‘The Fast and the Furious’ redefined 21st century masculinity and made billions of dollars while doing it

Illustration by Karly Andersen

Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer

“The Fast and the Furious” is a franchise that has not only survived, but thrived, by adapting to the ever shifting Hollywood landscape by embracing change and reinvented itself every step of the way. How so, you ask? Well take a seat, start your engines, and don’t fasten your seatbelt because apparently in this universe if you don’t click it, you don’t get a ticket. We’re about to live our lives a quarter-mile at a time.

While it was a commercial success (mostly due to its relatively small budget), 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious,” was released to middling critical reception and in retrospect, is generally considered one of the worst films in the franchise.

Beyond being a mediocre “Point Break” rip-off with no sense of style or imagination, it’s indistinguishable from any of the “Fast” films released today. The stakes are lower, and there’s less of an emphasis on the stunts and action. It’s not like that’s not a bad thing, but it’s disconcerting to watch the films back-to-back and notice the stark differences between them.  They’re not saving the world by throwing nukes into submarines or driving cars out of airplanes, they’re stealing DVD players. 

The film’s stand-alone sequel, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” was greenlit and released on June 6, 2003, to mixed reception. The glamour and gaud of the Los Angeles strip were exchanged for the bright and oversaturated streets of Miami. Aside from being one of the two films in the franchise that doesn’t feature Vin Diesel, it introduced the characters of Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Ludacris) who went on to become series mainstays.

While most dismiss “2 Fast” as a bloated and superficial disaster, I see it for what it truly is. A homoerotic extravaganza of epic proportions. Don’t get me wrong, “Fast and Furious” has always been gay, but the sexual tension between the guys is at its peak in this one. The first scene Roman and Brian have together is pretty intense — they wrestle on the ground for a while after seeing each other for the first time after the latter sent the former to jail. Paul Walker has more chemistry with Tyrese Gibson in this film than he ever had with Jordana Brewster. The point is Brian and Roman walked so Elio and Oliver could run, OK?

Homoeroticism aside, this film isn’t good, but the seeds were planted for a much bigger and better series with a lot more on its mind than motors. “2 Fast” represented a major shift in tone and style for the series, from Michael Mann-esque drama-thrillers to ensemble blockbusters.

While neither of the first two films was outrightly panned, the executives at Universal Studios felt like the series hadn’t made enough money to justify a third film. That, along with both Diesel and Walker declining to appear in said film in favor of pursuing other projects, almost led Universal to scrap plans for a theatrical release of “Fast 3.” 

And then, from out of the darkness and into the light came a genius, a hero, a visionary named Chris Morgan.

Morgan’s the man who single-handedly saved the “Fast and Furious” franchise. With only one screenwriting credit to his name in the 2004 thriller “Cellular,” Morgan stepped into Universal Studios and pitched an idea to the same executives that planned on virtually axing the series as a whole. His idea was to introduce a new character who was a former member of Dom’s crew and to kill him off in “Tokyo Drift.” This would lead Dom to Tokyo in search of answers for his friend’s death. Although “Tokyo Drift” marked a low point for the series in terms of box office numbers, it was another huge turning point for the franchise. 

It stopped taking itself so seriously and allowed its larger than life characters to be apart of larger than life stories. This shift broke open a world previously confined to small scale DVD player heists and undercover drug busts. Now, the same characters could drive cars out of airplanes and throw nukes at submarines. It led to more sequels, spinoffs and billions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandising.

From the soft-reboot that followed, “Fast & Furious,” (Not to be confused with the first film “The Fast and the Furious”. It’s confusing, I know. Just stick with me), the franchise was rejuvenated with a renewed sense of energy and style. They brought in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the rest is history. As the films got better, so did the box office receipts and critical reception. Even with the increasingly outrageous stunts and set pieces, the franchise’s roots have remained grounded in what made these films work. They even started throwing in subtle themes of corrupt governments, corporate greed and the militarization of law enforcement.

One of the most prominent themes of the series has always been masculinity. This franchise has a complicated relationship with toxic masculinity. “Fast & Furious” embraces it by blowing things up, driving really fast, and having no regard for others. But it also breaks down toxic masculinity, exploring what “real” masculinity is, and there’s a deeper purpose to it.

From Dom, to Roman, to Brian and Hobbs, all of these guys are defined by their masculinity. By the way they talk, the way they look, the beer they drink, and the cars they drive. But behind all of the crude remarks and violent amounts of testosterone, is a surprising amount of sadness, insecurity and complexity. The men take pride in who they are at the beginning, defined by this uncanny need to preserve that sense of hyper-masculinity with their actions. 

In that behavior, there’s fear that expressing love and appreciation for the other men in their lives will damage their sense of masculinity they’ve worked so hard to maintain. They often feel frustrated and threatened, so they take it out on each other, verbally and physically. But it’s once they spend more time together, and risk their lives for each other over the course of 15 years, that they begin to see there’s more to all of them than this misconception of masculinity. 

Is it perfect? No. Are there some gaps in the films’ logic? Absolutely. Should we give them credit for attempting to add depth to what could easily be considered some of the flattest and one-note characters ever put to screen? Maybe. Look, they’re trying, and that’s more than you can say for most of Hollywood these days.

When the “Fast and Furious” films focus on male friendships and the dynamics and impact of chosen family, they’re at their best. 

So far, one of the most iconic scenes of the 21st century was the closing moments of “Furious 7,” when Dom and Brian drive their separate ways as a tribute to Walker, who played Brian and had died in the middle of filming. It’s a fitting and moving tribute to a relationship that had defined this franchise since its inception.

As much as people love making fun of the characters and the “family,” there’s a sincerity and charm you won’t find in Marvel movies or other franchises. It’s a series that, despite all of its flaws, the billions of dollars it’s made, and its post-postmodernist complexities, remained faithful to Morgan’s vision. 

With “Hobbs and Shaw,” that vision of an epic and branching cinematic universe with a wildly diverse range of characters and stories has finally been realized. 

“The Fast and the Furious” took an opportunity to do something bold. It changed franchise filmmaking from a dull, mid-budget, action thriller that was a product of its generation, to a chaotic 200 million dollar series of blockbusters that’ll stand the test of time. 

The franchise challenged stereotypical ideas of masculinity and heteronormativity, and because of that, Hollywood will never be the same.

But with all that being said, if Hobbs and Shaw don’t kiss, “The Fast and the Furious” is canceled.

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