Dominic Toretto, Optimus Prime, and the upcoming year of good guys gone bad
The Fast & Furious franchise and the Transformers franchise don’t really have much in common, besides cars and Tyrese. Furious started out as a turn-of-the-millennium teenwave hit about a Los Angeles motorgang heisting DVD players, and then it magically became a friend-family melodrama about demi-god biceps and flying cars. Transformers is more recognizable as modern Hollywood product: a nostalgia property based on toys and cartoons, reheated via infinite infinitesimal CGI digitalia into cyborg operas with enough mythology to justify a Silmarillion.
If you feel like getting heavy, the franchises run oppositional at their foundations. The Furious team of multicultural blue-collar superheroes represents “the most progressive force in American cinema,” according to Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and conscience of the moviegoing nation Wesley Morris. Conversely, Transformers has become the primary auteurist statement of Michael Bay, a director who loves the iconography of traditional Americana: the flag, the army, the girls in Daisy Dukes. (There are Daisy Dukes in Fast movies, yes, but Transformers has DAISY DUKES.) No need to get heavy, though. Furious is about people who drive cars; Transformers is about cars who are people.
But this month, trailers for both franchise’s 2017 installments arrived, and there’s a common theme. The hero of Fast & Furious is the villain in the next Fast & Furious. The hero of Transformers is the villain in the next Transformers. Dominic Toretto and Optimus Prime are breaking bad. “Rethink Your Heroes,” announces the poster for Transformers: The Last Knight. The tagline on the poster for The Fate of the Furious is even more dour: “Family No More,” it says, helpfully summing up how everyone felt after Thanksgiving.
Nobody’s seen these movies. We have to point out, up front, that calling Dom and Prime “villains” is probably and almost certainly premature. Dom may be running an elaborate con. Prime may have been reprogrammed by Unicron. It’s a minor sin to draw any big ideas out of trailers; the fact that we all do it doesn’t make it less sinful. (Where will the Library of Congress store all our theories proving that Kylo Ren is Luke Skywalker?)
And, this “manufactured character conflict” is a big marketing concept just now. Two of the biggest movies of 2016 promised a showdown between heroes. Spoiler alert: In the end, the good guys were all still good guys. Batman v Superman was always going to be Superheroes v Luthor. Captain America: Civil War had to preserve the option for its bitter combatants to join forces for the next, slightly-more-infinite War. You could point to those films as evidence of our divided nation. But in both films, the clashes were narratively rooted in eerily resolvable miscommunication. I’m not sure the big problem right now is a misunderstanding. Beyoncé endorsed one presidential candidate, and the KKK endorsed the other: I think both sides understand each other just fine.
But can we indulge ourselves for a moment? Can we appreciate these trailers as a sneak peek into an uncertain future: advertisements, sure, but also harbingers of the pop culture that will define the first year of the Trump presidency? In the first month after Trump’s election, the moviegoing population has looked ecstatically backward. Doctor Strange lovingly imported Steve Ditko’s psychedelic, ’60s white-guy-goes-East philosophy into mainstream blockbusterdom, adding a spit-shine of thematic self-sacrifice to Ditko’s cerebral-spiritual individualism. Then came the prequels: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One, a return not only to our most beloved franchises but to the very origin-story roots of those beloved franchises. You can say that Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One are important movies for “right now” — the former about a repressed minority civilization hiding from real-life Trump supporter Jon Voight, the latter about repressed rebels battling strongmen who preach peace through terror. But “timeless” doesn’t equal timely, and the films’ visions of “evil” are one-dimensional enough to apply to everything and nothing: Great good guys, fighting a blond-wigged Johnny Depp and literally Darth Vader.
But nostalgia is potent right now, a political force. Nostalgia is the national mood: both poles, red state and blue. A little less than half of the voting public is nostalgic for the past, precise timeline TBD, back when America was Great. Now, a little more than half of the voting public is experiencing a peculiar nostalgia for modernity: the good old days when Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the White House and the president didn’t rage-tweet. With that nostalgia comes paranoia, and the trailers reflect both of those ideas. Can we credit the eighth Fast & Furious film and the sixth Transformers film (#NeverForget) with uncanny perception? At the risk of drawing a straw man built on a false equivalence and double negative, no one doesn’t think the real enemy is within.
