‘Challengers’ Is the Gen Z Version of ‘Fatal Attraction,’ Minus the Cautionary Tale

By Gayle McQueary Published on May 3, 2024

Last weekend I went to the movie Challengers, headlined by Zendaya.

Before you ask: No, I had no particular interest in seeing this film. It was just the cheapest one at the theater — and that goes for the film’s plot as well.

Rotten Tomatoes tells us Zendaya’s character, Tashi Duncan, is “a former tennis prodigy turned coach and a force of nature who makes no apologies for her game on and off the court. Married to a champion on a losing streak (Mike Faist – West Side Story), Tashi’s strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against the washed-up Patrick (Josh O’Connor – The Crown) — his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend. As their pasts and presents collide, and tensions run high, Tashi must ask herself, what will it cost to win.”

And no, that last statement is not a question, because Tashi doesn’t care about the cost of anything — she just cares about winning. (Note to self: read any synopsis before settling for a cheap movie.)

Mixed Throuples Match

Part of what made paying $5 to see this film bearable was thinking, “Maybe this is just a ‘modern’ take on the cautionary tales of the late 80s and early 90s starring Michael Douglas, like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.”

But the joke’s on this viewer! Films like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and others served as warnings to the viewer to not be like the characters on the screen. These unlikable people, doing unlikable things were not the “heroes” of the story, but victims who got caught in a trap of their own making. For instance, Douglas’s Fatal Attraction character stepped out on his wife for a one-night stand with a stranger — who turned out to be a stalker who boiled his child’s bunny and tried to murder his wife.

Challengers, on the other hand, is filled with unlikeable characters, committing and doing unlikable things that lead to a disappointing ending; neither the plot nor the characters have any redeeming qualities.

Weirdly, most critics are lauding the film. They are praising it for using tennis as a way to build tension between all three of the main characters as they work to destroy each other. Alfred Hithcock’s Strangers on a Train, which had a similar plot, still holds a better Rotten Tomatoes score 73 years later than Challengers does, albeit with fewer critical reviews.

How could that be? The theme of both films is manipulation; but unlike Challengers, the characters in Strangers on a Train actually face the consequences of their poor decisions and the audience learns a good lesson through it.

No Heroes Here

The plot of Challengers could be summed up biblically by James 3:16 — except from Satan’s point of view. The characters only care about their selfish ambitions; all of them are in chaos, no one is at peace. If the film could be summarized by a bible verse, then Timothy 3:1-5 would apply here:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

If there were one healthy character in this film who got trapped by one of the others, we may have had a better movie with a motive to round out the plot. Alas, the ending is shallow, too; there’s no resolution to the trauma each character faces while achieving their own selfish ambition, or which they’ve caused the others. At best, the ending shows the two characters who “should have ended up together” — and not to give anything away, but Tashi is not part of that couple.

Hope for the Masses

Is there hope that not all Gen Z movies will have characters like the ones in Challengers or continue the trend of deconstructing heroes to the point that we no longer have any heroes? Hollywood has been churning out nihilistic worldviews for some time (Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, and Silent Night, to name just a few), but generally speaking, this was done intentionally, and the audience understood that was part of the contract. But many filmmakers now seem to believe that nihilism is a box that must be checked while devising the plot within the film. We don’t need or want to see Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker as a down-and-out has-been who is now skeptical and bitter after all the challenges we saw them face and overcome. At least, I don’t want my silver-screen heroes broken down into shells of their former selves that way. What’s the point of that? Their characters were already established as imperfect people — but perfect for the task that made them the “hero” of the film.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has actually produced a list of criteria for what it will award going forward — including at least one lead or supporting actor from an “underrepresented” racial group, 30 percent of the minor cast coming from at least two “underrepresented” groups, a narrative centered on underrepresented groups (such as women, racial group, or sexual minorities), and at least 30 percent of the film’s crew coming from the same “underrepresented” groups. (We wonder what the percentage of Christians and Republicans they might be required to hire would be.)

Checking all the boxes of wokeness and hopelessness, pseudo-female empowerment, and hero deconstruction can’t really be what audiences want to see in films. So what do audiences seem to want?

Apparently, they want more wholesome, even Christian, entertainment! In contrast to the demoralizing films of the secular world, Christian films are gaining traction in 2024. Major studios and streaming services like Lionsgate, Amazon, and Netflix are noticing the value of faith-based films and offering more support to help them compete within the market.

For example, Jesus Revolution may not have been a revolutionary film, but it earned back its entire $15 million production budget on its opening weekend, then went on to gross $54 million worldwide in 2023. By comparison, Challengers also made $15 million on its domestic opening weekend, but its production budget was $55 million.

This is hopeful news for not only moviegoers, but filmmakers who want to use their God-given gift of storytelling without falling victim to false woke narratives and award criteria. Be encouraged! The shift in moviegoers wanting more than the bleak nihilism of Hollywood is surely a sign that God’s light is shining in even the darkest of places.

 

Gayle McQueary is The Stream’s social media specialist. She has a background in production and is a scary judge of box office value. 

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