Unreal Engine: The Superheroism of Speed Racer (The Guy and The Film)

I know. That image is a weird one. But bear with me, it’s really important.

Over the course of composing this post, I realized that I could probably write about The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of it. I am far from the first person to have this realization, which is perhaps why, since circa 2011, reappraisals of this film have become something of a cottage industry within movie criticism. In what follows, I don’t get to talk about Michael Giacchino’s amazing score, or a lot of the acting, or the bonkers new technology that the production team developed to just to make this thing happen, because those concerns strike me as unnecessarily technical for this forum. Instead, I built a case for Speed Racer along three tracks. Hopefully you’ll indulge me in taking the ride.

As context, I’m couching my comments in the observation that ten years ago, in the summer of 2008, three major superhero movies were released within a couple months of each other (I’m ignoring The Incredible Hulk because yikes). Two of those movies offer us a glimpse into the alter egos of billionaire playboy loners whose response to personal grief and tragedy involves taking the law into their own hands, and both of whom discover that they themselves were the direct causes of the crises that imperil the cities dependent on their financial largesse in order to sustain basic operations. Those movies, as you’ve no doubt guessed, are Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

The third superhero movie was Speed Racer.

CARTOON

Reading some of the testier critiques of Speed Racer is a great way to laugh up your sleeve at the shelf life of criticism, particularly because of the sometimes sneering derision for the big-screen rendering of cartoons and comics. As A.O. Scott remarks in his video review for The New York Times, these sorts of updates often exist as a means of cashing in on nostalgia for dated material while foisting new toys on kids (I’ll address these concerns and their baselessness in the sections to come.) But especially egregious for Scott is the film’s complete artificiality apart from the real actors on the screen, combined with a disregard for real-world, or even realistically grounded, physics or geospatial logic. As a consequence, he faults the action sequences for their “incoherence,” echoing a widely held sentiment that the five delirious races that scaffold the film are too overwhelming to be anything but motion blur. In our superhero-saturated present, such raging against the computerbox sounds like a grouse in line with the technoskepticism of – well, The Matrix. But the element of the critique here I find most lively is whether Speed Racer even should be classified as a “live-action” movie.

Sure, real people are in it. It’s a pretty good cast, all things considered. Speed Racer is played with gee-whiz aplomb by Emile Hirsch, his girl Friday Trixie a game Christina Ricci, Mom and Pops by veteran overemoters Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, and the perpetually aggravating Spritle a perfectly buffoonish Paulie Litt (Chim Chim, naturally, is portrayed by two actual chimpanzees). And so I suppose it qualifies as “live-action” insofar as there are many scenes where the emotional qualities of these flesh-and-blood performers, among others, are given center stage. We begin, after all, with a young Speed taking a Scantron-style test at school, bored out of his mind. He has tried one method for coping with his boredom, doodling a cartoon car crash on the lower corners of his test packet, thus creating a flip-book. In the film’s final race, the Grand Prix, the Wachowskis cheekily embed a nod to animation’s frame-by-frame origins by lining the walls of the race track with alternating stills of a galloping zebra, letting a zoetrope play out briefly as the background to its flashy four-wheeled progeny careening past. Young Speed’s fantasy then becomes total, as the clock on the school wall transforms into a countdown and his desk morphs into a hand-drawn clumsily animated sketch of a race car, the scenery dropping away to be replaced by equally sketchy stands.

Lest the audience believe that this aesthetic only exists in the fantasizing mind of our protagonist, our first glimpse of the outside world as Speed races to meet his brother Rex (Scott Porter) is equally unnerving: a collage of fleshy bodies superimposed on flattened, hyper-saturated layers of cell-style photorealistic sets, a compositor’s fever dream. The crew revealed that virtually no shots with actors were actually done “on location,” including those in the Racer household. Even the least frenzied scenes, as when automotive industry mogul E.P. Arnold Royalton (a deliciously hammy Roger Allam) arrives to sample a Racer family breakfast, were shot against a green screen, the kitchen itself sampled and built virtually from high-def photos and early HD video.

