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“It’s About Family”: Why Are Modern Blockbusters So Preoccupied With the Notion of Family?

“It’s about family” has entered the cultural lexicon, usually delivered with a grim Vin Diesel bass.

It is, of course, a cliché to suggest that the Fast & Furious franchise is “about family.” Of course they are about family. Dominic Toretto never stops talking about how it is “about family.” The entire heart of the film franchise is that it’s “about family.” It arguably has been from the start, with the simmering attraction between undercover cop Brian O’Conner and Mia Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. In that first film, Brian doesn’t merely befriend the criminal that he is supposed to catch, he becomes family with him. The two men become (ironically) something close to brothers-in-law as much as brothers-at-arms. Over the course of the series, Dominic offers such pearls of wisdom as “you don’t turn your back on your family” in The Fate of the Furious.

Family runs through the film franchise. Owen Shaw, the villain of Fast and Furious 6, is revealed to be the brother of Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious Seven. The series hinges on soap opera plot dynamics like amnesia and betrayal, all of which emphasising the importance of these familial ties in mapping out the world that these characters operate. However, “family” is more than just a word that drives the plots of these movies, as much as those plots can be said to exist. It is also an important thematic element. The films frequently feature extended sequences at family gatherings, such as barbecues and parties. (Indeed, the franchise seems to evoke almost a Pavlovian response between the words “family” and “Corona.”)

However, while the Fast and Furious franchise is perhaps the franchise most overtly and obviously committed to the theme of “family”, and certainly the film franchise with the most frequent articulation of the concept, it is far from the only example. Modern cinema, particularly modern popular cinema, seems obsessed with the notion of family. In particular, contemporary big budget films are very much engaged with the idea of “found family” much more than biological family. It is interesting to wonder why modern pop culture seems so fixated on the idea of “found family”, to the point that it dominates so much cinematic real estate.

To pick another hugely successful modern cinematic franchise, the Guardians of the Galaxy series is about characters who find their own family. Both Quill and Gamora rejecting their biological parentage for the new unit that they have created. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Peter Quill murders his own biological father. In Avengers: Infinity War, Gamora is thrown to her death by the man who addicted her as a child and calls himself her father. There is a recurring emphasis within the films on the importance of a character choosing their family. Of the monstrous all-consuming Ego, the disgraced space pirate Yondu assures Quill, “He may have been your father boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.” The implication is that Quill forged a more meaningful bond with Yondu.

However, there are countless other examples. Instant Family focuses on a couple played by Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg adopting three foster kids to create a new family unit. Alita: Battle Angel features Dyson Ido bringing the title character back to life using a body that he designed for his deceased thirteen-year-old daughter. Deadpool 2 makes a big deal of the main character’s arc learning that “family is not an f-word”, particularly when that family is scrounged together from misfits and outcasts. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie and other characters repeatedly refer to the band as a “family”, particularly in conversations to and about John Reid.

In Bird Box, the lead character is introduced caring for two children despite flashbacks establishing that she never particularly wanted kids. (She refuses to name them for most of the movie, referring to them by the generic labels “boy” and “girl.”) Indeed, a long stretch of the movie refuses to confirm which of the two children is her biological offspring. War for the Planet of the Apes finds the non-human characters in the strange position of adopting and caring for a human child, a mute young girl. Logan focuses on the weird and dysfunctional family that the title character builds around himself, at one point literally contrasted with a more conventional family unit.

To a certain extent, these themes have always been present in art. After all, what are the X-Men or Avengers movies about, if not about pseudo-family units formed around exceptional people, just with less repeated use of the word “family” to hammer home the theme? More than that, the entire Star Wars franchise could be cynically (but not inaccurately) described as being about “dad stuff”, about children trying to navigate complicated relationships with parents both literal and metaphorical. The films of Steven Spielberg have long fixated on the importance of the failed and absent father figure, most notably in works like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, there is a tangible difference in how modern blockbusters approach the subject of family. It is consciously foregrounded. More than that, the family unit is often presented as one forged by circumstance and choice, people drawn together by forces outside of their control who opt to form a new family. These families are not defined by blood relations and are often forged in spite of it. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora rejects her status as “daughter of Thanos.” In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Peter Quill rejects Ego as his father in favour of Yondu. One of the major plot threads in Instant Family finds the lead characters fighting for custody of their foster kids against the children’s biological mother, who ultimately proves unable to support her offspring.

Often, these families cross demographic lines. The expanded “family” at the core of the Fast and Furious franchise is incredibly diverse, with Brian O’Conner being the franchise’s most prominent white character and seeming to have been replaced by Deckard Shaw in the later films. There is an argument to be made that the Fast and Furious is the most diverse major franchise in Hollywood. In Instant Family, two white parents adopt three children of Hispanic extraction. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the expanded family crosses species barriers, including a raccoon and a talking tree. (Although Gamora’s skin is painted green, actor Zoe Saldana is of Dominican and Puerto Rican extraction.)

