Monday, May 20, 2024

“Challengers” Is Zendaya’s Time To Shine As A Leading Movie Star

Challengers” promises to showcase Zendaya on the big screen like she’s never been seen before. That promise has nothing to do with any of her action sequences on the tennis court or femme-fatale-level action off the court. Rather, “Challengers” is truly new territory for Zendaya as a movie star—she’s never actually been the star of her own movie before. Although “Challengers” is a three-handed film between her, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor, she is unquestionably the top draw and headliner. What’s more, this is unquestionably the first time she has ever been the lead of a movie that went to theatres.

Malcolm and Marie” had been the closest film to feature Zendaya as the lead, but that Netflix movie was more of a two-hander between her and John David Washington. Either way, all her movies outside of streaming have placed her in a supporting role, from the “Spider-Man” franchise to “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” to animated roles and “The Greatest Showman.” Now, “Challengers” will finally let Zendaya lead a theatrical movie for the first time, despite a resume that would have gotten almost anyone else their own movie much sooner.

A supporting role in six blockbusters over the last seven years is one thing, but the fact that she also has two Emmys for the leading role in “Euphoria” is another. Nonetheless, thanks to various factors and franchise obligations, a two-time Emmy-winning TV lead and a supporting player in two of Hollywood’s biggest franchises is only just now becoming a leading lady on the big screen.

Even compared to some of her “Euphoria” castmates, Zendaya has had a slower rollout as a headlining movie star. Over the last several months, Sydney Sweeney has had a bigger launch as a solo film star outside of “Euphoria” and IP franchises, from being the lead in “Reality” and “Immaculate” to co-leading the rom-com breakout, “Anyone But You.” Following close behind her is Jacob Elordi, who was technically only the secondary lead/love interest in both “Priscilla” and “Saltburn.” Yet the main characters’ every waking thought in both films revolved around obsessing over Elordi’s characters, whereas the leads of Zendaya’s blockbusters had several other things on their minds besides her. Even recurring guest star Colman Domingo just received an Oscar nomination for “Rustin” and may be pushed for a second in “Sing Sing” later this year.

Since leaving Disney Channel, “Euphoria” has been the only project in which Zendaya has been the leading character. Leaving her two Emmys aside, she has not always been seen as the biggest headliner and headline-maker of a show. Instead, buzz and controversy have usually centered around whatever new nude/dodgy scene or plot line Sam Levinson has come up with; whatever new behind-the-scenes allegation is made against Levinson’s on-set environment; whatever new viral scene is given to the likes of Sweeney or Elordi, or more recently, when or if the show is coming back for another season at all.

Although Zendaya is one of the few things both vocal fans and even more vocal critics are united behind when it comes to “Euphoria,” her award-winning material only seems to be a small part of the show’s legacy to this point. It is an ensemble piece with multiple breakout stars, yet the breakouts other than Zendaya have had a quicker start making the transition from TV players to movie leads – even though none of them have her Emmys or her blockbuster track record.

There are certainly more insidious theories than others as to why Zendaya took this long to get a star vehicle like “Challengers.” However, some of it may have more to do with timing than anything else, considering all the time Zendaya has spent having to film mega-blockbusters instead of finding her own material. Nonetheless, Timothée Chalamet was still able to land “Wonka,” “Bones and All and more during and in between “Dune movies, while Tom Holland still got to lead multiple films like “Uncharted and “Cherry in between “Spider-Man movies. On the other hand, “Euphoria was all Zendaya could fit in between those franchises, which was surely time-consuming and endurance-testing enough on its own.Now, with a final “Euphoria season either back to the drawing board or outright scrapped, with Denis Villeneuve taking his time before launching “Dune: Messiah, and with a mere 50/50 shot that any fourth “Spider-Man film would even need her after the ending of “Spider-Man: No Way Home, Zendaya is finally free of any franchise obligations for the moment. With that, she finally has time to find films where she’s not the supporting love interest, isn’t overshadowed by other breakout stars or triggering material, and leads a movie that’s “her game and “her rules on the court.

Under normal circumstances, this opportunity would come much sooner. Technically, it would have already come and gone back in fall 2023 if the studios hadn’t pushed back the releases of both “Challengers and “Dune: Part Two as a tactic against striking unions. But in a period where multiple other factors have delayed Zendaya’s debut as a lead movie star, the strikes were just one last drop in the pile.

However, now that this debut is here at last, “Challengers actually has to deliver. All the early raves from critics suggest that it does, but whether that word of mouth will translate at the box office is quite another story. Since “Challengers is out on the last weekend before the summer movie season officially starts, it isn’t exactly a box office-friendly release date. Maybe this relatively small movie doesn’t need to make that much for Amazon and MGM to consider it a winner. Still, it may need to in order to prove what Zendaya’s current – and future – box office drawing power really is without any franchise/IP assistance.

Of course, this is an age where almost no human star seems to be a superhero or cinematic universe-level box office draw anymore. Perhaps an R-rated steamy love triangle/sports drama like “Challengers, from director Luca Guadagnino, who’s more of a Film Twitter draw than a box office draw, might not be the most conclusive proof about whether Zendaya can really open a film on her own. But if “Challengers underachieves despite its reviews and viral hype, certain analysts will be far quicker to discredit her as a box office draw outside of “Dune and “Spider-Man than they are to discredit a superhero leading man when their non-comic book films do nothing.

There’s also no way of knowing yet when Zendaya will get another chance to open a film since she technically has no upcoming projects locked in at all. Aside from playing the waiting game on when, or if, the third season of “Euphoria and the next “Dune entry, “Dune: Messiah, ever get off the ground, there is nothing else she has officially booked for the foreseeable future. So, as it has been for the last several years, the uncertain future of her other franchises may shape whatever else Zendaya does next more than anything.

Despite quicker star-making opportunities for costars, she has built her star power and fanbase in other ways and has arguably been more decorated and awarded. The likes of Chalamet, Holland, Sweeney, and others may have gotten the more immediate bounce and star vehicles from these shows and franchises, but Zendaya may wind up benefiting more from playing the long game in the end.

Still, those who’ve waited for her to do more than just elevate love interests in blockbuster movies and those who’ve waited for her to receive “Euphoria”-level showcases and pathos in any movie would argue this long game probably shouldn’t have been this long. However “Challengers plays out at the box office, it likely won’t take another seven years for Zendaya to get her next top-billed role – though its success can certainly help her land more aces.

Have you seen “Challengers” yet? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think Zendaya has finally arrived as a big-screen move star? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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