If this sounds boggling to you, that’s because it certainly would have been in 2008. But the methods that the Wachoswkis and their production team were pioneering have become the stock in trade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the intervening decade, to the point that any outrage over whether a production like Thor: Ragnarok should qualify as live-action would seem hopelessly trite. Moreover, movies based on comics and cartoons have always had something of a problem orienting themselves with respect to their ink-and-paper roots (one need only allude to the cartoonish extravagances of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, which, like Speed Racer, tended toward campy unreality). The fact of the matter is that both Iron Man and The Dark Knight rely on green screen and CGI just as crucially as, and at times even more crucially than, Speed Racer. The difference, of course, is that both films are far more invested in marshalling animation to the service of putative “realism” – in rendering superheroism with all of the gravity (pun intended) of real-world physics rather than by engaging in deliberately implausible distortions of time and space. The Dark Knight is the work of genius that it is, ostensibly, due to its director’s penchant for blending outrageous practical effects with animated CGI. And if you want a similar greenscreenification of everything in the MCU, I’d direct you to Doctor Strange.

When critics and viewers rail against the cartoonishness of Speed Racer, then, I can only assume they refuse to accept the film on its own terms, that is as a work of animation, plain and simple. Many commentators with a greater investment in the history of anime than me have already observed the visual links between the kinds of flatness, perspectival tricks, and unrealistic flourishes the Wachowskis leveraged in composing their shots. What interests me is how so few viewers were nonetheless willing to follow the Wachowskis explicit instructions as to how to watch their own movie, in the form of a fictitious anime that Spritle and Chim Chim watch early in the film. Though drawn less competently than the already cheap and slapdash source material for Speed Racer, the inclusion affords unfamiliar (or reluctant) viewers a crash course in the visual rhetoric of the thing they’ve paid to see: a long speech between two fantasy characters that freely blends shot and reverse shot as the two characters’ faces and backs of their heads slide over a static background.

Though Spritle and Chim Chim explicitly recall this moment after the first leg of the transcontinental Casa Cristo 5000 drag race, transforming momentarily into their anime avatars (at least in their minds) to fight off an honest-to-goodness ninja assassin, another less fantastical scene, in which Royalton and a rival CEO cut a backroom deal, explicitly mimics and amplifies the effect. Though the background shot of the factory floor remains static, the businessmens’ faces swip over the screen from the front, from behind, in profile, making it impossible to orient them in space until we see they are standing next to each other. A similar disaggregation of space and time leads up to the final race, as severed heads of the principal and many minor characters slide across the screen one by one, overlapping despite our knowledge that these people are all in very different locations, but united in a focus on Speed himself, waiting for the final countdown to the Grand Prix.

The film’s first race also comes up as something of a bugbear, insofar as it blends flashbacks to Speed’s youth and admiration for his brother with his current performance on the track at Thunderhead. Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to attune yourself to the rhythm of the back and forth – save that young Speed and current Speed are separated by a decade-wide gulf and cannot really be confused with one another – but again, the Wachowskis give us a guide. Once Speed pulls out in front of his competitors, the Thunderhead run becomes evocatively structured as a drag with the ghostly memory of Rex’s old car, each cross of Speed’s vehicle with the imaginary pace car produceing a new memory in flashback, including one where his entire family watches helplessly as Rex’s car explodes on live TV. That’s right – Rex Racer is already dead when the movie starts, and his family has been coping with his loss ever since. Such tragic backstories are the stuff that Tony Starks and Bruce Waynes are made of, but the Racer clan is remarkably, optimistically intact, despite their shared trauma. Mom makes pancakes, Pops runs the shop, and Speed wants little more than to follow in his brother’s footsteps. He slows down just as he reaches the finish line, letting Rex’s record stay intact, tears in his eyes.

