Fast X – We Really Need Talk About What’s Going On With Cipher

Fast X is an overwhelming film with a lot of moving parts. You’ve got four almost entirely separate story threads running through the film: Dom on his own investigating new baddie Dante Reyes, Tej, Roman, Han and Ramsey trying to stay off the grid, Dom’s brother Jakob and son Little Brian having a road trip, and Letty and Cipher having to team up to escape a blacksite prison in Antarctica.

That last thread is an odd one. It doesn’t take up much of the movie–it’s only three or four scenes, which are scattered throughout the movie in a way that feels almost random since they have no bearing on anything else that’s happening. But more interesting than this thread itself is what it might be signaling about Cipher’s future. Could they be setting Cipher up to join the family? Yes, they certainly could be. I’m not sure that they are doing that, but they’ve certainly put themselves in the position to do so.

I’m not sure that’s the best idea, though. The story is already a huge mess in narrative terms, and how they handle Cipher could also irrevocably muddy the franchise’s core themes, too. Let’s break it down.

In The Fate of the Furious, Cipher came in like a thousand wrecking balls. Charlize Theron’s villain character immediately positioned herself as the Fast & Furious franchise’s apparently unredeemable main villain. She was a clear thematic contrast with Dominic Toretto, the man who can’t stop turning enemies into family, and she was intent on bending him to her will. And so she held his ex-girlfriend Elena and their young son hostage, and forced him to fight against everyone else he loves.

That film established Cipher’s importance to the franchise pretty quickly, revealing that the villains from the previous two movies, Owen Shaw and Mose Jakande, had secretly been working for her. By extension, that probably also places Arturo Braga from the fourth film under her umbrella to some degree, perhaps indirectly through Shaw. The phantom menace had emerged.

And then midway through F8, Cipher solidified her evilness with a pretty severe response to Dom not 100% adhering to orders during the mission in New York: She stared Dom right in the eyes and held his son in her arms while her goon executed Elena. This one felt pretty final–we get to watch Dom stare at her well-lit corpse for a while. It’s hard to figure how this could have been faked, or why. So: Elena is dead, because Cipher murdered her.

What’s Cipher’s plan? Global domination. Total chaos. Bad news on the largest scale this franchise has attempted. The Nightshade device from Fast & Furious 6 could have rendered any nation in the world utterly defenseless. The God’s Eye from Furious 7 is a global surveillance algorithm that can find anyone, anywhere. In F8 she tries to fire off a nuke that would start a war. In F9 she was seeking control of Project Aries, which would allow her to hack any computer system on Earth. These are all individually very, very bad, but Cipher truly was playing for the whole shebang by going after all of them.

And finally, just to drive the point all the way home, Cipher does not care about anyone but herself. She has no friends or family and doesn’t want them. To her, all other people–all other people–are just tools to be used to serve her ends.

Cipher exists to be Dom’s antithesis.

Or she did, anyway. It’s hard to tell what her deal is after Fast X, a movie that seems intent on restarting Cipher’s arc from scratch–but with Jason Momoa’s Dante Reyes replacing her as the main series villain.

Warning: The remainder of this article contains many spoilers for Fast X.

After a lengthy flashback sequence that adds Dante to the climactic heist from Fast Five, Dante announces himself in the present by invading Cipher’s new secret base. He reveals that he’s pulled the same trick on her that she pulled on Dom in F8–but since Cipher doesn’t have any loved ones, Dante instead kidnapped the families of every single member of her team, and turned them all against her so he can steal the God’s Eye surveillance tech. He succeeds, and tells her men to kill her as he walks out the door.

Cipher fights her way out, then literally walks to Dom’s house to tell him about Dante. And then she’s sent to a blacksite prison in Antarctica. She spends the entire rest of the movie there, ultimately working with Letty to escape. While they never reconnect with any other current main cast members during this movie, someone does show up in a submarine to pick them up right at the very end: Gisele, who we thought died at the end of Fast & Furious 6.

All of this has left Cipher in an ambiguous spot. Dante is the new main bad guy. Cipher’s team-up with Letty was apparently arranged by Tess (Brie Larson), who is portrayed as unambiguously good throughout Fast X, and it’s likely that Gisele was working for Tess. We have no idea what Cipher knows or what her relationship is with Tess or Gisele, or if she even knows them personally already.

Every time Cipher appeared on screen in Fast X, alarm bells went off in my head. Is this the start of a redemption arc? Are we really just abandoning her story and doing Dante’s story instead? Or are we gearing up for a three-way battle between Dom, Dante, and Cipher?

It’s impossible to know. Fast X’s cliffhanger is quite abrupt. It’s the sort of ending you’d expect when they shoot two movies back to back like the Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, where you know they’ve already locked in the overall plot. But this isn’t one of those situations–the next movie isn’t close to starting production and is still years away from release. There’s a good chance they still don’t completely know where they’re going with this, and with the WGA on strike it might still be a while before they do.

It’s frustrating either way, and a sign of a surprising bit of rot at the center of the franchise. The plots of the Fast & Furious movies have gotten more complicated than they need to be, while at the same time rarely committing to any threads in the long term. Take Han, for example, who was brought back from the dead in the last movie with a lengthy story about how he had to fake his own death to save some girl’s life and essentially raise her as his daughter. That girl is neither seen nor mentioned in Fast X.

Even worse, look at Jakob. This character, Dom’s secret brother played by John Cena, was created for F9, complete with lengthy flashback plot to explain his existence and why nobody had ever mentioned him before. And now, in Fast X, he gets no screen time with any of the major cast members and is killed off (for now) during the big chase at the end. They simply punted on that character.

If that’s how they treat Dom’s brother, then what are they doing with Cipher? Judging by the threads they’ve aborted just from the last movie, it’s hard not to think she’s also being pivoted in some significant way. I’m not actually opposed to a redemption arc for Cipher, to be clear. I just worry they’ll handle it clumsily. Say, for example, by revealing that Elena is still alive and thus letting Cipher off the hook for her death–it’s not a redemption arc if you’re just revealing that they didn’t need to be redeemed. So that explanation would be both unsatisfying and nonsensical, and another example of the franchise’s recent inability to commit to its stories.

But what would be a satisfying arc for Cipher? A three-way fight would probably be one of the few options that would work with the current state of things. Dante is still alive and will obviously continue to be a problem, but that wouldn’t preclude Cipher from also going ham on everybody. And this would be a decent thematic trinity–you’ve got the good and wholesome family man in Dom, the warped and messed up family man in Dante, and the woman who just hates families (Cipher). That’s a good group to pit against each other. It’s not the only good path to take, but it’s one that could work.

And if they want to redeem Cipher the normal way, by actually making her earn it, she’ll need to do something big. Like “sacrifice yourself to save others” kind of big. And that would require a lot more character development to make it work, since she’s yet to be characterized as anything but a terrible person in these movies.

But after Fast X, it’s hard to have faith in director Louis Leterrier and Vin Diesel and the other creative decision-makers on this thing to figure the Cipher situation out in a satisfying way. While Fast X had to have been immensely challenging under the circumstances–with longtime franchise director Justin Lin exiting a week into filming and Leterrier taking his place and doing rewrites on the fly–the finished film is so incoherent it barely tracks from scene to scene.

But I’ve always liked Leterrier as a director, and things may go very differently when he’s on the project from the beginning like he will be on Fast X-2. This franchise has been a big part of my life for the past two decades, and so I’m hoping for the best as it comes to an end. I’m just not expecting it.

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