In 2006, you'd be ridiculed for calling the "Fast and the Furious" movies the defining American film franchise. That was the year the third installment, "Tokyo Drift," became a punching bag for critics and a box-office dud.
But in true never-say-die fashion, the gang kept going. This weekend, the eighth movie, "The Fate of the Furious," beat out "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" to become the reigning global box-office champ, opening to an estimated $532.5 million worldwide.
We've come a long way since 2001 when the first movie came out, aimed at gear heads who love a good nitrous boost. It was all bromantic street-racing and short skirts back then, earning so-so reviews for the paint-by-numbers plot about undercover cops and adrenaline-loving robbers.
Even so, "The Fast and the Furious" was a sleeper hit that could have easily ended up a cult classic. Instead, the franchise became must-see entertainment not just for car geeks, but for the more tenderhearted among us -- the ones who simply appreciate the central message of the movies: Family sticks together. The balletic action sequences don't hurt, either.
In these divisive times, there's not much we can agree on. And yet, all across the world this weekend people from all walks of life flocked to the same movie. The series has now brought in more than $4 billion, but the popularity didn't happen overnight.
It took time for people to come around. And, as in all great relationships, there was compromise: The series had to change, too.
"The Fast and the Furious" came out just on the cusp of franchise mania -- "when nobody knew what a Vin Diesel was," according to ComScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Sequels weren't the foregone conclusions they are today, but the domestic success of the first movie, which made the equivalent of nearly $221 million in today's dollars, helped grease the wheels.
"It was sort of a B racing movie, reminiscent of those motorcycle and car movies from the '50s and early '60s -- like 'The Wild Bunch,' but on four wheels," Dergarabedian said. "At first it was marginalized, like it was just a frivolous kind of film. Nobody could have imagined it would have grown into an almost James Bond-ian, epic-sized franchise."
First, though, there were a few false starts. The sequel, "2 Fast 2 Furious," didn't just have a terrible title; it lacked the first film's lead, Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto, the heart and soul of the movies. Installment three was even worse. "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" went niche, trying to appeal mainly to racing enthusiasts. Big mistake.
Things started to get back on track with "Fast and Furious" in 2009, which reconvened the original cast for a straightforward retread of the first movie. And it came at an auspicious time, according to boxoffice.com's Daniel Loria -- just when digital projection was making it possible to beam movies around the globe instantly and without shipping snafus.
"That's the story of 'The Fast and Furious' becoming a worldwide phenomenon," he said.
But it was "Fast Five" that decisively turned things around. Suddenly street-racing faded into the background of a heist movie set against a Brazilian backdrop. There were still plenty of shiny, dazzling cars, but they were used as part of elaborate, action set pieces. Gravity and believability fell to the wayside in favor of the most spectacular stunts possible. And then there was the fact that a universally beloved actor, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, joined the cast.
The franchise has been on fire ever since with each movie following Dom's crew on a different mission. "Furious 7" -- the last movie starring Paul Walker, who died unexpectedly halfway through filming -- reached $1 billion worldwide in record time. Globally, the movie pulled in more cash that year than "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
In the meantime, the movies have gotten lighter.
"It stands in stark contrast, for example, to a Christopher Nolan's 'Batman' trilogy that's really dark and somber," Loria said.
And yet the stakes have gotten higher. In the latest iteration, the team is tasked with taking down a supervillain who has her eye on some nukes.
That evildoer happens to be played by Charlize Theron, and she's not the only Oscar winner in "Fate." Helen Mirren also makes an appearance. Is that a big get for the franchise or for the actors?
"It's interesting, it wasn't until recently that we've had actors come to us," producer Neal Moritz said recently on Bill Simmons's podcast. "I felt like we were the team that didn't get that much respect but now it's turned."
Billions in revenue will do that.
The original "Furious," by contrast, was A-list free. Ja Rule may have been the biggest name of the lot. (The rapper-turned-actor made the huge mistake of turning down a part in the second entry.) While Hollywood was still putting actors of color into stereotypical roles, the "Furious" franchise was more progressive. Walker, with his blonde hair and blue eyes, was always the outlier among a cast that included Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jordana Brewster and Sung Kang. Behind the camera, it's been just as diverse, with Justin Lin, James Wan, John Singleton and F. Gary Gray directing.
The multicultural cast partly explains the incredible success of the franchise overseas. "Fate" had the biggest opening weekend in China of any movie ever. High-octane movies also just travel well. Dergarabedian said that action is the universal language, and the movies have gotten increasingly imaginative when it comes to executing outlandish stunts.
In "Fate," the grand finale features a car chase on an ice field, a remotely operated submarine and a heat-seeking missile. At one point, Johnson's character -- behind the wheel of a truck -- tells his passenger to take over so he can step onto the ice, slide along while hanging onto the driver's door and redirect a torpedo skidding along next to him -- with his bare hand.
But the appeal isn't just the nonsensical, gorgeous action scenes.
You could make a drinking game out of how many times someone says the word "family" in any of the movies. The team is sacred. Things have certainly veered into cheesy territory, especially in the most recent movie, which has a few soap opera plot twists. But there's something uniquely sweet about the way so many characters from different backgrounds have bonded.
It might not be so easy in real life. Promotion of the newest film has been slightly overshadowed by an apparent feud between Diesel and Johnson, which went public when Johnson aired some grievances on his Instagram account. But the family bond remains a lovely fantasy onscreen.
Even characters who were once villains can come into the fold. In "Furious 7," Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) made relentless attempts to kill members of Dom's team, following them to L.A., Abu Dhabi and the Caucasus Mountains. (For a trained assassin, he's pretty bad at his job.) But they have a common enemy in "Fate," which means Deckard becomes part of the fam. How much do you want to bet he ends up drinking a Corona during the requisite movie-ending backyard barbecue?
In our contentious era, who would have guessed that the Furious franchise would give us a blueprint for how to get along with our enemies?