The turn to violent evil is maybe less surprising with Prime. The film franchise has always trended ultraviolent, all the way back to 1986’s neon-grim high-body-count fairy tale Transformers: The Movie. The Bay films wallow in gloriously overflowing robotic viscera — which counts as PG-13 because the MPAA hates robots. And the florid core concepts of the series invite, well, transformation: characters resurrected by borg-planets, haunted by the spirits of their robo-ancestors. Prime has already died twice on screen. Once you’ve died and come back, a turn to villainy seems almost mandatory. (Rumors are flying that a major, iconic, and recently dead movie character will come back villainous in the next sequel. Take a guess. It’s not Quicksilver.) And in a weird way, you could say that Prime has always been a supporting protagonist, an oversized second banana to whatever actor plays the role of Lead Human.
But Prime also represents what you might call the fundamentalist spirit of the series. Modern heroes have families, love interests, origin stories, and core psychological traumas they must be overcome. In the Transformers film franchise, Prime simply is heroism. When Age of Extinction came out, Bay described the Autobots as absolute heroes: “So good… there’s a lot of bad in the world… they’re always doing the right thing.” To turn Prime into an antagonist means something, even if it’s just mind-control or misunderstanding. The optimistic read is that he’s become some sort of cosmic Manchurian candidate, controlled against his will by some malevolent Megatron-shaped force. The pessimistic read is that Prime actually thinks he’s doing the right thing.
With Fate of the Furious, the betrayal looks more personal. And, because the Furious saga is pretty much the only major movie series where the fate of the world is never at risk, that also means the stakes are more visceral and less obvious. No one can claim, as Captain America and Batman did, they are doing anything for some Platonic Ideal of The Greater Good. But in some respects, turning Dom bad is a return to the franchise’s origin story and anti-fundamentalist ambiguity. In the first film, Dominic Toretto was a bad guy, or anyhow, he was a charismatic good-thief-among-bad-thieves declared an enemy of the state by law enforcement. The film sided with him, of course, but his actions were never sanctified with some greater societal goodness. By the end of the fourth film, Dom was on a prison bus, a convict. In Fast Five, the whole Toretto family was on the run, and that film brilliantly cast Dwayne Johnson the film’s primary antagonist, a brash American agent named Luke Hobbs who chased Dom through Rio, destroying every wall in his path.
In hindsight, you could say Fast Five invented Batman v Superman and Civil War. Oh, those superhero films draw on old story arcs from the comics, but their ultimate hero-villain turn is the Toretto-Hobbs dynamic from Fast Five. They fight in Act 2 and then unite in Act 3 against the biggest drug lord in Brazil, supported by only every corrupt cop in Rio. After that, the next two films cast Toretto and Hobbs as government-approved heroes battling car warlords. (Kurt Russell joined up, basically playing Nick Fury, pre-Samuel L. Jackson.)
So you could argue that The Fate of the Furious is a return to some core idea of this series. Here is Dominic Toretto, once again pursued as a criminal, once again facing off against Luke Hobbs. But the dark joke of the trailer is that now, for once, Dom is the bad guy. The Furious films have been trending into Chris Claremont territory for a few years now, and Vin Diesel kissing Charlize Theron is a full-blown Dark Phoenix-kisses-Mastermind, a moral slippage into evil rendered brutally and romantically personal.
So will The Last Knight and The Fate of the Furious go Full Dark Phoenix — absolute power corrupting absolutely, and fatally? Or will it be more like the ’90s cartoon rendition of that classic series, with Jean Grey “expelling” the evil and returning back to hero-status normal? We can guess about the films, but I’m more intrigued by the salesmanship. Perhaps this is the first wave of the Deadpool effect: A rising generation, raised on the bantering good guys of Marvel and the troubled good guys of The Dark Knight, seeks a bit of anti- in their heroes. Certainly, that was the come-on for Suicide Squad, the year’s best trailer and (by most accounts) the most disappointing actual movie.