So when I hear objections to Speed Racer’s cartoonish quality, I really hear an objection to its absolutely in-your-face exposure of the inherently antirealistic craft of cinema. No one really seems put off by the goofily themed Casa Cristo race teams, or the Looney Tunes weaponry built into some of the more devious cars – one Viking-themed racer even has a full behive, surrounded by its swarm, lobbed directly into her cockpit via catapult, while another spews an oil slick straight out of Mario Kart that sends Speed careening over the edge of the Matterhorn. Far more egregious are the markers that you are watching a movie, as in the snowbound fistfight with gangster and race fixer Cruncher Block (John Benfield) and his goons. The camera whizzes around the clearing, focusing on one character at a time and their moment-to-moment progress in the scrum, but each slalom through virtual space happens so “quickly” that the slowly falling snowflakes become linear streaks, speed lines that orient us even as we are disoriented by the impossible whiz. Speed Racer is a movie that demands you recognize its own fabricated-ness – what we might call a painterly movie – at every possible turn, the product of lots sof time, lots of money, and lots of attention to detail. Consider that the design team had to come up with 400 logos in their mock-ups of various cars and racing uniforms, even though they only needed about 200 in the end. What did they do with the excess? Plaster them on a single car in the Grand Prix.

By routinely foregrounding its own improbability and excess, the movie begs to be taken as seriously as a Saturday morning cartoon, which is to say, not really at all. But does that mean it’s entirely brainless?

CORPORATE

Perhaps the most maddening critique of the Wachowskis’ movies as a whole is that they are, ultimately, dumb. I understand why someone might get this impression. Twenty years on, The Matrix has bequeathed us “red-pilling” as a metaphor among MRAs, pickup artists, and neo-Nazis. V for Vendetta, also a Wachowski production, gave online agit-proppers worldwide a mass-produced symbol of capital-A Anonymous-ness and a sense of collective self-importance to fuel largely benign bedroom hacking. But at the risk of being taken to task for splitting hairs, I worry that detractors of Speed Racer in particular conflate the accessibility of the movie’s fundamentally anti-capitalist thesis with outright stupidity, a mischaracterization that seems especially confusing to me when it is situated alongside the outright fascist and corporatist worlds of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. I would also argue that the choice to make a film as progressive in its politics and yet still, per the MPAA, decidedly PG was a conscious choice – not only after the overblown violence of the R-rated V but also in distinction against the PG-13 ratings of the other 2008 superhero movies. Extending the production’s cartoonishness into the realm of violence, all of the drivers whose cars explode into rainbow-colored smoke live to drive gain thanks to a safety bubble of 360º cushioning. Only one person dies in Speed Racer – decidedly odd, for a movie with a man in a mask.

There is, after all, one such person at the heart of Speed Racer, who probably seems a more compelling candidate for the title of superhero than Speed himself: Racer X (Matthew Fox). Like Batman, Racer X has a vested interest in taking down organized crime. We first meet Racer X as he seeks to free a captive racer, Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop star Rain) from Cruncher Block’s mobile interrogation office, an enclosed truck bed complete with piranha tank and a score of speakeasy-style peepholes for Gatling guns in case of external emergency. Coordinating with the unflappable Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), Racer X hopes to bring Block to justice and save Taejo’s father’s company from corporate meddling in the process. He enlists Speed to race on a dark horse team in the Casa Cristo and ensure Taejo’s victory on the basis of their mutual disdain for race fixers, like the one who tampered with his elder brother Rex’s car during the same race years earlier, disabling his safety device and killing him.

Racer X also knows a second reason why Speed might brave Casa Cristo: his earlier run at Thunderhead attracted Royalton’s attention, prompting the tycoon to offer Speed a sponsorship through Royalton Industries, a company that not only makes the cars but owns the folks who drive them. Inviting Speed and his family to the lavish central hub of Royalton Industries, the working-class Racers are boggled by the high-tech factory floor whose assembly time puts Pops’ productivity to shame; Speed is most swayed by the wall of trophies and cups in the dining room and the endorsement of legendary racer Cannonball Taylor (Ralph Herforth). But when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, Speed balks – as the background behind his head scrolls through a range of memories, from his brother’s funeral to an old black-and-white race he and his dad watched while grieving, Speed defends his rejection by proclaiming his commitment to his family’s endorsement and no one else’s.

