By David Greven.

Echoing classical Hollywood and classical myth, the triple protagonist film of the present breaks new ground while reinforcing longstanding myths about sexuality and gender stereotypes.”

In Luca Guadagnino’s great films, such as Call Me By Your Name (2017), Bones and All (2022), and I Am Love (2009), the director gives the impression that he is fighting for his characters and their stories, for their right to exist. He fights for his characters’ right to desire, whether it be a teenage boy’s transgressive love for an older male, the cannibalistic hunger of two young lovers who share this taste, a married woman’s ardor for a younger man new on the scene, complemented by her daughter’s emboldening embrace of her lesbian sexuality. In the prolific director’s latest film, Challengers (2024), there is much to rivet and compel one, but the allegiance with the characters and their right to desire is not palpable as it is in these other films.

This is not to say that Guadagnino does not evince a great deal of sympathy with his heroine, Tashi Duncan, played by Zendaya, known for the HBO series Euphoria and playing Spiderman’s girlfriend Michelle in the Tom Holland movies of this Marvel Studios franchise. Tashi is from the outset the magnetic and arresting focal point of the narrative, drawing the shared eye of the two male leads Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). Tashi, an up-and-coming player, seems destined for greatness as a tennis star. When Patrick and Art, longtime friends since their boarding school days who have just won junior doubles title at the US Open, watch her performance during a match, they become instantly smitten, as if their own fresh victory pales in comparison with the spectacle of this lithe, super-swift goddess in action.

Challengers | Rotten Tomatoes

After the males lure her out to the nighttime beach with the promise of a subversive cigarette, which Tashi studiously rejects, she surprises the antsy duo in their hotel room. After making out with the guys, sitting between them, and getting them to make out with one another, Tashi abruptly leaves, promising to give her number to the victor of their singles match the next day. Tashi and Patrick end up together for a time, but due to a horrible leg injury during a game, Tashi lies crumpled on the ground. The ne’er-do-well Patrick’s unreliability established, he fails to be at the match and is not there to comfort her. Art has been chafing against Patrick’s success with Tashi, about which Patrick constantly needles Art, who broodingly insists that he is happy for the couple. Art’s pining interest established, he immediately races to the injured Tashi’s side. When Patrick tardily appears at the infirmary, Art bellows at him to go away, his indignant warning echoed by the suffering but adamant Tashi’s own.

Now Art and Tashi become a couple, eventually marrying. Tashi, unable to compete due to her injury, also becomes Art’s coach, both achieving fame and success evinced by huge billboards featuring them as a sports-legend couple. Patrick becomes something of an unshaven itinerant, stumbling from one tournament to another, sleeping in his car because he can’t pay for a hotel room. Meanwhile, the Art of the present clearly feels a diminished passion for tennis and competition, and worries that the driven, unflinching Tashi will leave him if he quits the game, which he intends to do. It’s at this point that Patrick reenters the scene as Art’s competitor once again, not only for a tennis match but also Tashi’s ardor.

I have argued elsewhere that, reflecting a new queer visibility at the start of the Nineties and registering a response to it, mainstream films of the Nineties and the 2000s began representing masculinity in new ways. Emblematic of this new approach was the battle between two male leads, one narcissistic and the other masochistic, for screen dominance. I call this competition, the erotic stakes of which include the masochist’s desire to possess the narcissist, either sexually or psychically or both, the double protagonist film.[1] Prominent examples include Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Fast and the Furious films, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Fight Club (1999), Auto-Focus (2022), and I Love You, Man (2009). While female characters abound in these films, the women always take a secondary role, playing Echo to the Narcissus and doubling the echoistic role of the masochist who loves or at least obsessively contemplates the narcissist. The double protagonist film evolves from what Molly Haskell in her landmark 1970s study From Reverence to Rape called the buddy film. The double protagonist film goes further than the buddy film in making a homosexual subtext explicit and often depicts the dual male relationship as rivalrous as well as erotic, a multilayered, intimate competition. The later 2000s saw further developments in the depiction of males and male relationships, most notably the beta male comedy and the bromance.[2]

‘Challengers’ | Anatomy of a Scene

In many ways, Challengers exhausts analysis because it provides that analysis itself. We can call this the pre-theorized film, a work that foregrounds knowledge of its own motivations and unresolved tensions, that encodes the key to its allegorical meanings within its narrative design, in this case the film’s investments in “challenging” gender and sexual norms and creating a mainstream film where homoerotic desire and heterosexual desire have equal footing and productively share in a confusion of symbolic tongues.

In keeping with the pattern of the double protagonist film, Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig louchely and brashly performs the role of the narcissist, with his easy confidence, sensually dark-haired, equipped with large-limbed, loping form, while Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson, winsome and less knowing and cunning, with his  lean, severe, dancer’s body a pale, blond Adonis, occupies the masochistic position, pining for Tashi while being taunted by his old friend and new rival Patrick. Patrick conveys this knowledge through tennis player-code: Art has “a tell,” Patrick declares, placing the tennis ball on the neck of the racket before serving. Patrick reproduces Art’s signature if private gesture to confirm Patrick’s sexual triumph with Tashi.

Challengers—building on Guadagnino’s oeuvre, the buddy film, the double protagonist film, the beta male comedy, the bromance, and related permutations of movies heavily invested in male-male dynamics—boldly pushes the sexual envelope, revising these approaches and reframing their gender and sexual dynamics. Working from Justin Kuritzkes’s script, Guadagnino provides a template for what we can call the triple protagonist film, where two men war over possession of a woman. But, unlike in the double protagonist film, this female character is far from the objectified, triangulated object, the economy of the men’s fraught relations. Now, she is the central figure and the focal point of desire and narrative. It is her desire and the complexities attendant to it that drive the film and organize its themes, motifs, and preoccupations.

The immediate intertext for Challengers is Y tu mamá también (2001), made by the Oscar-winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón from a script co-written with his brother Carlos. The director cast two Mexican actors, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, as best friends on an erotic haze of a road trip with an older woman played by the Spanish actress Maribel Verdú. The film’s escalating sexual momentum overflows in a three-way sex scene at the climax of the film that itself culminates in a shot of the young men kissing each other passionately as the woman watches.

Challengers does not wait for the climax to unleash this homoerotic tableau. When Tashi visits Patrick and Art in their hotel room early in the film, she sits on the floor with them and inquires about their sexual histories, learning from them that Patrick has a girlfriend. “And what about you two?” she then cheekily asks, referring to whether the two men have ever hooked up. Humorous demurrals follow, but Patrick, the more provocative of the male pair, reveals their backstory’s sexual episode, which occurred when they were both teenagers at boarding school, sharing a room on two separate beds,. As Patrick explains, he taught Art how to masturbate. Pressed for details, Patrick narrates: he was in his bed masturbating one night, and Art asked him what he was doing and Patrick explained, in so doing providing an impromptu guided lesson that leads Art to masturbate as well. Not only this: they both think about the same girl while they masturbate, Patrick having told Art that it’s better to fantasize while doing it and which girl has inhabited his thoughts while self-pleasuring.

In a moment immortalized in the trailer, Tashi sits on the bed, taps it, and Art uncertainly asks “Which one of us?” before it becomes obvious that she summons them both. Methodically, with the skill of a practiced sexual artist, Tashi makes out with each of the males, then with both at once, and then skillfully manipulates the flow of tongues and interests so that the males kiss one another, con lingua, as they kiss her. And then, in Y tu mamá también fashion, the men exclusively make out with each other as Tashi contentedly watches. She then abruptly leaves, saying she will give her phone number to the person who wins the next day, who turns out to be Patrick.

Overlapping with Challengers, The Fountainhead places a magnetic, enigmatic woman between two men who wish to possess her, one a charismatic, perpetually vexing narcissist and the other a principled, steadfast, ever-available, ever-chafing masochist.”

The triple protagonist film has deeper roots in classic Hollywood melodrama and the Cavellian comedy of remarriage, exemplified by King Vidor’s expressionistic 1949 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead and George Cukor’s 1940 adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, respectively. These films share a plot that focuses on the heroine’s struggle with her own sexuality, allegorized by the romantic choice she must make between two men. Given that Challengers most fervently echoes Vidor’s film in its emphasis on the heroine’s desire and its aesthetic self-consciousness, I will focus here on overlaps between these films.

Patricia Neal plays the swanky socialite Dominique Francon in Vidor’s film, who marries the self-made newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), publisher of the newspaper The Banner, for which Dominique writes a column. Initially appalled at his insolence, Dominique pines for the sexy, inscrutable Howard Roark (Gary Cooper). Roark, a fierce individualist who embodies Randian Objectivism, is an architect who insists that his designs be carried out exactly as he has envisioned them. The slightest alteration incurs his wrath. Dominique admires him but realizes that he will suffer social scorn and spends the movie relinquishing and renouncing him, waiting for Roark’s and society’s interests to align. In the end, Wyand supports Roark, who verges on incarceration given his self-advocacy against a corrupt collectivist world, giving him the chance to design the world’s tallest building in Wyand’s name. Knowing that Dominique can never love him, Wynand shoots himself after this noble gesture, allowing Roark and Dominique to marry at last.

Overlapping with Challengers, The Fountainhead places a magnetic, enigmatic woman between two men who wish to possess her, one a charismatic, perpetually vexing narcissist (Roark) and the other a principled, steadfast, ever-available, ever-chafing masochist (Wynand). Dominique, like Zendaya’s Tashi, roams through the labyrinth of her own passion, unable to reconcile her conflicting passions, a stranger to herself while clearly sexually enflamed by Roark, just as Tashi is by Patrick. Dominique famously slashes Roark’s face with her riding crop in the height of classist pique at his insulting demeanor when, defying the conformist strictures of society, he takes a job as a laborer in a quarry and she rides past him on horseback. But she cannot repress her sexual hunger for him, for his principled, absolutist ideals as well as his chiseled, galvanizing physique. (Neal and Cooper famously had an affair during the filming, and it shows. She thought he would surely leave his loyal wife for her; he didn’t.)

Tashi unleashes a series of death glares at Patrick. But in the end, she cannot resist him, and she meets him for sex the night before his big match with Art. Tashi then transactionally demands something of Patrick: he must purposely lose the game so that Art continues to play tennis. Patrick agrees, but during the match he clearly changes his mind, since he performs the same Art-simulating gesture with the tennis ball on the neck of the racket, leading Art, in the shock of recognition that Patrick has now had sex with his wife, to curse Patrick on the court (“Fuck you”). Art and Patrick proceed to battle intensely, a contest that Guadagnino films with virtuoso, alternately slow-motion and sped-up intensity as a fierce balletic showdown that frames the men as godlike, divinely nimble foes, Achilles-like in their wrath and sinewy beauty.

In tracking these bristling new gender and sexual dynamics, Guadagnino matches form and content, making a film that’s energetically, even aggressively stylized. Vidor’s film, with its bold and thrilling expressionist designs and momentum, complements Guadagnino’s. Max Steiner’s score for Vidor and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for Challengers similarly saturate and drive their respective cinematic worlds. Both Zendaya, whose hair style as Tashi interestingly recalls that of Neal’s Dominique, and Neal compel the viewer with their sculpted looks, brooding intensity, and the air of withholding they charismatically maintain. In this regard, their seemingly secondary role to the male genius transcends itself, making them the magnetic focal point of their temporality-shifting, jagged narratives.

The Fountainhead does not foreground same-sex intimacy or desire. But its special realm of stylization supported visually and verbally—Vidor’s expressionist aesthetics and the feverish, single-minded intensity of Rand’s own screenplay, which has the effect of making every exchange between the characters a breaking point, a life-and-death gamble—makes it a queer film, one that maintains and manipulates a Camp discourse.

It provides a template for the self-conscious style Guadagnino employs throughout. His film opens with a three-tiered collection of close-ups of the actors’ grimacing faces, announcing that the approach to their stories will eschew realism. Zendaya’s acting has been compared to that of a model on a runway, remote and affectless. I think her performance is more varied and layered than that description allows, but inescapably her acting is expressionistic acting, a series of gestures and poses that convey attitude rather than explore affect.

Challengers ending explained: a tennis umpire on who wins the match.

This is to say that Zendaya/Tashi is iconic, the kind of icy goddess that dominates and has for quite some time dominated narratives of ecstatic submission to female power on the part of the male masochist, a narrative in wide circulation since the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published his 1870 novel Venus in Furs. Dominique Francon and Tashi Duncan seem to be estranged from their own desire, the chief drama of their stories the moments when they align with it. The triple protagonist film simultaneously makes the central woman the Sacher-Masoch ice goddess and a contemporary Dora, Freud’s famous hysterical analysand bewildered by the manifestation of her desire (at least as she was interpreted by Freud).

While Guadagnino subversively adds homoerotic content to a “straight” sports film, especially that same-sex kiss, it tethers this homoeroticism to the Tashi’s character’s generally inscrutable tastes. She frequently resists the men’s romantic interests, cheekily declaring “I’m not a homewrecker.” Yet, in her first intimate conversation with them, she asks them if they have had sexual relations and then carefully orchestrates their sexual contact, which would presumably have continued to escalate if she did not also sever it and her participation within it, by abruptly leaving the hotel room as she calls an end to their make-out session.

The triple protagonist film, in effect, dispenses with the designation of woman as Echo and reconfigures her as Medusa, freezing desire in its place while having incited it. (I am riffing here on Freud’s classic short paper “Medusa’s Head” [Das Medusenhaupt, 1922], where he interprets the myth as simultaneously being about the horror of adult genital sexuality and an incitement of sexual feeling, given that the head of Medusa, as a prohibited object, carries the same transgressive charge as the sight of denuded bodies.) Stylized female coiffure, sported by Neal and Zendaya, reinforce the effect. Both Dominique and Tashi sport stylish Medusan looks.

Echoing classical Hollywood and classical myth, the triple protagonist film of the present breaks new ground while reinforcing longstanding myths about sexuality and gender stereotypes. Perhaps it is the unwieldiness of this ideological mixture that accounts for the filmmaker’s palpable ambivalence. Sexuality seems unshackled yet fettered here, flowing and frozen in place at once.


[1] I outline my theory of this kind of pairing in chapter three, “The Hollywood Man Date: Split Masculinity and the Double-Protagonist Film,” of my book Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2009).

[2] For an analysis of these genres and male dynamics, see Greven, Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity, SUNY Series, Horizons of Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016).

David Greven is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Greven specializes in both nineteenth-century American literature and Hollywood film. His books include All the Devils Are Here: American Romanticism and Literary Influence (University of Virginia Press, 2024), Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory (Oxford University Press, 2017), Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (University of Texas Press, 2012), Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema (Palgrave, 2011), and Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation in American Literature (Palgrave , 2005). He is currently writing a book under contract with Oxford University Press on Hitchcock’s films of the Fifties and American Gothic literature.

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