Hollywood’s Latest Hit Is An Epic Rejection Of Weak Lefty Values

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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Like me, you probably had no interest in seeing Zendaya’s new tennis movie, “Challengers.” The trailer, which has been relentlessly pushed, showcased what appeared to be very much a movie of our times — and that’s not a compliment. Who wants to watch Zendaya, whose masculine brooding typecast is already off-putting, emasculate two guys in a weird, gay love triangle? I’ve had enough Girl Bosses for a lifetime. Plus, tennis was never my thing.

But then I heard whispers on Twitter.  It was good. Really good. And not at all what the trailer made it seem. Could this feminist blockbuster possibly be right-coded? One poster even described it as “fascistic” — and for him, that was a compliment. I figured it was worth going to see for myself. Man, did it not disappoint.

“Challengers” is not really about Zendaya’s character, Tashi, a tennis prodigy turned elite coach. Nor is it really about her two lovers, peers and proteges, Art and Patrick. “We’re not talking about tennis, are we?” the three characters often ask each other, the winning shot in a caustic repartee that mimics the best rallies the sport has to offer. Aptly so, for this is not even really a movie about tennis; it’s a movie about war.

The story begins with Art and Patrick facing off in their first ever professional match and unfolds through a series of flashbacks that detail the 14-year rivalry that brought them to this point. It’s the match of their career, even though it’s a meaningless Challenger tournament. For Art, a renowned pro on the tail-end of his career, the match will make or break his confidence; does he have what it takes to be more than just “really good?” For Patrick, an arrogant burnout “coasting on talent,” it will determine if he is capable of the drive and discipline necessary to mount a comeback.

They don’t realize until the final tie-breaking match, but their saga is one of self-mastery — and it’s Tashi who brings them there. But first she has to break them.

“You think that tennis is about expressing yourself, but you don’t know what tennis is. It’s a relationship,” she tells the boys on the first night they meet at a post-tournament party. The boys just made a name for themselves as junior doubles champions, but Tashi is in a league of her own. She cuts through the competition like Achilles on the beaches of Troy. Her serves are violent, and some epic sound editing makes you feel the ball as it slams toward her opponent. “You screamed when you hit the winner. I never heard anything like it before,” Art tells her, smitten more by her skill and physicality than her sexual allure. Yet the difference soon becomes negligible.

It’s tempting to view the threesome scene shown in the trailer as added simply for shock value, but it’s not. It sets the stage for the rivalry that will unfold. While it never moves beyond first base, the boys are enthralled; just like when on the court, Tashi is in full control. She kisses Art first, who is shocked in his meekness, while Patrick looks on with disbelief. She then turns to Patrick, who accepts her kiss as though it’s rightfully his, while Art returns to looking dejected. The boys are set to face each other in singles the next day and she tells them she’ll give her number to whoever wins.

“What do you want?” they ask her, probing into her preference on the winner.

“I want to watch some good fucking tennis.”

This line captures what makes Tashi such a compelling character compared to the boys. Art and Patrick each have their own egotistical limitations, the bedroom scene a microcosm of their personalities. Competing for her number the next day, they start their journey to escape these limitations. (RELATED: Hollywood’s New ‘Civil War’ Movie Is Even Worse Than You Think)

Patrick is arrogant. He thinks he deserves to win and so does not put in the necessary work. He skips college, going right to the pro circuit, but he burns out early in the matches when he realizes things are not going his way. The same goes with his relationship with Tashi. He wins the match and her number, but sabotages the relationship when she doesn’t give him the professional respect he feels he deserves. He’s a great player, but his arrogance gets in the way.

Meanwhile, Art is consumed by his lack of self-confidence. He waits around like a lap-dog, expecting Patrick to mess up with Tashi so he can swoop in. He does everything right — training at college before pursuing a cautious professional career with meticulous training, nutrition and technique. Eventually, he marries Tashi, who becomes his coach. But still, his confidence is the only thing holding him back — which is why she enters him in the Challenger tournament in the first place; he needs an easy win. He’s a great player, but he doesn’t quite know it.

They’re also held back by petty questions of morality. Art is tortured by thoughts of retirement; he wants to be done with the emotional stress of tennis, but would he be letting his family down if he decides to just be a regular guy? Patrick desperately wants to be seen as a virtuous underdog, romanticizing his comeback as he sleeps in his crappy car and scrimps for cash, despite having wealthy parents more than happy to support him. They convince themselves these are effects of their poor performances, but really they’re the cause. Their self-imposed personal misery is all just a distraction from the game.

On the other hand, Tashi is a rejection of this philosophy of weakness. She exists only to be the best.

For Tashi, “good tennis” is really all it’s about. She’s a warrior and the tennis court is her battlefield. There are no questions of ego: is she good enough, does she deserve to win? Those questions don’t exist when she’s playing. In fact, there’s no thinking at all; she roars instinctively as she fights for her life, building a “relationship” with a competitor who is equally determined. Neither are their questions of morality; she mouths the words that she’ll stand by Art if he chooses to retire, but she’s lying. Her face shows she’s repulsed by his introspective weakness. She betrays him, sleeping with Patrick so he’ll throw the match, allowing Art to get his confidence back. (RELATED: The Best Easter Movie Of All Time Was Made By A Gay, Commie Atheist. No, Really)

It takes fourteen years of pursuing her for the boys to finally follow Tashi’s example.

Caution: Spoilers Ahead

In the final scene, Tashi watches from the crowd as the boys play in the final round of the tournament. Patrick wins the first set, Art the second; it’s not clear Patrick will actually keep his promise. Art takes the lead late in the final game, and, annoyed that he’s losing, Patrick begins to throw the match through double faults. However, he stops short, signaling to Art that he slept with Tashi from across the net. Devastated, it’s then Art who appears ready to throw the match, allowing Patrick to catch up.

But then something clicks. Ego falls away, along with all questions of confidence and right and wrong. They make eye contact heading into the tie breaker, and a small smile shows they’re ready for war. The viewer becomes the ball, zooming back and forth in a violent rally. You see small flashes of bulging muscle and gleaming sweat; the game is all that matters — until they collide as one over the net, finally understanding the “relationship” Tashi talked about when they were kids.

The boys mistakenly think they’re driven by their love for Tashi, but finally realize, like all great men, they’re driven by the lust for conquest that she represents. When being the best is all that matters, everything superfluous falls away. It doesn’t matter who wins; it only matters that they broke out of their pathological weakness.

With their egotistical obsessions and moral preening, the boys are the perfect representation of our own present societal ills. We’re all too consumed with feeling good and being seen as good that actually doing good falls to the wayside. We confuse feelings and perceptions with action, and then wonder why we’re trapped in misery.

That’s why Tashi is such a compelling character. She rejects excuses, feelings, worries, ego — anything that stands in the way of her conquest. To have a character possess these qualities and not be made into a villain is something Hollywood has not done in a long time, but it’s something we could use a whole lot more of.