It's not just the MCU celebrating an anniversary this year. As well as a cocky billionaire zipping around in a mechanical suit, 2008 also introduced cinema-goers to a cocky teenager zipping around in a racing car inside a peculiar, retro-future world. The film was Speed Racer, and a decade after its release, it's just as beautifully messy and aggressively absurd as it was back in that ancient, pre-Marvel Studios era.
If movie history was written by the box office, Speed Racer would be consigned to the footnotes (if it was even that lucky.) As it happens, shiny psychedelia and John Goodman's accidental Mario cosplay have proven too enduring to scrub from cultural consciousness. Thus, as the Wachowski's most visually ambitious film hits its first milestone age, it's approaching the hallowed status of cult classic.
Based on the classic '60s manga and anime series of the same name, Lilly and Lana Wachowski's Westernized, live-action adaptation couldn't have been more different from the serious and philosophical tone of their previous works, The Matrix trilogy and V For Vendetta. The project was close to the siblings' hearts as the 1967 animated series was a formative childhood favorite of theirs -- their first taste of Japanese pop culture -- and, according to producer Joel Silver, a frequent collaborator of theirs, the intent was two-fold: To create a "live-action anime," and to make their first "big family movie."
Their enthusiasm for the source material is writ large all over the film, but -- despite receiving just praise for the impressive visual effects -- Speed Racer was a box office flop, grossing just $93 million on a production budget of around $120 million, and splitting critical opinion right down the middle. It even earned a Razzie nomination for "Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel." Some reviewers complained of suffering from nausea, which could be considered a compliment for a film that does its utmost best to mimic the feeling of what it would be like to race on a life-size Hot Wheels track.
The film begins with our titular hero, Speed seated at a classroom desk, distracting himself from the mundane reality of school and not moving really, really fast with fantasies about... moving really, really fast. As his imagination takes over, we're swept up in it too; the three-dimensional world stretching out into a flat spectrum of neon color and crude childrens' sketches of race cars and characters that Speed is destined to compete against in a future that preordained by virtue of his name.
Yes, for those unfamiliar, the lead character of Speed Racer is actually named "Speed Racer" and he is a racer. Your acceptance or non-acceptance of this establishing fact will be a strong indicator of whether or not you want to stay on this ride. Speed's family are the Racers, owners of one of the few successful independent racing car manufacturers in a world in which motorsport seems to be the driving (pun intended) force behind big business. Big businesses like Royalton Industries, the founder of which, Arnold Royalton, manipulates the outcomes of races, which in turn manipulates his company's value. Once again, if you're able to accept that a single sport can become intrinsic to a global economy then you'll be happy to keep your seatbelt buckled and stay inside the vehicle.
This suspension of disbelief will be no problem for viewers versed in Japanese media who are accustomed to fictional societies built entirely around pocket monsters, mystical card games or spinning tops, or, of course, the younger audience members who the Wachowskis specifically catered the film towards. For a 12 year-old, the semantics of stock markets and corporate capitalist greed will be background noise in a straight-forward narrative about a boy racer struggling to step out of his older brother's shadow, make his family proud and try and restore the honor and prestige to something that has been poisoned by cheating, passion-less men like Royalton. (They'll also get a kick out of the pet chimpanzee, the Tokyo Drift-ing and the sight of John Goodman power wrestling a ninja out of a hotel window: "More like a nonja, terrible what passes for a ninja these days.")