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The ‘Fast & Furious’ Franchise Is a Hollywood Unicorn

How has a movie series based on basically zero IP collected over $6 billion across nine movies (and counting) and multiple decades?

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

It’s a franchise based on a 2,000-word article that appeared in Vibe magazine in 1998. Its characters have sprung wholly from itself, rather than from a decades-deep well of recognizable figures and branding. It has stars, but even its biggest one couldn’t turn Black Adam into a hit. And yeah, of course people love fast cars, but plenty of revved-up movies have come and gone without evolving into $6 billion franchises. In the marketplace of contemporary cinema, how is Fast & Furious even possible?

In the beginning, the franchise mimicked the hyper-grim action sensibility that reigned supreme at the time, but by 2011’s Fast Five, the movies had pulled the silliest, most dubious components out of their subtext and thrust them into the foreground—this poptimistic turn was also when Fast & Furious’s audience size (which would not have been big enough to justify four previous movies in the current business-of-cinema reality) exploded. That bold transformation has, for more than a decade, kept the series gloriously out of step with the field during the movie industry’s most franchise-driven era. Campy glee, knowing telenovela narratives, and always-end-with-a-feast sentimentality make for something decidedly different from the hyper-militarized end-of-history triumphalism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Christopher McQuarrie phase of the Mission: Impossible series, and the dystopic, biblical fare of the DC Extended Universe. There are similar gizmos and gadgets in Fast, and all the vainglorious heroism you could possibly ask for, and even futurism—space travel, mega-magnets, unparalleled cyberterrorism—but holding it all together is, crucially, a different kind of metaphysics.

Justin Lin is essential to the franchise’s evolution into its signature style and tone. Lin entered the series with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which was also the beginning of these movies’ persistent international flair. He went on to direct Fast & Furious (Mexico), Fast Five (Brazil), Fast & Furious 6 (England), and F9 (lots of places). As the movies traveled the world, their ballooning cast became the most diverse of any big-scale franchise’s—but without any of the typical, tawdry self-congratulation that the industry tends toward whenever it spotlights so many non-white performers. New York Times critic (and frequent Ringer collaborator) Wesley Morris, then of the Boston Globe, won a Pulitzer in 2012 in large part for eloquently pointing this out: “Unlike most movies that feature actors of different races,” he wrote, “the mixing is neither superficial nor topical. It has been increasingly thorough as the series goes on—and mostly unacknowledged. That this should seem so strange, so rare, merely underscores how far Hollywood has drifted from the rest of culture.”

Lin also guided the franchise’s departure from the self-seriousness of its beginning chapters. Drawing on the playful preposterousness of professional wrestling, the franchise cast Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and then Ronda Rousey, Roman Reigns, and John Cena. Collectively, their presence is a well-received wink to the audience communicating that the movies are an elaborate embrace of kayfabe, easily resettable plot dynamics, and joyful experiments in physics and the entropy of big personalities. The latter has spilled over into real life, where Johnson and Vin Diesel’s relationship seems nearly as contentious as it was when they first squared off on-screen in Rio. That meta-narrative adds even more juice to what’s already a rich tapestry of theatrical sassiness punctuated by some of the most deliciously corny lines you’ll ever hear.

As the movies have grossed billions, true A1 screen stars—Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Helen Mirren, Brie Larson, Jason Momoa, Rita Moreno—have eagerly signed up to rage against realism by driving their way through apocalyptic infrastructure chaos while saying stuff like “I’m the crocodile at the watering hole.” At the end of each chapter, you even get to join the inevitable multicultural family barbecue. And much as the representational multiplicity is mercifully free of sanctimonious exposition about its own meaning, so is the post-logical way in which events unfold.

Take, for instance, the arc of the beloved Han Lue (spoiler alert, if you care about that kind of thing). One of the great emotional benchmarks for the series was his death in Tokyo Drift, but Lin and Co. had no issues reversing that tragedy to bring him back for F9. When it first occurred, his death was not exactly ambiguous: He got stuck in an overturned car that then exploded. There was a funeral. So how did he come back to life? That’s a trick question because, as we learn in F9, the scene of his death was merely a hologram all along—and not one that’s even discussed in all that much detail.

