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Vin Diesel Is a Human Blockbuster

The movie star who almost exclusively acts in franchises may be launching another franchise with the superhero film ‘Bloodshot’

Columbia Pictures/Universal Pictures/Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

For an actor prone to playing monosyllabic heroes, Vin Diesel’s words carry a lot of weight on a press tour. In the past few days, the actor has become his own Diesel-fueled news cycle while promoting his new superhero movie, Bloodshot, out on Friday. Possibly without Marvel’s approval, he confirmed that the Guardians of the Galaxy are going to appear in Thor 4; he said a sequel to The Last Witch Hunter is on the way; he’s emphasized that the latest entry in the Fast &Furious franchise, Fast 9, won’t be delayed by the continent-spanning coronavirus outbreak because “we need movies now more than ever”; and he’s gone so far as to claim he wouldn’t let the virus prevent him from meeting fans in China, a country that’s effectively in lockdown. (This is, somehow, only slightly more disconnected from reality than the ineffective statements and coronavirus containment measures from the Trump administration.) Vin Diesel is such a larger-than-life figure, he hardly considers himself mortal.

But is he? I’m kidding—probably?—but there’s an assuredness to the way Diesel carries himself that makes you believe he’s capable of just about anything. This is someone whose presence is so magnetic that, after seeing him in a short film, Steven Spielberg was so impressed that he wrote a role for Diesel in Saving Private Ryan. Diesel’s star has risen ever since. As we officially enter another decade of Diesel-dom, our guy has become so big he should require his own gravitational pull. In an era when movie stars are fading and Hollywood can’t get enough of cinematic universes, Diesel has created an orbit as big as any of them. This is the kind of DCU I can get behind. (The Diesel Cinematic Universe, just so we’re clear.)

Diesel is obviously the biggest selling point for Bloodshot, which, while based on the eponymous Valiant Comics character, feels only a few degrees removed from Upgrade. In the film, he plays a Marine who’s brought back to life by scientists, enhanced with nanotechnology to become a superhuman killing machine. (The movie’s gnarly trailer suggests his character will get a lot of opportunities to test out these new abilities.) While many of Diesel’s most iconic roles have him playing de facto superheroes—Dominic Toretto, Richard B. Riddick, Xander Cage—Bloodshot has him playing a literal superhero for a change. (Technically Diesel has played a superhero before, lending his voice to sentient alien-tree Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

As much as we like to celebrate versatile, chameleonic actors who can disappear into any kind of role, there’s something admirable about Diesel sticking to his comparatively limited strengths—namely, absurd science-fiction and action movies in which he plays a cocky antihero. (With, again, special exceptions for the vocal performances of Groot and the Iron Giant, when Diesel uses his iconic, gravely, and underratedly expressive voice to bring a surprising amount of humanity to both characters.) Essentially every A-lister is going to have some franchises on their résumés, but Diesel has the unprecedented distinction of, like, exclusively doing those movies. The only other actor who even comes to mind is running savant Tom Cruise.

This isn’t a bit. If we’re to assume a Last Witch Hunter sequel is happening, then there’s literally only one non-franchise movie that Diesel has starred in during the past decade: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (He plays an army sergeant whose nickname is, somehow, Shroom. Shroom!!!) The rest of Diesel’s recent filmography? Sweet, beautiful, stupid, trashy, big-screen comfort food. I say this with the utmost respect: Long live the DCU.

Diesel’s apex character is unquestionably Dominic Toretto, the sleeveless lord of Coronas and mumbling monologues about family. In the hands of any other performer, Dom might lean too much into camp like the rest of the Fast franchise, which has pivoted from street racing and petty thefts to international espionage and magnet planes. What makes Diesel’s performance so entertaining is that Dom seems to be the only person in these movies still taking things seriously, leading to a lot of moments of unintentional comedy and unintelligible dialogue. It’s like the longer the franchise exists, the more Dom becomes a caricature of himself. I’d say it’s thankless work, but Diesel is the main reason Furious 7’s tasteful sendoff for the late Paul Walker had such emotional authenticity. Also, he’s becomes so powerful that he’s managed to basically ensure Dom will never lose in a fight, and that the famiglia is probably headed to outer space. (Just don’t bring up Dwayne Johnson.)

But while Dom is what really turned Diesel into a household name, his career arc might have bent another way if it weren’t for Richard B. Riddick. Diesel played the mercenary a year before the first Fast & Furious movie in the 2000 horror film Pitch Black, in which a spaceship is stranded on an alien planet and the passengers are attacked by monsters during an eclipse. If you can believe it, Riddick gives Diesel an even better platform to chew on ridiculous dialogue than Dom. The highlights of Pitch Black include him saying “Strong survival instinct, I admire that in a woman” and, after slicing an alien monster’s throat open, “Did not know who he was fucking with.” It’s a tragedy Pitch Black wasn’t nominated for any Oscars (or Razzies).

The Riddick franchise, which was followed by sequels that leaned more toward science-fiction than horror with 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and 2013’s Riddick, also serve as fascinating time capsules for the different stages of Diesel’s rising stardom. Pitch Black arrived before Diesel was living his life a quarter-mile at a time; The Chronicles of Riddick came in the middle of failed experiments like The Pacifier and Babylon A.D.; Riddick happened after he’d cemented himself as an undisputed franchise king. Hopes for a fourth Riddick movie haven’t been totally dashed, and so that trend may continue—assuming there’s another level to the dude’s career that we’ve yet to reach. (Presidential nominee Vin Diesel? I’m kidding … I hope.)

In the meantime, Bloodshot could be a step toward the creation of a new franchise; Sony Pictures hopes the film can be the launching point for a shared cinematic universe of Valiant Comics characters. But as Universal, Warner Bros., and Sony, when they weren’t collaborating with Marvel on Spider-Man movies, have found out the hard way, making a cinematic universe anywhere as successful as the MCU is a tricky proposition. Still, the studio can do a lot worse than resting its hopes on the swole, probably-exposed-in-a-tank-top shoulders of Vin Diesel. After all, over his decades-spanning blockbuster run, he’s always made us feel like family.