The Fast and Furious movies are blazing a trail into the record books. The 2013 Fast & Furious 6, which hauled in $788 worldwide, has now been topped by Furious 7, which zoomed from a record-breaking opening weekend to four consecutive weeks at No. 1. (Avengers: Age of Ultron took the top spot this past weekend.).
Furious 7 has made a dizzying $1.3 billion worldwide, behind only Avatar and Titanic. It might just outpace them, too.
That’s quite a showing for a franchise that may well signal America’s speeding decline.
Furious 7 points to a future in which vast numbers of people feel like outsiders on an ever more threatening and disappointing global stage.
Despite its multicultural celebration and hooray-for-family-values nostalgia, something alarming lurks at the heart of Furious 7. That something is ultimately tribal, allergic to institutions and unbound by broad social ties.
The dream team of kick-ass race-car drivers may appear global in their multiple ethnicities, but real loyalty is confined to a small group. The franchise sets the ideal of the personalized posse against formal, impersonal and vaguely sinister structures — whether government, business or the law. It’s us against everybody.
Furious 7 reflects the fact that over the past several decades in America, and across the globe, people have been increasingly sorted into economic winners and losers. Impersonal forces like deregulation and globalization have brought stagnant and falling wages, jobs with less security and fewer benefits, and agonizing hardship to huge numbers of folks. They feel deprived of their dignity and sense exclusion from systems they used to know how to negotiate — but no longer do. Checks and balances have disappeared, institutions are suspect and democratic participation is thwarted.
To survive in such a brave new world means learning to depend on personal networks. You’ve got to be wily and constantly improvise to stay ahead of a game that is rigged against you. Furious recognizes these growing trends and finds solutions – or at least compensations — in new myths of home and tribe.
The Furious films make it clear that the dream team is — despite its members’ ability to land cars by parachute — mostly made up of regular folks who are happiest with a Corona beer at a backyard barbecue. Team leader and outlaw Dominic “Dom“ Toretto (Vin Diesel) is the kind of guy who once upon a time in America could trust that hard work would be rewarded with a decent middle-class life, complete with college for the kids and a cabin on the lake. Postwar economic policies and strong unions made it possible for such a guy to support an entire family.
The fantasies on display in Furious actually harken back to 1950s America, a time when the Great Depression was fading into the past and life was getting better for the masses. Wages were rising; union jobs and long-term careers gave regular Joes a chance to provide. If the domestic routine of suburban family life or the rhythms of the factory or the office grew too dull, the new consumer culture answered with fast, muscular cars and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine for libidinous release.
Today’s economic policies have made a dusty relic of that world. Guys like Dom have been wiped out by the financial crisis, in many cases taking a permanent hit. They struggle to make their families proud. Home no longer seems like a place of authority. Women may not even want to marry you if you can’t get or keep a job. If you have a family, the dysfunction is growing — more partner conflict, financial stress and troubled children. You feel left behind, and it gets harder and harder to catch up as the economic winners speed by.
Furious serves up a kind of nostalgia that can lead to rejuvenated pride among people now feeling neglected. Home is depicted as somewhere you can still feel dignity, security and attachment either with your blood relatives or the family you’ve chosen — your posse. Your word counts. You matter.
In Furious, the 1950s fantasies are updated with a utopian dream of racial harmony and at least a nod toward gender equity, though despite more women kicking butt than the typical action film, there’s still a yearning for the traditional role of the mother in the home – a role that America’s economic policies no longer support.
The heart of Furious clearly rails against the code of contemporary economics that has made losers of so many, specifically the efficient-market theory that posits human beings as self-interested actors competing in a vast, impersonal game. Furious 6 villain Owen Shaw, a military operator-turned-criminal, presents his life code as one in which your “team” consists of so many pieces that can be switched out until you get “maximum efficiency,” a kind of Ayn Randian nightmare of the modern workplace. Owen derides Dom’s attachment to other people: “You, you’re loyal to a fault. Your code is about family. I can break you whenever I want.”
Of course, Dom is not broken because this is an action movie and he is the hero, able to turn the tables on his nemesis with roaring engines and flying fists. But Dom’s real-world counterpart may well be broken by the efficiency-crazed boss and routinely discarded by a brutal labor market. He can only fantasize of winning. He needs his posse.
The myth of the posse ignores the interconnectedness of the broader society, making tribalism the ultimate value. The idea of a common culture of citizenship recedes into the background, as does faith in a society based on shared principles of justice.
When the personal posse replaces civic spirit, and the us-against-them mentality prevails, monsters can breed. Any slight against the posse becomes a pretext for vengeance. In the search for home, you can become very inhospitable. You don’t worry about what’s legal, and only consider what you need to do.
This is what is now happening in many corners of the world, where neglected groups have formed posses positively bloodthirsty in their quest to assert that they matter on the global stage to show they are not just victims of a rigged game.
Yearning for love, connection and community are natural reactions to the disenchantment of capitalism and the strains of inequality. This yearning in Furious is even reflected in the real-life bonds of cast members, who offer a moving tribute at the end of Furious 7 to their deceased colleague Paul Walker.
But a return to tribal instincts and the letting go of the broader common bonds and the welfare of the greater human family has a dark side. It is a ultimately a dangerous road to travel.