Royalton is not only unmoved, but waiting to apply the thumbscrews. He tells Speed that the race he and his father cheered on was, like all Grand Prix races. Despite outward appearances, the winners are chosen each year in advance by a cabal of automotive execs whose chief interest in racing is driving sales of whatever widget they peddle. He is the one pressuring Taejo’s father, trying to create a monopoly. And since he’s used to relying on wringers like Block and has a virtually bottomless

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 1.36.42 PM.png

wallet with which to pay him, he can make racing decidedly less fun for our naïve hero. He even levels the most stereotypical weapon in the corporate playbook squarely at Pops, the assertion of infringement of intellectual property, threatening the family’s financial situation with the need to face down a costly behemoth in court.

The placement of that image of Spritle and Chim Chim isn’t an error on my part, by the way. That happens, like, in the movie, a weird interruption of Royalton’s dour and lengthy monologue that totally, 100% breaks the mood. It’s a reward for paying attention, a little bit of levity injected into a self-conscious infodump, a Sour Patch kid mixed into the Necco wafer comic book villain blandness of the other scene. And it does more than placate audiences for going along with this pontificating that is actually critical to the movie’s broader stakes: it forces them to pay attention. It’s a gambit and an undercut whose deliberate ridiculousness parallels the gobbledygook jargon that constitutes Royalton’s whole power trip. And in this moment, the entire function of the unquestionably annoying Spritle and Chim Chim becomes, to my mind, crystal clear.

Of course they’re annoying! They were far from charming in the original material, shoehorned comic relief whose antics got a few laughs at best. But in their complete cartoonishness, their subplots allow Speed Racer the movie to maintain a sense of proper proportion. In the face of the devastating exposure of a massive conspiracy that both crushes Speed’s dreams and proposes a capitalistic nightmare too total to ever escape from, here are Spritle and Chim Chim totally fucking up the clockwork regularity of Royalton Industries as only kids can: a short ride in a fast machine, and everyone else, get out of the way! Almost like foreshadowing or something. Almost like the Wachowskis are trying to teach you how to watch their movie. But I digress.

The Dark Knight and Iron Man assuage our capitalist nightmares, asserting that all it takes to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a multinational. Speed Racer has no truck in any such compromise. And by balancing the anti-conglomerate politics with zany and madcap cutscenes in a way that does justice to the original series, it doesn’t so much dumb down its messaging as it renders it conceptually available to audience members otherwise disinclined to hear it: kids. I can forgive Speed Racer’s producers their hope to use the movie to sell some Hot Wheels, simply because the convoluted race tracks and gravity-defying set designs already reflect the most feverish toy car dreamscapes of my own youth, sans tie-in branding. But more importantly, the movie substitutes a principled refusal of CEO solutionism by allying our heroes with a government agency designed to investigate white-collar crime – something that never happens in Marvel or DC. Racer X is a superheroic agent of the CIB – the Corporate Investigation Bureau – and the whole purpose of Inspector Detector’s intervention is to enforce antitrust law.

It’s supremely disheartening when Speed and his family realize his participation in Casa Cristo only served to drive up Togokhan share prices, generating a short-run windfall for Taejo’s father – all according to plan. The entire second act of the movie, featuring three dizzying tracks, the last of which killed Rex Racer, is a monumental double-cross that culminates in a sucker punch of too-big-to-fail crapitalism. Why bother? Speed wonders. We have to wonder with him.

Perhaps the movie could be written off as simple-minded if it stopped there. But if act two is about the bittersweet spoils, act three is about how to do what Spritle and Chim Chim do so adeptly near the end of act one: in the words of another joker, introduce a little anarchy. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s focus for a second on our superhero, Racer X, who watches Speed’s Grand Prix finale from a safe distance. As fans of the show have already guessed, Racer X is Rex – but following the explosion, he underwent reconstructive surgery so as to be entirely unrecognizable, even when he removes his mask for his own brother. The movie ends with the entire Racer clan grateful to him and entirely unaware of his true identity.

