HEAT VISION

How 'Hobbs & Shaw' Pushes Back in the Age of Superheroes

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham's film highlights the inseparability between stars and heroes they play.
Universal Pictures
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham's film highlights the inseparability between stars and heroes they play.

[This story contains spoilers for Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.]

The summer movie season, which began with a superhero movie that became the biggest film of all time, comes to a close with a film that pushes back, if only slightly, against the superhero trend with all the brawn it can muster. Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise expanded over the weekend with its first spin-off, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. The film, directed by David Leitch, sees popular characters Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) reluctantly team up to aid Shaw’s sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), in stopping the bionically powered, genocidal maniac Brixton (Idris Elba) from unleashing a super virus. Yes, it’s a lot. But it wouldn’t be a Fast & Furious movie if it didn’t throw everything it could at the wall with a hearty dose of heart, insane action beats, and, of course, family. Hobbs & Shaw frames itself as an old-school buddy cop team-up fighting against, literally, the age of superpowers. The result is a film that sells the action-icon status of Johnson and Statham just as much as it sells the Fast & Furious connection.

There’s certainly a lot to be said about the Wall Street Journal article published last week that detailed the strict demands of the Fast & Furious stars in terms of how many times they want to be hit on screen, how many punches they throw, and how many fights they’re willing to lose, if any. For those who have been following the franchise for a while, this particular revelation is nothing new. The highly anticipated fight between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five (2011) ended in a draw, with neither actor wanting to appear the loser. But the details of just how carefully choreographed these fights are, right down to counting the number of blows, and actors like Statham overseeing editing choices for his scenes, is a bit of movie “magic” we didn’t know before. These decisions, which have resulted in some inarguably creative fight scenes, are driven by ego. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

We’ve seen plenty of heroes take blow after blow and walk away bloody and beaten: John Wick (Keanu Reeves), for example. But Fast & Furious is a multibillion-dollar property, one of the few able to claim a space within the Thunderdome of superhero movies. And for that to work, its protagonists have to take on a kind of superhuman quality that transcends their characters. But not too superhuman. At the end of the day, we’re not seeing these characters fly or shoot lasers from their eyes. Instead we’re seeing the kind of exaggerated power that comes from sheer human strength, muscles the camera never shies away from, and charisma that makes it hard to separate character and actor. This scenario is similar to how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were presented through the '80s and '90s. In the case of Hobbs & Shaw, Johnson and Statham are a brand, not limited to the action figures they’re playing in this movie. The title is built around the names of two characters, but the film incorporates Johnson and Statham’s careers beyond those roles.

Early in the film, Shaw makes a pointed remark about one of the cars in his collection, one he used for a job in Italy, a clear reference to Statham’s film The Italian Job (2003). There’s probably a Crank (2006) reference in there too when Shaw gets a jolt of electricity courtesy of Brixton. Johnson gets to pull out references from his own catalog with his signature eyebrow raise from his superstar wrestler days and a scene with an air marshal played by Kevin Hart, with whom Johnson has co-starred in Central Intelligence (2016) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). Kirby also gets plenty of her own moments to shine, and one of her action moves is strikingly similar to, if not exactly the same as, the one pulled in her breakout role in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Even director David Leitch, formerly a stunt performer and coordinator, gets to revel in his own past glories with Deadpool 2 (2018) and Atomic Blonde (2017) stars Ryan Reynolds and Eddie Marsan in small but significant roles in the film. In this regard, it feels as though Hobbs & Shaw is taking the idea of a cinematic universe to the next level, one that exists beyond canon and relies on the fact that audiences aren’t just going to the movies to see a spin-off but a Johnson film and a Statham film into which all their work feeds. The blows they take or don’t take here aren’t just affecting their characters within the Fast & Furious world but their larger identities as a brand. This is not entirely dissimilar to the rules adhered to when Batman or Spider-Man are brought to the screen. We may see them get beaten, but ultimately audiences go see these movies to see heroes win, and the same is true for Johnson and Statham, whose real identities have taken on a kind of fictional quality as their specific type of stardom has elevated them to the level of archetypes.

Brixton’s plan, centered around a super virus that will wipe out the world’s weakest humans, aims to prepare humanity for the next stage of evolution by way of superpower-granting bionics. It’s nonsense, but at the same time, there’s an engaging meta-textual aspect to it. The idea of ordinary heroes being wiped out to make room for superheroes is our contemporary blockbuster landscape. And for the sake of the film’s argument, Johnson, Statham, and Kirby are ordinary – heroes of a bygone era forced to still their worth in a rapidly changing world. It’s worth nothing that Johnson is set to play the anti-hero Black Adam, Kirby is an internet fan favorite for Catwoman, and Statham has been on a number of supervillain wish lists, proving that even these stars are not entirely removed from the realm of superheroes. But for the moment, they are the closest approximations to '80s action heroes we have. The film makes no secret to hide its influences, and posters of 48 Hours (1982), Cobra (1986) and Lethal Weapon (1987) adorn the wall in Hobbs’ garage in Samoa. A $200 million film is never going to fit neatly within this list of influences, but Hobbs & Shaw does make good on providing a semi old-fashioned action movie where pure man- and womanpower saves the day.

Hobbs & Shaw may not be breaking any new ground in terms of its characters or story, but it does add to the blockbuster conversation and brings the inseparability between stars and heroes they play back into fashion. When the actors playing the Avengers struggle to win the box office when they’re removed from their Marvel characters, there’s something refreshing about the fact that this film could be titled Fast & Furious Presents: Johnson and Statham and still be viewed through the same lens as an event film. So sure, the stars may be counting punches to maintain their personas, but with the number of superhero movies continuously growing and dominating the box office, that sounds like a fair fight.

  • Richard Newby
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