I think it’s something deeper: a recognition, by the most populist and popcorn-worthy film franchises of 2017, of some encroaching paranoia, a distrust so fundamental that it is the political mood no matter your politics. It’s important to remember that in 2016, both Left and Right experienced a counterculture: While Trump’s candidacy leveled the power structure of the GOP, the uncollated nexus of Sanders-Stein-Johnson supporters railed against the untrustworthy authority figures dominating the Democratic party. Somehow both sides won and lost. Mitt Romney couldn’t dump Trump, and now they’re grabbing dinner; the Clintons held off Sanders, but couldn’t hold off history.
I realize everything we say right now is political — even saying “everyone is paranoid” can be perceived as an assault, since some people have more reason to be paranoid than others. But it’s important to note that this distrust isn’t just politician-focused. No one really thinks the media did a good job covering this election: too much with the “emails”; too many inaccurate polls; too many trusted news sources, print and digital and podcast, that got this election all-the-way-wrong. And that was just the actual news — failed journalism that was nevertheless trying to be journalism. This was also the year of Fake News: propaganda disguised as facts, Goebbels gone viral.
Much of the political action of this year was anti-expert: against the media, against intellectuals, against scientists, against any and all members of the professional politician class. I am pro-expert (and since I just brought up Goebbels, it’s probably obvious who I voted for in the election). And the experts told me Trump would lose, and they were wrong. So it’s possible that this skepticism has crossed Leftward now, too. And I wonder if Furious and Transformers are tapping into that feeling on both sides of the divide, a culture that can’t trust its own culture, a nation that can’t believe its own icons.
I keep thinking about The Force Awakens. Not the movie, but the fan theory: “Luke Skywalker = Kylo Ren!” Like most theories based on advertising, that idea was disproven almost immediately by the product itself. But for a year there, the only conversation you could have with Star Wars diehards focused on the possibility of that the great hero of the original trilogy would be the great villain of the new one. The idea took hold for a few obvious reasons — the perception that everything J.J. Abrams does is a mystery box to unlock, the in-hindsight hilariously obvious reason why Mark Hamill wasn’t in the advertising, the fact that the internet loves to declare something is the exact opposite of whatever it appears to be. But I think there was a deeper conversation happening. Luke Skywalker was always, symbolically, George Lucas: the fast-driving dreamer who became the rebel leader. Turning Luke evil felt appropriate, somehow, to people who held this theory close. It would be a reflection of how all successful rebellions became Empires, and it would be a final mournful jab at a creator who lost track of his own creation.
That didn’t happen, obviously: Force Awakens was a movie about a new Emperor and a new Tarkin and a new Vader who, like Vader, will probably turn good after three movies. Maybe you still think Luke will go evil in Episode VIII, or that it will become clear that Luke somehow created Kylo Ren, thus proving the theory half-right albeit mostly wrong. (I admire your paranoia and doubt Disney will validate it.) And maybe you think that, but also think the Furious and Transformers plotlines are just ploys. It’s possible that both The Fate of the Furious and The Last Knight are playing with our anxiety just long enough to deflect it. If Dom pretends to be bad but is actually good, isn’t that the happy ending we crave now? If Prime is only evil until someone resets his morality switch, won’t that give us a deeply yearned-for phony catharsis? Here’s a bedtime story for the modern moment: The bad guys were just pretending!
Not every good guy is turning bad in 2017, of course. The trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming just dropped, and it suggests a much more earnest portrayal of superheroism, a throwback to the pre-grimdark Raimi films and a throw-all-the-way-back to the original idea of Peter Parker as a high-schooler. Homecoming will add Iron Man into the mix: Civil War‘s semi-antagonist, already rehabilitated into a quirky mentordom. (If you’re wondering what it looks like when a genre gets gentrified, it’s a Queens kid hanging out in a billionaire’s limo.)
Maybe that’s the kind of hero we all want right now. But maybe there’s also room for The Last Knight and The Fate of the Furious, movies that invite you to imagine what it looks like when icons betray their iconography. You’re rethinking your heroes; you don’t know your own family. And this isn’t some high-concept twist, buried deep behind spoiler warnings. This is the advertising. This is the market-tested trend. When paranoia goes mainstream, what comes next? Will our fate be fury — or transformation?