The Geek Beat: Why 'Fast & Furious' Is One of Hollywood's Great Superhero-Movie Franchises

The Geek Beat: Why 'Fast & Furious' Is One of Hollywood's Great Superhero-Movie Franchises

Jul 15, 2014

I never wanted to love the Fast & Furious franchise. It just happened.

Early last year, during the lead up to the release of Fast & Furious 6, I decided to watch the existing five-film series in order to get reacquainted with the franchise. The experience led to some fun articles, but it also led to a pretty significant change of mind regarding a series I had previously written off as testosterone-fueled car porn.

Up to that point, I honestly didn't have much of an opinion on the Fast & Furious films. I'd seen two or three installments and didn't hate them, but I would've stopped short of calling myself a “fan” of the franchise. However, after 549 minutes of adventures with the series' ragtag family of automobile outlaws, my opinion of Fast & Furious shifted gears. And when I finally found myself at a screening of Fast & Furious 6, I couldn't help cheering – and pleasantly surprised to discover that I was far from the only person in the theater doing so.

So what was it about the Fast & Furious movies that clicked with me – someone who'd never had an interest in sports cars or racing?

What I eventually came to realize over countless conversations about the franchise and why I adored it so much is that, when you get right down their roots, the Fast & Furious films are superhero movies.

Yes, beneath all the horsepower, high-octane action, and hip-hop, Fast & Furious is just another superhero franchise – except instead of putting on capes or masks, its heroes get behind the wheel. Like Tony Stark and his armor or Batman and his gadgets, the heroes of Fast & Furious movies are ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things with the right set of tools. And in this case, those tools are supercharged automobiles.

All it takes is a quick look at some of the highlights from the films and it's clear that the heroes of the Fast & Furious films are capable of defying the very laws of physics when they're in the seat of the right car. Use a bank's vault attached to a chain on the back of a muscle car as a road-clearing wrecking ball? They've done that. Disable an armored tank on a bridge thousands of feet above the ocean with just a fleet of suped-up sports cars? No problem.

Heck, I'll put money on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his 1970 Dodge Charger in a race against Bruce Wayne in his Batmobile any day.

But it's not just the characters' superhuman abilities when they're behind the wheel that make this such a great superhero series – it's what they do when they're not in the driver's seat that matters, too.

A recurring theme throughout the Fast & Furious films is the idea that the characters consider themselves part of a family. Whether they're sitting down to dinner together or dropping everything to help each other out, the disparate elements of their “family” come together and somehow manage to work perfectly together. And that's the foundation for every good superhero team, really – from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Sure, the members of the team may find very different uses for their superhuman abilities when they're flying solo, but when they work together the bad guys don't stand a chance.

Even though both of these elements are on display in any one of the Fast & Furious films so far, it took a marathon viewing of all six films to grasp one of the other elements that the series shares with some of the great modern superhero franchises: continuity.

As fans of the franchise are already well aware, the series' timeline sets the events of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift after those of the other five films in the series chronologically. (Basically, the entire series so far is a prequel to Tokyo Drift, and the upcoming Fast & Furious 7 is the first film set after the events of Tokyo Drift.) Once the decision was made to structure the timeline that way, franchise writer Chris Morgan made sure to not only bring back one of Tokyo Drift's most memorable characters (Sung Kang's character, Han), but also to pepper each of the films that unfold before the events of Tokyo Drift with foreshadowing, teasing the point when the prequels finally connect with the film they've been leading up to all along.

And that's exactly what happened in last year's Fast & Furious 6 when the final scene of the film managed to simultaneously sort out the series' continuity, lay the groundwork for Fast & Furious 7, and raise the stakes higher than they've ever been in the franchise so far.

It's the sort of continuity trick that, when successful, builds a dense, layered mythology. It's also a trick that various superhero franchises like Marvel's cinematic universe and the current X-Men franchise – and the comic books that inspired them, of course – are fond of attempting. Fortunately for Fast & Furious fans, the 2013 film pulls it off masterfully.

And because everyone knows that no one ever stays dead in superhero stories, it seems appropriate to note that this is yet another aspect of the Fast & Furious franchise that should feel all too familiar to fans of classic comic book stories.

(Fair warning: If you haven't seen the Fast & Furious films yet, the rest of this column dives headfirst into the deep end of the spoiler pool.)

Whether it's Superman, James “Bucky” Barnes or Gwen Stacy, good characters never seem to stay dead in superhero stories, and good writers will always find a way to steal him or her away from death's icy grasp. That's been the case with Fast & Furious characters like Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Han (Sung Kang) in much the same way as it has been for various other, more iconic heroes. In the case of Letty, all it took was a bullet's lucky trajectory and a case of amnesia to bring back the lady who stole Dom's heart, and with Han, the aforementioned tricks of creative continuity were all that was necessary to resurrect a fan-favorite character.

Even more amazing, however, is what's being done to put recently deceased franchise star Paul Walker behind the wheel for a final adventure in the franchise he loved. The actor's sudden death in November during a break from filming initially seemed like it might sink the entire project – not just because of the logistical and creative dilemmas it presented, but also because of what it meant for the tone of the film and the “family” theme that was so important for the series. More than any other characters in the series, Brian O'Conner (Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Diesel) have provided the heart of the Fast & Furious films.

Thankfully, the magic of digital effects and the presence of Walker's brothers appears to have made the impossible very possible, and turned Fast & Furious 7 into a new sort of family affair. Instead of simply being another sequel, the film will also serve as a big-screen tribute to Walker.

And just like the way the best characters always find a way to come back, the franchise has managed to bring back – and increase – its audience with each iteration, too.

Sure, Marvel is doing great things with its cinematic universe, and the X-Men certainly seem to have hit their stride on the big screen, but I can't help mentioning the Fast & Furious movies right along with those series when discussing franchises that capture what's best about superhero stories. They may be low-tech compared to Tony Stark and his armory and a bit underpowered when you compare them to Professor X and Wolverine, but the heroes of the Fast & Furious films aren't any less super.

And I can't wait to see them in action next year.

 

Question of the Week: What do you think makes a great superhero movie?


Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at  MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.

 

 

 

 

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