If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is. But it’s also a great relief to people who already accept the inherent bullshit of movies; when we go to the cinema, we are in a sandbox where anything can happen, where every wildest idea available can be manifested just because it’s fun. The Fast & Furious franchise is the movie universe that understands this and doesn’t bother tediously explaining the dreamworld that we all already know the (ultimately nonexistent) rules of. In recent days, thousands on Twitter have replied to a viral prompt wondering exactly when the movies “abandoned reality,” but the truth is there’s no wrong answer; the real value of that discourse is in the collective memory of just how far beyond believability the movies have gone. The only real law in the series is that if it’s delightful, you don’t have to bother making up excuses for it—just light the wick, and watch the fireworks go.

For contrast’s sake, consider how the MCU goes about portraying its more cockamamie moments. In Avengers: Endgame, a byzantine sequence of time-travel missions is required to bring half of all living things back to life. Unlike Lin, though, directors Joe and Anthony Russo do not consider this absurd predicament too silly to fully diagram. Instead, the movie features several long-winded sequences that, in a fashion reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s terminally sci-fi-wiki-pilled Inception, try to make this all reasonable and rational. In a movie with a big green monster in glasses, a man the size of a bug, and the most handsome virgin alive, it is important to its authors, it seems, that we not let things get inexplicable. That might be too sublime.

There is no such fear of over-slathering scenes in sweet nonsense sauce in Fast & Furious. Unencumbered by lengthy explanations, the movies have far more time for wheeled battles on solid ice, a Pontiac Fiero voyage deep into outer space, and an impossibly heavy safe ripped out of its walls and then dragged across a Brazilian causeway. All of this is depicted lightly. These movies know that they are pure joy of artifice.

But thrills on their own do not make a healthy diet. Mockable as it all is, there is sufficient weight to the movies’ warm retro core, to the soft heart of their thematic through lines. Family values are, of course, deeply important in this world, but so is the endless battle of new versus old, fake versus real, and digital versus analog. Diesel was explicit about this when asked about what lies beyond Fast X. He described a final boss for the series who tries to control humanity through artificial intelligence. “There is somebody that believes that’s the future,” Diesel said, “and that’s at direct odds with the Toretto mentality.”

Dom Toretto and his familial friends have been fighting this kind of war for multiple movies already. Cipher (Theron) is a mega-powerful hacker capable of manipulating the digital world into tidal waves of Toretto-hunting disaster with a flick of the wrist across the keyboard. In The Fate of the Furious, she uses her hacking super-skills to hijack countless New York vehicles—including minivans and sedans so old that they might not be iPhone compatible—and send them in a violent stream at Dom. The sequence escalates, memorably, with cars falling like megaton hail from precipitous metropolitan parking lots. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, you know what comes next: Our trusted pack of characters redeems this technologically fearsome circumstance with the pure humanity of their driving skills and problem-solving togetherness. This unsubtle moral messaging hits a nostalgic note that the series has increasingly utilized and seems set to indulge more and more as it enters its ostensibly final segments (if the story ever actually ends).

It’s probably a bit paradoxical for the movies to get so musty about what’s lost in the march to computerization when they are, themselves, some of the most expensive digital animation projects around. This is another inconsistency that delights the fandom, which is here for a level of shenanigans fundamentally at odds with logic, but the more the movies press the anti-modern button, the more these values—of extolling the old and tried, of fearing and fighting sleeker and newer things—rise out of the overall noise, becoming as important to the story as family has been. It’s possible that the theme will become turgid and embarrassing, but thus far, the Fast & Furious movies have been nimbly free of the reactionary mud that tends to sink other “they don’t make ’em like they used to” stories.

It’s hard to imagine much more life for this bloated globalist potpourri of cars and family glued together by special effects and an audacious unreality that somehow features a growing respect for the way things were back then. (When? Maybe 1997, when the Fast X trailer anthem, “Notorious Thugs,” came out and when action movies by the likes of Michael Bay, Richard Donner, and Tony Scott tended to have their tongues more firmly in their cheeks.) Diesel agrees: “It’s so hard to continue mythologies,” he said during a Fast X press event, likening himself to J.R.R. Tolkien. If he and his collaborators can manage to make the singular arena they’ve built any bigger, he might not look as ridiculous for drawing such a comparison.

John Wilmes is a writer and professor in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwilmeswords.