Peter Bart: ‘Challengers’ Finds Box Office Heat By Serving Up Gen-Z Date With Zendaya And Her Tennis Partners

Luca Guadagnino believes filmgoers will endorse his Zendaya movie Challengers because it delivers “a canon of Hollywood golden age comedy – seductive fun with queerness.” The movie’s “big sell” is a shot of Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor kissing one another in various configurations.

Challengers is establishing itself as a Gen Z “date movie,” with a 75% female audience, mostly under the age of 24. Its high-powered social media campaign triggered a $25 million opening weekend globally, defying the pre-summer box office torpor.

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The movie has also been well received by Gen Z reviewers who are faithful to their lexicon of film criticism – male characters are approvingly deemed “heteroflexible,” females “polyamorous,” etc.

It was a surprise to his fans that Guadagnino, an Italian filmmaker, set out to make an American-set sports movie (he is not a sports fan) about a tennis world to which he was alien. As with his other films, Guadagnino’s narrative tends to dart frenetically between sectors of his characters’ careers.

RELATED: ‘Challengers’ Steamy 3-Way Kiss Scene Was Not In Original Script, Says Director Luca Guadagnino

Zendaya is cast as a talented and gorgeous tennis star who, sidelined by injury, becomes a coach to her handsome husband, encouraging him to challenge an equally handsome rival who happens to be her former lover.

Not surprisingly, there are problems. In interviews, Guadagnino explains he wanted to build “a triangle” reminiscent of the work of Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. “The triangle is not just about three people but about the corners touching each other,” he declares. As for Zendaya, “her motivation is not the product of erotic amusement — she’s pushing them to be better persons.”

RELATED: Zendaya’s ‘Challengers’ Trailer Shows Racy Side Of Tennis Pro’s World

If the relationships in Challengers seem complex, so are the technical demands. Rebelling against the “static camera angles” typical of tennis footage, Guadagnino experiments with shots from below the net as well as perspectives where the camera is the ball, hurtling over the net.

The filmmaker even borrows from his countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni, whose characters in Blow-Up play phantom tennis, miming their rackets and balls.

RELATED: Zendaya Achieves Red Carpet Grand Slam While Promoting ‘Challengers’

As in Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothée Chalamet, Guadagnino has selected a young star in Zendaya whose presence dominates even those scenes in which she is absent. She catapulted from teenage roles on Disney Channel to the provocative, Emmy-winning Euphoria.

Ambitious for film stardom, she reportedly was active in casting and shooting Challengers, urging her director to enlist the British actor O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown) to play the rival. Faist (Riff in Spielberg’s West Side Story) is cast as the husband.

RELATED: ‘Challengers’ Star Zendaya Says “It’s Very Odd” Her Kissing Scenes Get A Lot Of Attention: “I Have Noticed That, With Me Specifically”

Will Challengers experience a build at the box office? Media gurus hint that “full frontal” movies have been heating up lately — witness the reception to Saltburn or Poor Things, along with such projects as No Hard Feelings and Anyone but You that also reflect libidinous opportunity.

Their efforts likely will receive support from the new Gen Z commentators.

RELATED: ‘Challengers’ Premiere: Zendaya Calls Luca Guadagnino “Brilliant” & Josh O’Connor Says Working With Director Was “A Real Treat & An Honor”

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