Why Speed Racer May Be the Greatest Comic Book Movie

When Morpheus told Neo that his reality consisted of fragments of consciousness codified by the false gods of greedy men (“the desert … of the real”), the audience accepted it as a warning against the institutionalized fakery not only of their lives but also of lesser films. With Speed Racer, the Wachowskis appeared to reiterate their love for steamed-up blasts of moving camera shots and flying fists, but the soul was different. They no longer posed a distinction between the on-screen action and the reality it proposed to represent (to put it another way, they embraced the desert). Their film interpretation of an anime’s interpretation of a manga is a 135-minute ejaculatory confetti ball that pushes childish excess to a new color wheel. This film makes Star Wars: The Phantom Menace look as subdued as First Man. Yet at the heart of every wheel turn, spark, and streak, every slurry of tears and rampant explosion of color, every flying fist, zigging bullet, cheeky grin, and scorching twist of metal, Speed Racer exudes feelings of love, not only for the universe of Speed Racer but for any universe that could have come up with it.

The races are hot bars of steel twisted around a progression of feelings. The film’s introduction to the world is the race at Thunderhead, where Speed (Emile Hirsch) zigzags through the highlights of his childhood dreams, his first love (which in anime terms is his only love), and his view from four feet off the ground of his godlike brother, the charismatic Rex Racer (Scott Porter), while his powerhouse parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) balance it all like 17 pinballs suspended on a serving tray in a world obsessed with car explosions and betrayal. No comic book film has ever begun so confidently. It’s not only nostalgic for a cartoon most of the audience had never seen but even nostalgic in retrospect for the lives that streak across the track in this opening, told by news cutaways and memories. The film offers no greater statement of purpose than when Speed picks up … speed and finds himself racing toe-to-toe with a ghost. “Holy cannoli, Speed. You know who you’re racing?” Sparky (Kick Gurry) says it with a mix of enthusiasm and careful awe. Every little driver in their theater seat knew what he meant.

For Speed Racer, action is a mood language in a way that most comic books understand but most comic book movies miss. While Thunderhead is full of wistful memories, the Fuji race is doubtful and angry, strewn with wrongdoing and unanswered questions. This race is told prospectively, as the slithery Royalton of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam) predicts Speed’s failure due to a lack of ambition translated as an unwillingness to break the rules (it’s the visual construct Guy Ritchie has been trying to get right his whole career). Then there’s the Casa Cristo, the race that killed Speed’s brother. As his venomous opponents close in for the kill (“headhunters,” someone says with the self-explanatory awe with which they say everything), the film slides into the moments they were paid off to be in it; their eyes glow gold as they see the payout, as their grins loom over the racers with the self-explanatory menace of a WWII propaganda poster. Tiny drills pop out of their wheels and go after Speed’s tires; he activates a tiny hubcap shield that he has to control with a little joystick on his dash to fight them off.

The unrelenting silliness of these cartoon stunts, often involving Speed’s jump jacks and rotary saw attachments and never involving a convincing shot of a car in 135 minutes of watching them buzz by, never takes a break for a wink. At no point did the Wachowskis consider making light of anything, no matter how worthy it seemed of being laughed at on paper. The nonsense on this screen contains more gravity than the entire Infinity Stones Saga of the MCU because every shot and every line in Speed Racer reinforces something self-evident. It may not be trendy to accept a cartoon world at its word, one where a trebuchet armed with a beehive is a valid weapon to use in a high-speed pursuit or a line like “Don’t any of these guys play by the rules?” makes sense, no matter how badly it’s read. But like anime and comic books and even childhood itself, the beauty is in taking it at its word. The villains in this movie can read lines like “This … is a change of plan” like no comic book movie villain has since Dick Tracy. The ensuing fight between the heroes and gangsters is an illusion of one shot that zooms in and out through space as the snow streaks white and fists fly (Edgar Wright’s style seems to be based on this scene, though he has yet to realize that a chimpanzee in overalls is key to the aesthetic). In his review for Ebert.com in 2008, Jim Emerson said that Speed Racer could be watched "with the sound off and it wouldn't matter," and he was right. But for some reason, he meant it as a criticism.

In another movie, the final race’s arrival might be groan-worthy after so many similar scenes. But in this one, the key values of the film redefine what a third act means to a comic book character. Speed’s character arc is not as simple as being an arrogant guy who learns the value of helping others, which constitutes 95% of modern comic book movies, or an arrogant girl who learns the value of believing in herself even more than she already does, which constitutes the other 5%. He doesn’t learn to deserve the world but to fight for victory in a world that doesn't deserve him. To anyone, the character has the unmistakable flavor of rebellion, against corporations, yes, but also against missing people and hiding under your bed, against worrying your family won't be there for you or that you didn't do the right thing. Speed fights no greater enemy than the bad feelings we all confront growing up.

So this breathless final action scene is really a cathartic spiritual resolution, where visual reality deteriorates as universal emotions hit a final high, combining the fields of checkered floors of the Speed Racer intro with the liquid dye whirlpools of the intro to Ultraman to communicate its zany head-high with primary color happiness, to the disappointment of critics like Emerson. The reason this hits so hard isn’t just the maniacal visuals or even the context of the pacing leading up to that glorious moment. The race is heart-pounding most of all because it has a heart to begin with. Love is at the core of every race in the film, the love that causes a virtuoso to think of their family when they perform perfectly, where even the direst circumstances can be tackled if they’re part of the quest for a better life for the ones they love. Trixie (Christina Ricci) flits around in a helicopter, protecting Speed, Pops Racer looms like a granite boulder that’s trying to learn to take life less stiffly, Sparky remains integral to the family yet apart from it, Mom watches over everything, including the morning pancakes, and even the intermittently annoying Spritle (Paulie Litt) shows glimmers of the unmistakable experiences of brother-love, which all brothers know is indistinguishable from worship, at least until a certain age.

If a lack of convincing visual effects fails the modern comic book movie formula, spurning dust cloud fights about “realism” over the internet like Looney Tunes scrapping over a piece of cheese, it must be because the ambition to be realistic is too high on its priorities list. Speed Racer has the textures and pacing of an overzealous commercial for hot wheels, yet the emotional direction of its thousands of effects shots is as clear as if the film was all on location. It's on "location" in a headspace that must have existed in two siblings’ minds before they started because no accident ever comes out this clearly.

Comic book movies have now gotten used to asking the audience to hate their world, a world where Superman throws shrapnel tantrums and threatens to break Batman’s spine if he doesn’t stop hurting people, where Iron Man funds sparkling Disney palaces with blood money, and where Spider-Man can’t stop whining long enough not to destroy the multiverse. But in Speed Racer, the world is worth believing in because we learn to believe in its best representative, as all kids do. It’s been decades since I’ve had that “Woohoo, it’s Batman!” or “Get im’, Captain Marvel!” feeling. These movies don’t work on that level anymore, and I’d been assuming it was my age that had gotten in the way of them. But I can dispel that argument by popping this on because even after 135 minutes of snarfing down the Wachowskis’ overbearing color buffet, even acknowledging all the weird ways the visuals don't "hold up" or the actors occasionally struggle against the unearned sureness of the weirdo comic strip lines, all I’m feeling as it revs up for that final release is, “Go Speed Racer, go!!”

Excuse me while I go hug my brother real quick.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

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