It is interesting that this theme should come to the pop cultural fore at this moment in time. There are any number of reasons why modern blockbuster films might be engaged with the idea of rapidly-changing definitions of family. Most obviously, these sorts of family units reflect an increasingly flexible definition of family. Traditionally, a family unit was built on the bedrock of a stable marriage. In recent decades, that has changed. Indeed, it’s entirely possible to read a large number of the “dad stuff” movies to come out of Hollywood in the seventies and eighties as a response to the skyrocketing divorce rates and the emergence of “no-fault divorce.”

With increasing numbers of single-parent households and absent fathers, it was no surprise that the fathers featured in films like Star Wars or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade should be defined as neglectful failures. It is just as likely that movies about parental reconciliation (obvious even in fare as innocuous as Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) should speak to a generation of so-called “latchkey kids” who grew up in an era where children were increasingly left to their own devices as parents were forced to work more and more hours. These sort of broad sociological anxieties inevitably seep through into the popular consciousness and play out projected on the big screen.

The past few decades have seen a radical definition of what a family can be. Even in the nineties, the relationship between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files seemed to deliberately speak to the ambiguities of navigating male-female relationships in a society where marriage was very much in decline. Was it necessary to label all relations between men and women, or was it possible for a man and woman to have a relationship that defied easy categorisation? After all, since the early eighties, couples were increasingly living together without feeling the need to formalise the arrangement through the institution of marriage. The gay rights movement was fighting to redefine what marriage could be.

These sorts of changes were groundbreaking in the nineties, but they gradually became the new normal. These days, even older couples are cohabiting rather than marrying. Gay marriage has been legalised by the Supreme Court. Even single-parent households have become more and more common. It is increasingly common for divorced individuals to marry again, leading to composite family units where children may end up with multiple half-siblings as part of a larger nexus of interpersonal connections. (In this context, it is also worth noting that the idea of what a conventional “family” unit looks like might also be affected by the fact that more children are living with their parents for longer; it is possible for multiple generations of couples to share the same space.)

None of this is new. After all, The Brady Bunch was a series produced in the seventies that was about a blended family, itself prompted by an article that suggested that thirty percent of American marriages included a child from the previous marriage. Still, it seems fair to concede that popular culture is increasingly comfortable talking about such realities. As society has (broadly) become more liberal and accepting of non-typical family units, reflected in the gradual growth of support for causes like gay marriage over recent decades, it seems reasonable that the families on screen might increasingly reflect the complicated and unconventional family units that populate the real world, accepting that there is no one “right” model of the American family.

It should be noted that the past few decades have also seen an explosion of same-sex love stories as part of the annual awards race, suggesting a broader cultural interest in relationships that do not conform to the heterosexual template. Brokeback Mountain was perhaps the first example of such a film to break through, but other recent examples include movies like Carol and Moonlight. The most recent awards season featured a number of semi-high-profile releases with strong lesbian undertones; Colette, Disobedience, The Favourite. While these films are not necessarily about “family” units – occasionally dabbling in the familiar cliché of the “doomed gay affair” – they do reflect an increased interest in relationships that were previously considered taboo.

It is also possible to read these stories as something of a mirror to the tales of generational reconciliation that defined the seventies and eighties. After all, there is a palpable tension in the modern world between older and younger generations. Much has been written about the political differences that exist between parents and children in the modern world. The younger generation feels betrayed by the reactionary turn of their elders. The older generation believes that millennials are spoiled, lazy and oversensitive. (It is not uncommon for websites to publish guides to navigating polite dinner table conversation at family gatherings coming up to the holidays.)

Research suggests a massive gulf between older and younger people on the big issues of the moment. Young people are much less likely to believe that place of birth is a deciding factor in an individual’s national identity. Young people are also much less religious than older generations, especially in Western Europe and the United States. There was generation gap in the approval ratings of both President Obama and President Trump. In this context, it is worth noting that many of the found families in these films tend to be forged between people around the same age. The primary cast in The Fast and the Furious franchise are all within the same age bracket. With the exception of baby!Groot, the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy seem around the same age.

(Of course, it is also entirely possible that these films just reflect the realities of modern living for many people within that generation. Millennials are significantly less likely to own a home than earlier generations. As such, millennials are more likely to house- or flat-share in arrangements like “co-living houses”, who would naturally become a close bond between people who would likely be around the same age and who would share similar life experiences. It is also entirely possible that the development might also tap into the way in which social media encourages younger people to forge bonds that would have been impossible for earlier generations, across huge geographical distances and more varied life experiences.)

Movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade taught a generation that reconciliation with their biological family was commendable and necessary, adhering the Campbellian logic of atonement with the father. Perhaps movies like The Fast and the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy represent a less forgiving take on the same basic concept, an acknowledgement of the gulf that can exist within traditional family structures, but with an understanding that perhaps it is possible to “find” a family that can offer a healthier and more supportive alternative. It may be possible to read this shift as an acknowledgement of these increasingly polarised and heightened times.

