Is Zendaya the villain of Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers?

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So long, Barbenheimer — there’s a new cinematic event of the summer.

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Challengers, has finally arrived in theatres. Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, the film follows three tennis players over the course of their respective careers.

Today on Commotion, Elamin Abdelmahmoud sits down with Hanna Flint, Kathleen Newman-Bremang and Jackson Weaver to talk about who the real villain of Challengers is, and why audiences will be debating the answer for months to come.

Hanna Flint is a freelance TV and movie critic based in London, U.K., and Kathleen Newman-Bremang is the deputy director of Refinery29 Unbothered, based in Toronto. Jackson Weaver is a reporter with CBC’s Entertainment unit.

We’ve included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

WATCH | Today’s episode on YouTube:

Elamin: Hanna, let’s talk about what kind of movie this is. Is it a sports movie? Is it a love movie? What do you watch when you go and watch Challengers?

Hanna: D: all of the above. You know what I really like about this film, is that yes, it’s a sports movie, but it’s a vehicle for a really psychological romantic thriller in a way. It reminded me of, like, Wuthering Heights — the kind of love triangle…. But I guess what I really love about it is that it is about tennis, but it’s about the passion of it. It’s about so much of the emotion and the thing that goes into trying to play the sport at a higher level. I think it’s the best film, no shade to Wimbledon 

Elamin: Some shade to Wimbledon, but OK. Continue.

Hanna: I think a lot of films that are about sports don’t get the psychology of winning, don’t get the pressure of it. And what I love about this is that the entire film is a match. It is a game that they’re playing, whether it’s off the court or on. So I think it really captures that…. It felt like we were just watching so much foreplay.

Jackson: Yes!

Hanna: It feels like cinematic edging until the final act, and you’re like, yes!

Elamin: I have to say, there is something magical about Zendaya yelling the words, “Come on!” that by the time that she does it at the end, you’re like, this is it.

Hanna: Orgasmic!

Elamin: This is the best picture of the year.

Kathleen: This is what we signed up for.

Jackson: Yes!

Elamin: Jackson, Hanna just mentioned the love triangle. This is a classic movie trope. Does it work for you in Challengers?

Jackson: It works so well. The thing that I love so much about it is this is a love triangle that’s not about love. It’s also about love in the sense that it’s trying to abstract love into its final form, which in this writer’s idea is just the aspect of control — who wins this relationship. You get love triangles a dime a dozen in movies, but this is that special kind of love triangle where each character gets equal footing and you decide, based on what you think is right and wrong in a person, who’s the hero, who’s the villain and who’s the victim of it. Like, is Tashi the hero or the villain for always taking control?

Elamin: Tashi’s a bad person, bro.

Jackson: That’s your take!

Elamin: I walked away being like, she’s a monster. I love her. Great monster onscreen.

Jackson: But that says what you think about in life. Or do you think that somebody who is unapologetically in your face and getting what they need to get is like a paragon of humanity? Is Art the victim because he’s waifish and giving everything away? Does he know what he wants? Should Patrick have given up? Or is it commendable that he doesn’t give up?

Tashi being a villain is so interesting because you get all these movies where when women are seen as in control of our relationship, a movie has to either explain or subvert/comment on why that could have possibly happened. Why are we in this topsy-turvy world where the woman has the power in the relationship? Is it an idea where a woman gets something over on a man? Is she protected by her class? Is she protected by her supposed innocence? Like, how could this have happened? Challengers doesn’t do that. She is the same age, same social status, playing the same sport as them — but she directs them.

WATCH | Official trailer for Challengers:

Elamin: She manipulates them, but I appreciate the directing.

Jackson: She is in control. She’s winning. She’s guiding both of them. You might see that as villainous, but you make a decision for yourself, and that’s what I love about this movie.

Hanna: Actually, my thing is that they’re all villains because we all have a villain part of us.

Jackson: That’s a great take, I love that.

Hanna: They all do terrible things. It’s the most realistic kind of presentation. Maybe we aren’t good. Like, Mike Faist’s character is a bit of a cuck, but he does very conniving bits.

Kathleen: I’m an Art hater.

Jackson: We have the same read.

Hanna: I feel for him though, because I get it. I love that Josh O’Connor is normally the nice guy.

Elamin: Josh O’Connor’s character, Patrick Zweig, is the person I ride for, by the way. He’s clearly the good guy in this because he’s very transparent about who he is.

Hanna: That’s your problem, Elamin!

Jackson: Exactly, yes.

Hanna: It’s like you want a good guy and a bad guy. This is why everyone doesn’t get Dune…. They’re all villains!

You can listen to the full discussion from today’s show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.


Panel produced by Jean Kim.

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