Why? In the Wachowskis’ rewritten mythology, Rex sold out. Once a driver in the pocket of corporate interests, having chosen the life Speed could have had, he is assigned increasingly reckless and dangerous tasks during races, leading to the injury of his competitors. And as a result of trying to leave his contract, his sponsors put the fix in for him. Not wanting his family to come to harm, Rex consents to a complete transformation and a lifetime of atonement for having once been a stooge. For Tony Stark, sheer ego is enough for him to out himself as Iron Man. For Bruce Wayne, particularly in The Dark Knight, the love of a woman just out of reach and killed by his archrival entices him to unmask. But Racer X’s real face is just another mask that can never be removed. There is no narcissistic, credit-seeking self to reveal. There is only this new face, and the incredible price he has had to pay for his complicity. In the world of Speed Racer, and in my opinion, that humility and sacrifice are what make a superhero.

CHAOS

Why so serious, all of a sudden? Wasn’t this a cartoon a couple of pages ago? Just an excuse to sell a few toy cars and let the adults relive the Saturday mornings of their youth? After all, that’s all it was really about for Transformers, released in 2007, whetting audiences’ appetites for exploding machines and fate-of-the-world stakes. Adaptations of comic books and cartoons (or manga and anime) always seem to face this disadvantage, arriving in the cinematic arena ready to entertain but inevitably laden by the burdens of cross-promotion, budget return, and (most noxiously) the demand for fan service. So many factors compromise the integrity of the superhero action movie that the least it can oblige itself to be is coherent. The fix, shall we say, is in.

That’s why the Tomatometer holds the smash-em-up brutality of Transformers in such low esteem: Michael Bay’s paper thin pretext for reviving the old Rock Em Sock Ems offers little but crud to chew on for its overlong duration, and the flare-filled shakycam style it inaugurated became something to avoid entirely in the industry, a tactic other later directors of action movies cribbed only to parody. Jon Favreau uses an entirely different vocabulary in Iron Man’s metallic fisticuffs, necessarily keeping a focus on the human scale of the combat. And The Dark Knight’s decidedly mannered direction pioneered the rigorous focus on consistent physics – heft, weight, light – that Nolan chopped and screwed in his follow-up, Inception, two years later. On Rotten Tomatoes, the standings are pretty unimpeachable. Transformers pulls a paltry 57% approval rating – certified rotten. Iron Man was the top-rated action movie of all time at 93%. Until The Dark Knight edged it out at 94%. It only just lost that title to Black Panther.

But okay: hindsight is 20/20, and the Superhero Summer of 2008 marked the ascendancy of Rotten Tomatoes as an institution within both film culture and nerd culture because Iron Man and The Dark Knight were the first real poof that superhero movies could be good. Not just good as their own hermetic thing, like Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, but actually objectively beautiful art helmed by talented directors, crewed by VFX innovators, and imbuing the poppiest of confections with the shades of art-house auteurism that please critic and crowd alike. The Dark Knight furnished us with one of the best supervillain performances of all time, a character so creepy and terrifying that the question of how playing the part affected the actor’s mental health remains open to speculation to this day. And Iron Man, quite inadvertently, launched a viable attempt at transferring Marvel’s entire canon to film, an endeavor amplified by Disney’s acquisition and finally coming to a head this summer with (I still can’t believe they went ahead and said it) the “most ambitious crossover event in history.” Chaos reigns in 2018: moviemakers of all stripes live in complete fear of the Tomatometer now that the masses have exerted their sway over the whole film apparatus. And superhero movies, rather than the long-shot why-not rarities they were in the previous decade, have been planned for years of regular, carefully timed releases another decade into the future. More importantly, they have begun to become a canvas for addressing the issues of social justice that such insurgent populism rightly should be forcing Hollywood to ask itself.

The Wachowskis are never given enough credit for being futurist visionaries with uncannily good predictive abilities, but it does not seem to me to be coincidental that the creators of arguably the most successful original superhero story of the 90s and the producers of a loving adaptation of a cult-favorite graphic novel should look at the state of superhero-dom in 2008 and try their own hand at the adaptation game. Nor should it surprise that their riff on Speed Racer, pursuing the diametrically opposed tack of Favreau and Nolan by eschewing the elevating virtues of realism, grit, and cerebral portentousness altogether and instead leaning into a story as deliberately goofy as possible and animated according to an entirely bonkers set of aesthetic principles, should have been perceived as somehow less immediately graspable or explained away as “too much,” “too weird,” “too unfocused.” The Wachowskis’ saw that coming: Speed fails that Scantron test within the first five minutes of the movie.

