahs—which is exactly what every fascist leader presents themselves as—always present themselves as whole, as unencumbered by the frailty and lack that characterizes our lives. And we put faith in these figures hoping against hope that wholeness can come by proxy. But that simply is not available this side of the eschaton.
The monsters that materialize out of the morbid symptoms of technological modernity build their empires from the ruins of these divisions, monsters with names like Pol Pot and Idi Amin, but other, lesser avatars such as Viktor Orban have arisen, whom far-right sympathizers in the United States have praised and hope to emulate. The pervasiveness of denial regarding the January 6 insurrection is an index of this totalitarian religious impulse not just out there but even here. Such monsters depend upon our stubborn refusal to come together over common goods and on our naive need to give the benefit of the doubt to loathsome men voracious for power. The promise to restore preeminence or to make us great again is always an empty one, cloaking baser, monstrous, dehumanizing interests. Immortan Joe does not represent the quotient of depravity latent in every single human being; he is the potential our race occasionally actualizes, our own death drive enfleshed and eager to force us to our knees. He is the monster we allow to go unchallenged for too long in our hope he will change his ways.
The hope that presumes Eden can be regained or that trouble will not find us if we do not involve ourselves is a mistake.
The reductionistic, Lockean contractualism of radically separate individuals enshrined in our American inheritance will not suffice to see us through the crisis of our era because it facilitated and propelled that crisis in the first place. And the factions we look to for the safety of belonging won’t steer our world away from the brink— they will only make us plummet all the more swiftly.
The hope that is not a mistake is the hope that does not deny one’s brokenness and the failures of the structures to which you and I belong. The hope that is not a mistake does not submit to those ruptures and transgressions as the inevitable conquerors of the attempt to live well. This hope testifies that our wrongs and others’ are real and significant, but that in spite of them another possibility beckons through the rubble of where we are. But for this to be hope and not fantasy, this can only issue out of God entering into history and disrupting the disruption that mars our world and our lives.
Who killed the world? In relinquishing our vocation and tethering ourselves to idols of impossibility, mankind has. Someone alive now will have pushed the button, but all of us will have to answer for how that individual was provided access to it. This person, that is, will have completed the process of catastrophe, but we cannot—we must not—ignore how we all contribute to the devastation and degradation of our world: ecologically, politically, and morally, as all three inhere within each other. Perhaps you or I are not the monster Gramsci warned us about, but if we seek the luxury of withdrawal from struggle, if we are too civil and admit certain people into positions of power, if we set off on a daft campaign to return to an idyllic golden age that never existed, we enable those monsters. The monsters that tyrannize us are always externalizations of what is monstrous within all of us.
Survival is not enough for human beings, but it is too often what we settle for. We cannot forever evade the truth of our brokenness or the responsibility we individually and collectively bear to the world. The only possibility of healing is through direct confrontation with the horrors we have suffered and have inflicted on others. God has ventured into the far country to enable just such confrontations with darkness and depravity, to make guardians and champions out of monsters and to deliver the meek and oppressed. The Sauls who now breathe murder can, in being confronted by Jesus Christ’s gracious invasion, become Pauls who spend their lives for the flourishing of the community (1 Timothy 1:15). New life is only possible on the other side of such divine upheaval. Now is the time to face the specters of our past and refuse the future our present is sclerotically hardening into before it is too late.
This article is an adaptation of “Who Killed the World? Mad Max: Fury Road (2015),” originally published on reelworldtheology.com (permission given).
1. The phrase doesn’t appear to have originated with Zizek—it’s possible he worked from a text of Gustave Massiah, who translates Gramsci into French. There the phrase becomes something like, “The old world is dying, the new world is slow to appear and in this chiaroscuro appear monsters.”
2. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 89.
3. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 20.
4. This is why, “And now I am happy all the day,” is such a repellant addition to Isaac Watts’, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed”: it offers the deceit that conversion guarantees wholeness here and now as well as the impossibility of regress.