(Ed. Note: This was written a few weeks ago for another outlet. It never ran there but I liked it quite a bit so am publishing it here, though I know it’s a bit late. Indulge me, please.)
With the release of The Fate of the Furious, the franchise enters its 16th year, meaning it is finally old enough to drive itself. The series has undergone some big thematic changes over those years in how it’s sold itself to the audience, from one that was focused mostly just on outrageous stunts performed by cars to one that’s about, as we’ll see, espouses repeatedly the importance of and responsibility to family. To track that shift over time let’s look at the trailers for each of the eight, including this week’s, installments in the series. Specifically, let’s look at the two distinct phases to the approaches employed in selling these movies.
Phase One: It’s All About the Cars
The initial formulation here wasn’t complex: Create elaborate, often nonsensical scenarios under which cars are to be driven in extreme ways. It starts out with a story that’s essentially Point Break but with cars (undercover cop befriends bad guy thief, winds up respecting him more than anything) and progresses from there as the storytelling keeps needing to add additional elements to up the perceived danger, account for cast shifts and other factors.
The Fast and The Furious (2001)
It’s almost remarkable how little of the story is on display in the trailer for the first movie. Instead the marketing team identified early on what was going to bring people out to the theater: Fast cars, outrageous stunts and women in tight, revealing clothing. It starts out by promising a look at the world that comes up when the sun goes down and just gets more and more intense as things go on. There are title cards that talk about loyalty and other themes but that’s about it. The actual visuals are singularly focused on showing off the paces the cars (the real starts of the franchise) are put through. Aside from one random woman, the only dialogue spoken in the trailer comes from Vin Diesel’s Dominic, who says “Let’s go for a ride” and then explains to Paul Walker’s Brian why an extreme action had to be taken. There’s nothing here, though, about Brian being an undercover cop or really anything about the criminal organization Dominic and his partners operate. The studio just wants you to come see the car stunts.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
The trailer starts in much the same way, showing an underground street race about to begin. Brian is clearly deeper in the organization now, but we don’t get much in the way of character development outside of a bit of flirting he does with Monica, played by Eva Mendes. There’s obviously some relationship with Roman, played by Tyrese Gibson, but it’s never explained what that is. We get some plot details from Roman, who declares “Guns, murderers and crooked cops? I was made for this, bro.” but that’s about the extent of it beyond generic dialogue like “You need to chill out. Again, the focus isn’t anywhere near the story as the studio just wants to sell us more fast cars and shady characters to root for. Walker is the only holdover from the first movie, but again there’s not much explanation here of why, where anyone else is, what his current situation is or any other plot points that might be useful for audiences of any kind.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
First off, let’s note that it was three years between the second and third installments of the franchise, indicating there was something that almost killed the series before it ever really got a chance to get out of hand. Also, aside from a brief cameo from Vin Diesel, no one from the original cast appears here, showing the studio was trying to keep it alive but go in a different direction. That’s also evident from the trailer, which shows the action is being transported to Tokyo as the audience gets a brief explanation about what “drifting” is. The characters are pretty disposable, though there’s obviously conflict between the sport’s established players and newcomer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), an American who gets involved in the dangerous form of racing. That’s about the extent of the story exposition, though, as the rest of the trailer continues to show the new stunts drivers are being asked to pull off. There’s also no effort to connect this to the rest of the series with anything but the title.
Phase Two: The Family Years
From here on out there was a drastic shift in the production and marketing of these movies. Not only would they shift to a reliable two-year cycle but with the return of the original cast, the emphasis fell squarely on the theme of “family. That comes up over and over again in all these trailers, taking the place of the focus simply on fast cars and big stunts. There also begins to be more of an emphasis on the story of these movies, perhaps signaling that the marketplace was inundated with loud senseless action movies and the franchise needed to make a slightly more nuanced and fully-rounded value proposition to the audience.
Fast and Furious (2009)
Another three years go by before the fourth film arrives but this time we’re back into familiar franchise territory when the trailer begins. We see Dom, Letty and the crew executing a daring mid-road hijacking of a series of tanker trucks and soon see Walker’s Brian is back as well, but again that’s the extent of the story that’s offered here. Even the return of the original characters and cast seems kind of downplayed, an odd choice given how this was an attempt to basically get the franchise back up and running again. A later trailer makes those returns more of a focus and, importantly, begins to really introduce the concept of “family” to the series.
Fast Five (2011)
Now we’re getting somewhere. Characters from the whole series, including Tokyo Drift, are immediately introduced in the trailer as it’s shown Dom has assembled them all to execute a massive heist. This also introduces The Rock to the series as a federal marshall tasked with taking down Dom and his crew. It’s clear that at this point Dom and Brian are very much the “brothers” that they purport to be throughout the rest of the series. The big difference here is that there are some stakes provided for the actions of the criminals, that they are being targeted by law enforcement and will likely go to prison for a long time if they’re caught. That’s a big difference from the first four movies, which just wanted to sell the spectacle.
Fast and Furious 6 (2013)
As usual we start off with shiny cars and scantily-clad young ladies in the trailer, which shows Hobbs (The Rock) reaching out to Dom for his help in tracking down a team of high-tech bandits. Not everyone’s on board with this turn of events, but a deal is worked out and everyone comes around when they find out Letty might be alive. “You don’t turn your back on family” Dom intones just in case we weren’t clear as to everyone’s motivations. The stunts just get bigger here, including the main set piece that involves a tank being ejected from the trailer it’s being carried in and then rolling down the highway. This goes further than any of the previous trailers in emphasizing that this ragtag group of hard-driving thieves consider themselves a family that has to protect each other and do whatever is necessary.
Furious 7 (2015)
The trailer hits that “family” idea hard right from the outset as we have Dom narrating over shots of Brian, Letty and others enjoying time together. Dom gets a call that precedes his house blowing up. He and they are being hunted by an international assassin played by Jason Stratham and again we hear that this “family” will protect each other and take on this new threat. That involves lots of driving of insane vehicles in ridiculous ways. “One last ride” is what Dom promises as we see everything from standard street races to The Rock with a massive machine gun to a sports car flying from one high-rise to another. Everything about the marketing for this movie was tinged with a sense of emotion and melancholy as it was during the filming of this installment and Walker was tragically killed. To its credit, the studio never really overplayed this angle in the marketing, alluding to it around the edges of the campaign without doing anything overt to make “Come see the last Furious movie with Paul Walker” a core theme of the message to audiences.
Fate of the Furious (2017)
The trailer opens with Roman, Dom and everyone on the run after their latest heist, escaping with the help of a massive wrecking ball. Hobbs is now a full-on member of the team but we see Dom is, for some reason, turning on his family. Everyone then is determined to find out why that happened and the plan involves breaking Hobbs and Shaw out of prison to help. We skip everything else to see everyone driving various cars along a massive sheet of ice before Cipher (Charlize Theron), who’s working with Dom, has a submarine break through the ice and chase everyone. There are six or seven comments here about “family” from different characters, mostly in regards to Dom’s betrayal.