It’s also notable that so many of these found families feature characters of different ethnic backgrounds. The unconventional family units depicted in these stories often have different skin colours and come from different communities. Indeed, Josh Trank’s failed reboot Fantastic Four even made a point to cast Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan as siblings without feeling the need to make a big deal of the fact that Mara was white and Jordan was black. (With that it mind, it is also worth acknowledging that recent years have also seen a not-insignificant number of awards dramas about more conventional relationships between two people of different ethnic backgrounds; A United Kingdom, Loving, Free State of Jones.)

This might be a way of working through the reality of shifting demographics within the United States. Much has been made of projections by the United States Census that the country will cease to be a majority white nation within the next three decades. In fact, it has been suggested that white anxiety over this realisation might have been a driving force in the resurgent white nationalism that led to the election of Donald Trump. After all, prominent members of the far right have advocated for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and a homeland for the “dispossessed white race”, and immigration remains one of the most emotive subjects for Trump and his supporters. (It should be noted that the Trump administration is specifically targeting non-white immigrants.)

As such, the increased emphasis on diversity within these stories perhaps represents an understanding of these large demographic shifts. The United States has long been described as a “melting pot” of different cultures, and these stories of diverse and unconventional families might serve to demonstrate that even the family unit itself is a melting pot in this day and age. Film and television are often a reflection of how America sees itself, and so there is something faintly heartening in the idea that the United States sees itself reflected in such a diverse collection of pseudo-families populated by such a diverse array of people. In an era where political rhetoric is increasingly charged and contentious, where xenophobia appears to be on the rise, this is strangely reassuring.

This perhaps suggests one final reason why “family” has become such a touchstone for contemporary crowdpleasing blockbuster cinema. In the modern world, politics are everywhere. Politics have become inescapable. A large part of this is down to the way that people talk about art, with films like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Last Jedi and Captain Marvel effectively becoming proxy battles in a larger culture war. It is also down to the increasingly blurred line between politics and entertainment, with the current President of the United States having largely established himself as a cultural fixture with The Apprentice.

This can be exhausting, even to those just passively absorbing the ambient chatter. Studies suggest that seven out of every ten Americans are tired of hearing about Donald Trump, and that British audiences are “bored of Brexit.” Even beyond that, these are highly charged and polarised times; perhaps the most polarised times in the past fifty years. (The stock comparison is to the late sixties.) More than that, the studies suggest that countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are split pretty much evenly down the middle. Trump earned forty-six percent of the popular vote to Clinton’s forty-eight, suggesting a very tight race. The Brexit vote passed by fifty-two-percent to forty-eight.

As a result, any sort of bold political statement, one way or the other, seems likely to alienate approximately half the audience. Indeed, the culture wars have become so fraught that even seemingly innocuous comments like Brie Larson wanting to speak to more female and minority interviewers have become flashpoints and women-only screenings of popular films have sparked online outrage mobs. Given that blockbusters are becoming increasingly expensive (and risky) propositions for major studios, it makes sense that some of the major studios would make a conscious effort to foreground themes that are less likely to be controversial and more likely to universal.

“Family” is one of the most basic and relatable themes. It is a safe subject. Regardless of an individual’s political orientation, most audience members can agree that “family” is a good thing, and forge an emotional connection to the idea of “family” as a driving character motivation and a central thematic thesis. Everybody has a family, particularly by the expanded definition employed by films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Fast and the Furious, and so these films can explore those themes in a way that do not run the risk of upsetting audience members with strong political convictions one way of the other. “Family” is safe subject matter for an investment on the scale of a modern blockbuster.

Of course, there is inevitably something political and pointed in the portrayal of these unconventional families on film. While not overtly and aggressively political in the style of something like The Dark Knight or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, these films represent a conscious acknowledgement of the changes in the definition of the modern family unit. Even in portraying something as universal as “family”, they are acknowledging that modern culture’s understanding of the concept is radically and fundamentally different than it would have been even a quarter of a century ago. There’s something quiet and endearing in this.

It might be about “family”, but modern culture demonstrates just how expansive and encompassing that concept can be.

2 Responses

  1. This was a fantastic read (no surprises there, your writing is always stellar). So, would you say that Hollywood is slowly moving away from the Oedipal narrative? I think that many of the examples you provided still partly fits it (though maybe not in quite the same clear-cut ways as some of Spielberg’s work).

    • Thanks Henry! I’m glad you enjoyed! I’m not entirely sure if it’s moving away, or simply carrying it to its logical conclusion. (After all, Guardians, Vol. 2 is very much a “kill your father” narrative.) The idea being that now you no longer need to defeat and reconcile your father, you can simply metaphorically kill him by embracing a new family.

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