They don’t wear capes. They don’t have fancy suits of armor. They aren’t gods or aliens or scientific experiments gone wrong. They just drive cars. Really fast cars. But the characters of the hit Fast and the Furious movie franchise are superheroes, as much as any member of the Justice League or the Avengers—and their movies are beating superhero flicks at their own game.

I’m serious. The Fast & Furious movies are superhero movies. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

“Do I think that the characters of Fast and Furious have become somewhat of superheroes? Yes. I do think that it has gradually become more and more akin to something superhero-like. You know, it’s how that happened, I don’t know. I think it’s one of those gradual things. And now the world kind of looks at our Fast and Furious characters like proletariat heroes. That they are. And I think what’s enjoyable for the audience is that they feel more familiar. They’re not in tights and capes and they don’t have lasers coming out of their eyes. They’re familiar characters. And they’ve become these proletariat heroes with great confidence and great ability. And we go along with them.”

That’s what Vin Diesel told us, when we asked him about our theory, and Vin Diesel is a man who knows his superheroes (and nerdiness in general, being an outspoken fan of Dungeons & Dragons). He’s also correct, both in that his and his fellow F&F castmates don’t wear tights or capes or have lasers shooting out of their eyes (although I would give a significant amount of money to see this happen in Fast & Furious 8), but that they have great confidence and ability—it just so happens that this ability has evolved to the point where the stars have become superhuman.

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Now, if you’ve only watched the first Fast and the Furious movie—or even the first three—you may think me insane. To be sure, when the first F&F movie debuted in 2001, Vin Diesel, as the family-oriented robber Dom Toretto, and Paul Walker, as Brian the undercover cop sent to infiltrate Dom’s gang and catch him, were merely great drivers. Sure, they barely outraced trains and weaved through traffic with supreme skill, but what they did was well within the human limits of driving. The same could be said of Paul Walker and Tyrese in 2 Fast 2 Furious (Diesel dropped out) and of Lucas Black in the third film, Tokyo Drift (by which time even Walker had dropped out).

But when Vin Diesel and Paul Walker returned for 2009’s Fast & Furious (the fourth movie, to be clear), something magical had happened. The characters of Dom and Brian and their various compatriots had been upgraded from great to… impossible. The climax of Fast & Furious ends which a lengthy chase scene in darkened tunnels leading under the border between Mexico and the U.S. The drivers can barely see 20 feet in front of them; there are massive support beams throughout the tunnels; there are inexplicably walls that cut off paths just so lesser racers can crash into them. Dom and Brian drive through these tunnels at over 100mph.

This is not good driving, this is Luke Skywalker using-the-Force-in-the-Death-Star-trench level skill. This is superhuman. This is magic. And it’s still nothing, compared to what these characters do later.

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In Fast Five, Dom and Brian continue to drive cars in way they simply should not be able to be driven. But their real feat comes in the movie’s climax, which the duo manage to supersede the laws of physics entirely, as they chain massive, four-ton fans to the back of their race cars, and drag a safe through Rio de Janeiro like a ludicrously large, square, wrecking ball. In Fast & Furious 6, the gang somehow use their cars to fight a tank, all while driving top-speed down a Spanish highway. And in Furious 7 (I swear these are all the official titles), our heroes not only manage to drive cars through mid-air between high-rise buildings, they also drop their vehicles out of a flying plane, manage to parachute on the road, and hit the ground at top speed.

All of this is patently impossible, no matter how good at driving someone is, and it is awesome. But driving is these characters’ superpowers, and the vehicles are just the tools they use to express that power. It’s no different from Captain America and his shield. Both Cap and Dom both use their chosen weapons to perfection, making them do things so improbable as to be superhuman: Cap can throw his shield so that it can hit anything (or anyone) he wants, and it’ll bounce back to him; Dom can drive his car off a parking garage roof with such precision that he can reach out of his window and place a totebag full of grenades on the landing rack of a flying helicopter without straining.

