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‘Fast and Furious’ Works Because It Did the Marvel Cinematic Universe Before Marvel (Commentary)

Through cast changes, the ”Fast and Furious“ movies wound up with side movies and character development not unlike Marvel’s masterful storytelling web

Before Marvel Studios spent years developing its “cinematic universe” of movies, another franchise did the same thing (by accident): “The Fast and the Furious.”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe turned a very comic book idea — one of multiple storylines and multiple characters coming together into a single team-up storyline — into a movie idea. For years, Marvel put out movies about individual characters that eventually came together as The Avengers.

The movies that combine Marvel characters, like “Captain America: Civil War,” are way better for the investment. With all that history and character development already in the bank, Marvel can push stories and character arcs that are sprawling and epic, befitting a whole series of comic adaptations. Audiences get the payoff for following these characters through so many adventures; showing up for multiple movies means deeper, more interesting story possibilities.

“The Fast and the Furious,” now eight movies deep, started in 2001, seven years before Marvel’s “Iron Man” really began to build up a shared universe. Before Marvel really ramped up the MCU, “Fast & Furious” was already creating one. And it’s a major reason why, eight movies deep, the franchise remains so much fun.

The “FCU” (Fast Cinematic Universe) idea was more of a happy accident than an in-depth plan like Marvel’s, though. The “Fast & Furious” movies didn’t really start building toward a comprehensive long-term story until director Justin Lin convinced Vin Diesel to come back to the franchise for the fourth film. When that happened, the series made its first true sequel to the original movie.

It was with “Fast Five,” the heist movie created by Lin, producer Diesel and screenwriter Chris Morgan, that the FCU really took shape. In that movie, Dom assembles the “crew” as we now know it — calling in characters from throughout the franchise. And past movies that spent time developing those characters, largely because Diesel was out of the franchise, ended up paying off in a big way.

Characters like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) are now essential to the series — but Roman, at least, is only a part of the it because Diesel didn’t come back for “2 Fast 2 Furious.” So that movie developed Paul Walker’s character, Brian, and introduced his childhood friend Roman. Tej was a garage owner and racer in Miami that was essential to the plot.

Since the pair got their own movie, sort of, they got a lot of character development, and it makes their relationship in future movies work all the better. And the movies are great leveraging this history. When someone steps to Brian in “Fast Five,” for instance, fans who are paying attention will notice that Roman is instantly on his feet, ready to defend his friend. It’s moments like those that sell the relationships between these characters, and the themes of family that have become the cornerstone of “Fast & Furious.”

Like Roman and Tej, the same payoff and investment true of Han, who was a major character in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Han shows up again for the next few movies, and each time his character is expanded because we already know so much about him. When Han’s death in “Tokyo Drift” precipitates the events of “Furious 7,” the conflict carries much more emotional weight. The time we’ve spent with Han means we buy his death’s impact on the series’ characters that much more.

“Fate of the Furious” is able to play off all the extra work that’s been done in the franchise to its benefit. It can call back characters and plots from “Fast & Furious,” “Fast 5” and “Fast & Furious 6,” recontextualizing those movies with new information and retcons. When characters from several movies back show up again, it makes the franchise feel like it’s larger than what we see on the screen. The “Family” is real.

The most impressive thing about the FCU is that it had to be achieved retroactively. Movies like “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift” happened because of casting issues, departures, and other shake-ups. But those movies have become assets for the larger story, instead of liabilities. Like Marvel’s superhero movies, they add to the overall whole.

Sure, “Fast & Furious” has a lot of retconning of things off-screen, bringing characters back from the dead, and glossing over plot holes to make it all work. But it does work — because of the “Fast & Furious” series’ dedication to developing its characters, keeping them around, and giving them interesting arcs and relationships.

The desire to see what absurd stunts each new “Fast & Furious” movie will pack brings audiences in. But it’s the series’ dedication to the history, development and relationships of the characters that makes “Fast & Furious” something special among action movies. And that’s all thanks to the accidental FCU.