For the non-initiated, Mad Max: Fury Road is one big dusty ball of exploding fun, a successfully satisfying summer action flick.

For the die-hard fans of the series: Fury Road is the second-movie sequel that Mad Max 2: Road Warrior really wanted to be.

The absence of Mel Gibson hurt my soul a little bit, but to have him reprise the role at his present age would have relegated most of the ass-kicking to another, younger character (á la Mutt from the 4th Indiana Jones film), and what Fury Road reminds us is that Max is a top-notch bad-ass in his own right. Ultimately I support the casting decision. Tom Hardy brings his own skill set to the role, which does not disappoint – namely that haunting, rumbling, low basso voice of his….

This past week I’ve seen all four Mad Max films in order (I have not seen 2011’s Renegade), and for the first time.

The original is surprisingly well done, despite having the least amount of the gasoline-fueled, desert-wind-whipped action which has come to define the series. What is has instead is an actual heart, an important point to make, and a character-centered plot line. It’s the kind of backstory-explaining film that nowadays they make after a franchise is successful, such as with X-Men Origins – Wolverine. Max doesn’t even become truly “mad” until the very end of the film. What’s more, Max himself does very little of the fighting. A great deal of it is left for the villains terrorizing innocents, the “police” terrorizing the villains, and various women standing up to defend themselves. From the very start, Mad Max was a feminist apology.

The sequel to that, Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, pushed the throttle hard into “post-apocalyptic dystopian biker-gang-ruled hellscape,” taking the story to a place that was, though arguably foreshadowed, nonetheless a bit of a surprise. The original still had plant life and societal infrastructure – now all of it is gone. But we liked where the story had taken us. It was a gritty, ruthless 80s Sci-Fi action film, and we were all about it. It painted a portrait of Max as a mysterious loner aimlessly wandering the desert, doing anything to survive, yet offering himself sacrificially to basically anyone he encountered who needed help. But for all it had going for it, it was a bit too obviously “the middle film in a series of films.”

The third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, starts off trying to be a bigger budget version of Road Warrior (it was the first film of the series funded by American money). Here’s Max again, aimlessly wandering around, and – oh look! He’s found trouble again. Only now it’s even more ridiculous. And for exactly the first half of the movie, I was with it. Sure, it was ripe with 1985 everything – including a far-fetched plot and hokey characters – but it was still good ol’ Max doing what he does best. Only the director (George Miller, who started the franchise) bowed out for the second half after a close friend of his died, and someone else took over. And the film takes a subsequent nose-dive.

First there’s a foray into a Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-the-Lost-Boys tribe of children who Max inexplicably vows to lead and protect (okay, whatever, I guess that’s kinda what he always does), but then they all end up back in Villain-town for some reason, and of course there’s a silly battle, out of which choo-choos a train from nowhere! All right! A train! This is gonna get good!

…But instead it gets worse. The final showdown is a lack-luster chase, and magically Max finds his old aeronautic buddy at the end of the train tracks, who flies all the children to freedom, leaving Max behind for a really stupid reason. But it’s okay, because Tina Turner – ruthless murderess though she is – decides for no reason just to leave Max alone.

Really, considering how awful the third film is, it’s a surprise anyone ever thought to reboot the whole thing. I’m very glad they did, though. They’ve built a fine film in and of itself, but one which is also loaded with the same cool tropes that started it all: grandma with a shotgun, Max’s trademarks (gimpy leg, leather jacket, double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, and cool car [the last of the Interceptors!]), sawing through a chain of some sort, high-speed explosions, sheer desperation, inward and outward deformity, the scary politics of sexual dominance, the profound metaphor of human power represented by automotive power, and the struggle within all of us to find our humanity in this indifferent “wasteland” of a world which we are all forced to share.