No, what surprises me in all of this is that the Wachowski superhero model went into absolute hiatus for almost a decade in favor of either grimdark or plasticene realism. What surprises me is that Speed Racer sits below Transformers on the Tomatometer, polling at measly 40% approval. And what surprises and, I’ll be honest, offends me is that in the ten years since Speed Racer, we have somehow gotten FOUR. MORE. TRANSFORMERS. MOVIES. The Wachowskis, after the film’s flop, went subterranean, reemerging in 2012 with Cloud Atlas and taking a deliberate step away from superheroism, doing a rare press junket to discuss how numbingly difficult it was to find funding for this project and how many times they nearly had to walk away.

You cannot possibly tell me that the fix wasn’t in.

Speed Racer, in short, nearly killed the Wachowskis, and that is why I’m being so serious. Because this movie is just objectively better than Transformers, folks. It has so much more heart, it has so much more style, it has – well, it has this, which makes me cry every single time.

I know I’m forcing you to go watch something right now. You’ve got to do it. Preferably on a big screen, with lots of loud sound, but you know, you do you. Go watch it. I’ll wait.

Did you watch it? Okay good. I have a paranoid little theory that I offer to you now solely on the basis of having watched those little drops of motor oil plop onto the immaculate checkerboard of Victory Road so many times. Those droplets, in my view, are the soul of this entire movie, a single winking concession to the forces of realism that the Wachowskis – somehow – knew were going to dominate the future of the superhero movie. The rest of the film is almost preternaturally sanitized; even a drag race through a desert leaves all of the cars free of dirt or grit of any kind. And for all of the automotive acrobatics and bizarre perspectival distortions that whip the camera around like it’s a paddleball, the color palette leaves the land of Willy Wonka only twice: desaturating to gray as Speed recalls Rex’s funeral, and forcing us to encounter the turgid brown of that motor oil. The Wachowskis know how to manipulate color – Zack Snyder has been ripping off their once-inventive monochromatic approach to The Matrix for the better part of ten years. But even this earlier work reflects a gearhead fixation on machines as bleeding things, comprised of crackling electricity, of grease-coated hydraulics, of sweat and leather and booze. None of that in Speed Racer, no brown in Speed Racer, except for this tiny smudge of animated motor oil that lets us catch our breath with Speed after his explosive finish in the Grand Prix. Why, at this crucial narrative moment, return us to the unnecessary reality of grime?

Consider what it is that Speed’s victory signifies. The corporate sponsor who offered him a shot at a life of luxury revealed to him that his favorite race, the Grand Prix, is always – is designed to be – a cheat. Speed only gets to compete in it after Taejo’s sister (a luminous Yu Nan, far too underused) swipes the invitation Taejo won after Casa Cristo and offers it to Speed, out of guilt over her family’s collusion and exploitation of a racer who risked his safety for theirs. Once in the arena, Speed realizes that every other racer has been offered a million-dollar payout to knock him out of the race, courtesy of a vengeful and increasingly apoplectic Royalton. And despite all of this, Speed manages to do what he always does, what he was meant to do: give a performance that doesn’t just border on art, but actually is art.

As chaotic as the visuals appear in this grand finale, we also have to consider what differentiates Speed’s brand of anarchy from the corporatized, choreographed lunacy of the surrounding race. Because if, as Royalton says, the finish order of the Grand Prix is already a foregone conclusion, if the madcap uncertainty that makes racing such a spectacle is actually just the running of a program to suit technocapitalists’ market forecasts, then Speed’s artistry in this final scene is nothing short of revolutionary. In recognizing that the orderly disorder of the Grand Prix comes at the expense of drivers who refuse to pay into a corrupt system, who refuse to let themselves be bought, Speed enacts a refusal to play by the rules that constitutes a superheroic act, returning the race from the sanitizing and spectacular forces of corporate control to the clash and disarray of drivers doing their thing, each liberated from their logo.

