I have a confession to make — I’ve never really understood the Fast & Furious movies.
I’ve seen a bunch of them, from the original drag racing flick more than 20 years ago to F9: The Fast Saga a couple years back. From what I can tell, they have gotten bigger and dumber with each entry, which is only odd because that first one was pretty dumb.
Yeah, you’d better buckle up, as this is going to be a bumpy ride.
On the one hand, I understand the human desire to witness spectacle. I mean, I am a fan of superhero movies, after all. But I also need some semblance of a story served alongside my explosions and car chases. To call the F&F franchise remotely plot-driven is downright fanciful since, as far as I can tell, the franchise has evolved from its humble beginnings into a series of CG stunts strung together with the thinnest of narrative threads. I suppose all anyone really needs to know is that family is everything, as blood is apparently thicker than the screenplays for these movies.
As the Writers Strike rages on, there has been a lot of talk lately about Artificial Intelligence and how the studios might wield it as a club against writers. I’ll be writing more about that battle soon enough, but if there’s one franchise where the use of AI could actually be employed and we’d barely notice, it would be this one. That’s not to take anything away from the skilled folks who write these movies, which have made billions for Universal — $6.6 billion worldwide, to be exact — but the proceedings have taken on a generic quality that suggests a machine could learn how to replicate it quickly enough.
But anyway, regardless of my own personal biases or tastes, there is no question that $6.6 billion buys a lot of cars. So it’s not surprising that on the eve of the release of Fast X, franchise star Vin Diesel promised it wasn’t the end, but merely the beginning of the end, announcing a new trilogy that will conclude with Fast 12, which will really and truly spell the end of the franchise. Because sure, why not?
This obvious cash grab just drips with cynicism, but then, this is Hollywood, so who are we to throw stones? What I actually find interesting about this decision is that it doesn’t take a box office expert to see that the Fast franchise and its proverbial tank are running dry, as the tread is starting to come off the tires as it enters the home stretch.
Doubt it? Allow me to share some basic facts with you. The highest-grossing film in the franchise remains Furious 7, the one directed by James Wan. That one grossed $353 million at the domestic box office and over $1.5 billion worldwide. Both of those numbers are well north of the second-highest entry in the series in either category, as Fast & Furious 6 did $238 million domestic, while the eighth entry, The Fate of the Furious, did a little more than $1.2 billion worldwide.
It is worth pointing out that Furious 7 was released in the wake of star Paul Walker‘s tragic death and employed some VFX to complete his performance. Whether audiences wanted to pay their respects or were simply expressing a morbid curiosity, his final film seemed to lead to higher ticket sales, just as I’ll point out that The Dark Knight’s box office numbers were similarly juiced following the equally tragic death of Heath Ledger. Feel free to call me cynical, but I know enough about the moviegoing public to almost always suspect the worst.
All that said, let’s give Furious 7 the benefit of the doubt and say that it was simply the best one and people liked it the most and that’s why it did so much better than all the others. That doesn’t change the fact that none of the other nine movies in the series cleared $300 million domestic, and only one other managed to clear $1 billion worldwide. In fact, that one, The Fate of the Furious, aka F8, is the only other entry to even clear $800 million. That was in 2017.
Four years later, F9 only did $173 million domestic and $726 million worldwide. That’s only good for the sixth-highest domestic gross in the series, and fifth-best worldwide.
This is not a terribly promising trend. Even factoring in the COVID-19 pandemic.
None of this is news to the folks in the executive suites at Universal nor to the producing team behind the franchise. Perhaps that’s why, when they noticed that the tracking numbers for Fast X were similarly soft, some needle-moving spoilers magically appeared on the internet, immediately drumming up more interest and excitement in the sequel.
I mean, how else would you describe the breathless reports about Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot‘s cameos? Yes, both return to a franchise they appeared to have departed on bad terms — especially Johnson, considering the public “fight” he had with Diesel, in which he called the franchise’s star — excuse me, producer/star — a candy ass, among other colorful epithets. Apparently, that’s all water under the bridge, not only because Johnson needs the Fast franchise in the wake of Black Adam‘s underperformance, but because the Fast franchise could actually use a boost from Johnson’s Luke Hobbs as well.
Black Adam isn’t the only DC movie to help shape the future of the Fast franchise, as Gadot’s third Wonder Woman movie was also axed shortly after James Gunn and Peter Safran took over as the new co-CEOs of DC Studios. Can you really blame her for jumping at the chance to return to the big screen in a big franchise? These actors may play larger-than-life characters, but they’re susceptible to the same whims of the market as others, and it’s important for them to maintain their relevance, which means they have to play the franchise game. And Universal is no doubt happy to have them both back since the studio is pulling out all the stops in the hopes of returning this franchise to the billion-dollar territory it used to occupy.
This strategy does appear to be paying off, at least a little. Since those cameos were leaked online, tracking is up, and the studio is now looking at a $300 million global opening, which certainly isn’t awful, and would be the third-best in the series, after the aforementioned seventh and eighth entries. It would also be the second-best opening this year, after The Super Mario Bros. Movie, putting it just a smidge ahead of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 — if projections hold, of course.
All this is good news for a company dealing with the interruption of much of its in-production content and an uncertain future thanks to the ongoing Writers Strike. And yet, a strong opening doesn’t mean strong legs, to which Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania can attest. If the studio did, in fact, let certain cats (i.e. cameos) out of the bag, it would reek of desperation, but it’s a sign of our desperate times that a studio might feel compelled to stoop to such measures. Studios used to be able to sell their tentpole wares without resorting to gimmicks and tactics, but increasingly, studios don’t seem to have much confidence in audiences — or their own product.
Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is that you want to leave the audience wanting more rather than yelling at you to get off the stage, or worse, shrugging their shoulders with indifference. The Fast franchise seems to be provoking the latter response of late, as unlike the MCU, there’s no clear finish line in sight, and at this point, the race is starting to feel pretty dragged out, if not over altogether.
Here’s to the end of the road… even if it’s not as close as it once appeared.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.