Fatherhood, failure, and second chances at the end of the world.
A lone figure trudges across the wasteland. Behind him, the world is in ruins. He carries little but what he needs to survive. Food, water, and a weapon. Then, from the windswept orange haze, a shape emerges: a child. They are alone. They are struggling. And so our story begins.
It’s a cliche to say that our visions of post-apocalypse reflect our fears of the modern world. Are we, like “Mad” Max Rockatansky, losing our humanity? Is our culture sliding downhill toward a plague of teen gangs led by various Lords Humungus? Will our hubristic pursuit of our own worst inclinations (and ass-hugging leather pants) cause our downfall?
As with so much genre fiction, the post-apocalypse is rarely just about its most fantastical elements — the guzzoline shortages or nuclear bombs or cannibal hordes. The real bomb is the unknown future, and we worry that it could drop any day now.
Post-apocalyptic fiction — especially the cheap stuff — can also be quite reactionary. At its worst, it can present a world of uncomplicated wish-fulfillment, where success is determined not by your ability to hold down a job or navigate socioeconomic travails, but by how good you are with a codged-together shotgun and the rusty knife hidden in your boot. The main villain of post-apocalyptic fiction is rarely the vast machineries of capital (hard to find, even harder to fight) but a bad guy with questionable fashion sense and a cool car, who can be defeated with nothing more complicated than a bullet (or an even cooler, faster car).
So what does it say about our culture and our view of the apocalypse that so many of those gritty heroes of the post-apocalypse — our Mad Maxes, our Rick Grimeses, almost universally men, mostly traumatized, and nobly violent to a fault — keep finding themselves the unlikely protectors of young children?
This isn’t new, or a narrow theme. The trope of the post-apocalyptic man struggling for survival with a child in tow (whether his own or “adopted” in the wasteland) is present in a surprising amount of post-apocalyptic fiction. Depending on how you slice it, you could credibly include most of the Mad Max films, Children of Men, 28 Days Later, Waterworld, Six-String Samurai, The Postman, and I Am Legend, at the very least. If we include media where the protagonist is the biological (and not just metaphorical) parent, we might include A Quiet Place, The Walking Dead, Logan, and quite a few others.
It would be easy to hold this cliche up as wish fulfillment, too. You might argue, for instance, that these stories are popular because men long for the uncomplicated ideals of action movie fatherhood — a world where diaper changes, daycare dropoffs, and after-school activities never seem to come up, and most parental labor is reduced to exciting car battles or bashing zombie brains.
And I think some part of this rings true. It's absolutely true, for instance, that these Fathers of the Apocalypse spend little time picking up toys and arguing with their kids about finishing their dinner. And the fact that so many of them essentially stop being fathers at the end of the story — either through their heroic deaths, or by staying behind to allow others to escape to the promised land, Mad Max-style — does seem to hint that the ideal fantasy fatherhood has a distinct terminus. You do your job and you're done with parenthood. You get to go back to being a cool wasteland wanderer.
But if we review the characters on this list, a few specific trends immediately pop out that aren't easily explained by wish fulfillment:
More often than not, no mother is present
Many have suffered trauma, and more specifically the loss of a child
Most of them die or otherwise sacrifice themselves in the end, usually for the sake of the child
If the goal is simply to reduce fatherhood to the bare, brutish minimum, wouldn't a better sort of wish fulfillment eliminate the child entirely, allowing our Max-es and Logans to wander unencumbered by their pre-teen charges? Or at the very least, they might keep the mother in the picture, reducing the role of the father to The Protector. (Perhaps our Wasteland Heroes deserve some credit here, though — after all, protecting your children in the Wasteland is somewhat more labor-intensive than in the ‘burbs.)
I wonder if the familiar arc of the post-apocalyptic father figure — loss, isolation, reconnection, redemption, sacrifice — flows not from a desire to avoid the complexities of fatherhood, but a desire to lean into them. Maybe these films aren't just escapism, but a genuine desire for emotional connection that men, frankly, have few role models for.
I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of these stories are about men struggling to recover from trauma and loss — men who almost universally lack the emotional tools to do so. These aren't just idealized stories of isolation, but stories that speak to a desire to seek reconnection rather than isolation, and the difficulty of doing so when that experience is (or has become) alien to you.
Consider that most archetypical of wasteland wanderer, “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Unusual for a character in this genre, we have an entire movie about his pre-apocalypse life. We see him trying to balance his obvious and real affection for his family with a demanding job and a tendency towards transcendent violence. When that balance eventually collapses and his family is lost, the only way he knows to find “peace” is by descending into violent nihilisme, casting off all norms and abandoning society completely to wander the wasteland.
Later films (The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road) see Max still in this emotionally destitute state, a loner grappling with the ghosts of his past. The sudden appearance of a vulnerable child (or group of children, in the case of Beyond Thunderdome) is both a comedic premise and a chance to heal and atone, to become human again.
Remember: Max starts out genuinely trying to be a good father. His subsequent failure creates an emotional tragedy that hangs over the rest of the series (and which is underscored in Fury Road, a film that lacks a literal child to protect but which constantly reminds us of the weight of Max’s failure).
The same is true for most of these would-be dads— something that's easy to forget when so many of them walk on-screen fully formed, a cool guy in a leather jacket whose tragic backstory will only be revealed later for a moment of pathos. But for the most part, they too tried and failed. The Wasteland doesn't offer them an escape from the struggles of parenting; rather, it offers them a second chance.
(This is doubly true when you consider the films where the protagonist is less cool, less collected, and not-so-coincidentally usually caring for their biological child — the protagonist of A Quiet Place is struggling to recover from the earlier death of a child, to remain a family man and avoid the total nihilism of Mad Max.)
In this context, the frequent absence of the mothers is much easier to explain. It underscores that they're not “just” the stereotypical father-as-protector of an earlier age, like the desperate dad of 1962’s Panic In Year Zero. They're wholly responsible, emotionally and tangibly, because there's nobody else present. Parenting-wise, the spotlight is on them alone.
If there is an element of wish fulfillment in these stories of wasteland paternity, it lies not in how easy or hard their guardianship is but in what that second chance usually requires: a final, selfless sacrifice, which both proves they were a good parent all along and ends their responsibility forever.
Our tales of post-nuclear fatherhood often take the form of moving a child from point A to point B, building some emotional connections along the way, and then dropping the kid off and walking away, secure that you really are a good father figure, tragic failures notwithstanding. When Max's job is done, he gets to go back to being Max, humanity restored! (Until the next film, anyway.)
But in the real world, parental responsibility never really ends. The obligation has no particular terms or boundaries. And when we do fail, there is no easy redemption, no singular act to prove we were good all along — no Tomorrow-morrow Land worth sacrificing yourself to reach.
At one point, all parents will find themselves in Max's shoes, albeit rarely so dramatically. We will fail our children, in ways small or large. And in the moment that failure can feel just as isolating and damning as the windswept plains of the post-apocalypse.
But if recovery will rarely be as dramatic or absolute as that of Max Rockatansky or his literary descendants, it is, at least, usually a lot easier.
You don't need to drive a souped-up armored semi-truck to fix the mistakes you make as a parent. You mostly just need to show up, to learn, to do better next time.
No leather pants required.