Actually, these characters have actually become kind of superhuman outside of their cars, too. In Fast & Furious (the fourth movie, remember) Dom and Brian drive off a several-hundred-foot-tall cliff and crash in a river below; not only do they survive in defiance of all laws of physics, they are absurdly nonchalant about their death-defying feat. Honestly, these characters are often invulnerable, whether they’re leaping out of totaled cars in perfect health, fighting the aforementioned tank, or simply pummeling each other.

And then there’s this:

Yes, this is Vin Diesel driving a car in just such a way to propel him across an elevated superhighway at the perfect height and velocity to catch Michelle Rodriguez before she plummets to her death. For one brief, incredible moment, Vin Diesel flies like Superman. It should go without saying that both Vin and Rodriguez survive this insane stunt with absolutely no ill effects.

I could go on and on about other ways the Fast & Furious universe is a comic book universe; there are evil crime-lords and supervillains to be fought; there are superweapons to keep out of their hands; main characters die, only to mysteriously return to life; foes become friends; despite the crazy, deadly-looking stunts the heroes pull, no one innocent is ever hurt; and the heroes almost never use guns, because that’s not what heroes do.

But instead, what I’d rather do is explain why the Fast and the Furious films actually surpass those comic book films currently starring heroes in costumes. The main reason is this: They have nothing to do with comic books.

I certainly don’t want to knock comic books. But translating these long-running, beloved superheroes to the screen necessarily means bringing a great deal of baggage with them, whether it be the character’s history, the fans’ unrealistic expectations, or even just the requirements laid down by the parent companies. Additionally, the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and, soon, no doubt the DC Cinematic Universe—are hamstrung by the connections between their films. Marvel has reaped the benefits of weaving together a single world, but it makes the films beholden to that universe as well (i.e., you can’t do anything in a Captain America film without thinking how it’ll affect the Avengers).

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The Fast & Furious franchise has created its own history—an impressively complex one, to tell the truth—but by concentrating on Vin Diesel’s and his extended “family,” the F&F movies retain a focus and freedom that the Marvel movies increasingly lack. Imagine if Marvel made only Avengers movies—that’s essentially what the F&F films are doing, and the only consideration they have to follow is making sure the next film is bigger and badder than the last one.

Despite having finished its seventh incarnation, the F&F movies are lean where the Marvel movies are increasingly bogged down by their own mythos. The side benefit to that is that anyone can watch any Fast & Furious movie and enjoy it on its own merits, while it’s getting harder for non-fans to understand the new Marvel movies without learning about everything that’s come before. And this certainly hasn’t prevented the F&F franchise from building upon its own lore (such as the aforementioned character resurrection, and the amazingly recontextualized death of a Tokyo Drift character in Fast & Furious 6, which is still such a great twist I can’t bring myself to spoil it for you.) But these are almost bonuses for fans—they aren’t essential to enjoying or comprehending the movies.

But my favorite aspect of the Fast & Furious films is that Dom, Brian and the rest are not morally complicated heroes. Sure, they spend the first few films as thieves (or cops), eventually morphing into Robin Hood-esque thieves, before settling into being the wonderfully unlikely global task force they are now. Look, there’s always going to be a place for soul-searching superheroes—for Bruce Banner to loathe his persona as the Hulk, for Black Widow to wallow in guilt for her violent past, for Superman to be put on trial for killing a zillion people, for Iron Man and Captain America to disagree so violently they feel compelled to beat the crap out of each other.

But sometimes—sometimes—I think there’s room for good guys who aren’t tormented, who save the day without haunted eyes or pregnant sighs or any hesitation whatsoever. The Fast & Furious racers have become those heroes. And maybe they’re less realistic—certainly they’re less complex—but I would contend they’re also a hell of a lot more fun to watch, too. That’s enough for me. I think it’s enough for a lot of people, given that Furious 7 outgrossed Avengers: Age of Ultron this year in worldwide box office.

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Maybe, as Diesel told us, this success is because the Fast & Furious characters are more familiar and relatable to people, or maybe it’s just because lasers don’t come out of their eyes. I have another theory: Maybe Dom, Brian, Letty, Roman and the others aren’t Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but I have no doubt in my mind that they’re Earth’s Best.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com. Follow him on Twitter at @robbricken.