And yet all Speed does is play by the rules. Unlike his rival in the Grand Prix, Royalton’s Cannonball Taylor, Speed has no illegal weaponry installed in his vehicle designed to do harm to another racer. The Mach 6’s original gadgets from the anime remain intact, allowing it to be tricked-out without trickery; the car jumps, grips, shields its tires, shields its driver – but it cannot be anything other than purely defensive. Speed takes an absolute beating over the course of the Grand Prix and still manages to come from behind and win, culminating in a flurry of flashbulbs, a tall glass of milk, and (naturally) a smooch from Trixie – as the flashes in the background turn into twinkling hearts. The film ends with a magazine cover showing Royalton in jail: CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER, the headline proclaims. It takes work, a lot of work, to make something that looks this good and feels so effortless. You might be tempted to accuse all of the CGI for making the film seem oddly bloodless. But then you’re ignoring the motor oil, the elbow grease, the human element making the whole engine purr just out of sight, only momentarily allowed to drip into the frame.

I mourn the decade after Speed Racer because instead of adopting its definition of chaos – as a constructive, liberatory, and aesthetically innovative force that disrupts the oppressive regimes of power organizing and disciplining our good times – we seem to collectively have opted for The Dark Knight’s self-proclaimed agent of chaos instead. The Joker’s nihilistic perversion of anarchy, not so much a formalized program of emancipatory politics as a kind of kleptocratic destructionism, is best summarized by one of the film’s most enduring quotes: “some people just want to see the world burn.” Nolan’s phobic aversion to disorder, his control-freak meticulousness, leaves us championing a hero whose shameless exploitation of mass surveillance technology is somehow supposed to make us sleep better at night, knowing that the rule of law is in the good guy’s hands.

I would much rather live in Speed Racer’s technicolor anarchy, setting the world on fire. In this world, chaos becomes the tool of the oppressed. In this world, delirium and creativity combine to simply outmaneuver the restrictive power of naked greed. And in this world, in Speed’s own words, chaos becomes order: “When I’m in a T-180, everything just feels right.” As Pops says, “Something just clicks.” As Mom says, “You just take my breath away.” And as Racer X reminds Speed, “What matters is if we let racing change us.” Substitute what you will for racing, any old regime of power that’s supposed to be intrinsically rewarding but remains open to the co-opting forces of money and greed: politics, science… hell, making movies. The Wachowskis offer us Speed Racer to show what it’s like to see someone with passion, with skill, with guile, and above all with human-centered principles put the “joy” back into “joyride.” And as the announcers commentating his victory hope, maybe he’s opened up a space for others to do that too.

So what space did Speed Racer open up? I think, finally, we are beginning to see it come into focus. Athwart the forces of focus testing, corporate selling-out, cross-promotion, and sheer convention, a host of recent media artifacts have embraced the liberatory politics and the prismatic blur of Speed Racer operating at maximum velocity – even some pretty giant projects. Adventure Time, Steven Universe, The Lego Movie, Thor: Ragnarok: objects that go from zero to three hundred in six seconds or less, and which likely owe some debt to the Wachowskis’ adaptation, an adaptation that, by the end, has fewer than zero fucks to give about allegorizing the War on Terror, managing its brand, catering to fans, generating revenue, or seeming in any way cool. Speed Racer is, as I said, a riff – it can’t sell toys because it was made with toys, structured like a manic sugar-fueld playdate that adds as many new elements to the property as it borrows from the original. It was built to fail beautifully, to use its most effervescently overblown moment of victory to remind us of the human hands that brought this dream to life. It was, it’s safe to say now, fully ten years ahead of its time.

And the Wachowskis keep making flops. I cannot wait to see how they fail next.

You made it. This was such a long post. Thankfully, I think I’ll be able to restrain myself next week in talking about a movie revolutionary in a much more quiet way: A Fantastic Woman, now in theaters.

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