[Although Black Panther has already busted just about every conceivable block, Memorial Day launches the summer blockbuster season. So this week I wanted to return to some BlockbusterStudying, focusing especially on big hits from last year. Add your BlockbusterStudying thoughts, please!]
On two ways to contextualize the hugely (and surprisingly) popular action franchise.
I can’t imagine that anyone really imagined that 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, a Point Break-inspired street racing film starring a group of relatively unknown young actors, would become the starting point for one of the 21st century’s most successful film franchises. But that is indeed what has happened: 2017’s The Fate of the Furious was the eighth film to date in a franchise that has cumulatively grossed over $5 billion (making it the sixth-highest-grossing film series ever). Add in the fact that Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s song “See You Again” (2015), a tribute to the late actor Paul Walker that was featured in the final scene of 2015’s Furious 7 (I dare you to watch that clip and not tear up), is one of YouTube’s most watched videos, and it’s fair to say—whether we quite understand it or not—that the Fast and Furious film franchise has become one of the new century’s most influential cultural texts.
Here at AmericanStudies we work to understand, however, and I would say that there are a couple of contexts that help explain the franchise’s success. For one thing, the first film in particular—but also in many ways the series as a whole—provides yet another example of American cultural fascination with and admiration for outlaws. Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and his crew are, quite simply, criminals, fronting as a legitimate garage but really making money sticking up and robbing tractor trailer drivers. They’re not doing so for some grand purpose or out of necessity, but for both the money and the thrill. Yet not only are viewers clearly meant to agree with Paul Walker’s undercover police officer Brian O’Conner when he decides to let Toretto go at the film’s conclusion, but also as the franchise develops O’Conner and Toretto consistently work together. At a certain point they and the crew shift from criminals pulling elaborate heists to semi-law enforcement figures working with the authorities (especially Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Agent Luke Hobbs) to help catch other criminals; but even that arc highlights how much we seem to want to believe in these outlaw figures as vigilante forces for good in our society.
There’s a second important context for the series’s success, though, and I would (shockingly, I know) connect it to a Bruce Springsteen song, “Racing in the Street” (1978). The one aspect of Springsteen’s catalogue that I’ve never quite connected with is the consistent emphasis on cars, one that has produced some of his most beautiful songs (not only “Racing,” but also of course “Born to Run”  and one of my very favorites “Brothers Under the Bridges” , among many others). I think perhaps the last verse of “Racing” comes closest to explaining this automotive obsession: “For all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels/Rumbling through this promised land/Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands.” Which is to say, the connection of cars to the American Dream isn’t just about getting in what Tracy Chapman calls a “fast car” and driving somewhere else and better (although yes)—it’s also and perhaps especially about the possibility of starting over, of getting clean, of transcending our limitations and racing toward a more perfect future. In that sense, Toretto and company aren’t just outlaws, they’re all of us, desperately driven to be something else and something more and racing in the street to try to get there.
Next blockbuster tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other blockbusters you’d highlight and analyze?
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