“You Just Take My Breath Away”

The Brilliant Joy of Speed Racer

Warner Bros.

It’s the end of June, and rainbow flags are quietly rolled back up. Corporations change their logos back to their traditional colors, Pride-themed clothing goes on clearance, and gestures of solidarity are tucked away until next year.

I’m not ready to be done with color, and so I turn on Speed Racer.

The film is overwhelming, Technicolor-bright and full of motion. No two races look the same, whether the drivers loop around gravity-defying tracks or barrel down off-road races through deserts and mountains. Through its masterful editing, Speed Racer sends us flying through past, present, and future with breathtaking speed and astonishing clarity. The vibrant palette and high-speed visuals push the story forward—cars streak through ice caves and leave brilliant afterimages in their wake, or dodge and dart past each other as they weave through spikes and jumps. Close-ups of the wheels shuddering and shimmying as the car reaches the very edges of the tracks and shots of screaming audiences and commentators reflect the breathless action and motion of every frame. From the vivid opening titles and the first few notes of the score, you know you’re in for a wild ride.

Looking at the scenery—much less the action—is a visual assault, as even everyday scenes register as hyper-real. The blue of the sky is too bright, the grass is too green, the regular cars are too sleek and futuristic (to say nothing of the race cars). Aesthetics take precedence over realism: Speed vaults out of his car in slow-motion at the end of a race as fireworks explode in the background. It’s a “showy” moment emphasizing his victory, and the visuals—the colors, the explosions, all of it—contribute to that euphoria.


Speed Racer is actually a fun movie to listen to while you’re driving—or, at least when you’re being driven. I know this because my dad would play the film in our old caravan—we got it when I was maybe 10 or 11, and it was exciting because it had a DVD player built into the ceiling so we could watch movies from the backseat. My dad has probably listened to it more than I’ve watched it. (Of course, given that he’s the one who introduced us to the Speed Racer anime in the first place, I’m sure he knows the whole script by heart.) Speed Racer became a family favorite, and one particularly good for long drives—once it was on, my brother and I were entranced.

Something I adore about Speed Racer is the emphasis on the importance of family, both born and found. The Racer family is a tight-knit unit, one that incorporates not only Mom (Susan Sarandon), Pops (John Goodman), Speed (Emile Hirsch). Spritle (Paulie Litt), and pet monkey Chim Chim, but has expanded to include the mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) as well as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), both of whom play critical roles in the family’s work of racing as well as take their seats at breakfast every morning.

Perhaps the Racer family is eager to expand because they’re still haunted by the loss of their eldest son, Rex Racer (Scott Porter). Speed cherished Rex even after he cut ties with the family to race for corporate sponsors instead of the family business and (unbeknownst to them) was pulled into the underworld of race-fixing. Even as Rex’s driving grew more destructive and errant, Speed believed in his brother’s inherent goodness and skill. In the film’s opening Thunderhead race, we learn that the tragic story of Rex Racer ended with his death in a terrible accident, one which rocked the Racer family to its core. Yet in one of the film’s many echoed mantras, Pops’ words to Rex—“If you walk out that door, you better not ever come back”—are transmuted by the end of the film to a softer acknowledgment: every child must leave home, but unlike Rex, there will always be a place for Speed to return.


I didn’t really figure out my (a)gender till I moved out and took a job several states away from my family and friends. I had a lot to figure out—how to properly “be myself” in a place where I had no history. On the one hand, this was freeing: it let me start over without people having expectations, impressions, or knowledge of me besides what they were gaining as we interacted for the first time. On the other hand, it was incredibly intimidating: how did I want to express who I was through appearance and action, and who did I want to be now that I had a chance to start fresh? At least initially, I thought I had things figured out about who and what I was, and what expressing myself would look like.

It wasn’t until a new friend asked me if I’d ever considered the possibility that I might not be cisgender—in fact, whether I might be agender—that I really thought about my gender identity. I had always known femininity was not a comfortable fit for me, but I hadn’t gone beyond that feeling to explore the unknown territory that feeling suggested. When I did, the possibilities were overwhelming, new roads opening up before my eyes as the spectrum of identity expanded.

Was I really agender? How was that different than being nonbinary or neutrois? What did it mean to find myself outside the vibrant spectrum of gender? What did that (a)gender identity mean for my appearance or actions? If I said I was agender, what would I have to change about myself, if anything, in order to be seen that way? If I wasn’t a woman—even an unconventional one—what could I let go of? What could I allow myself to be, and how would that look?

Shaving the sides of my head was perhaps an abrupt choice, but it “just made sense,” to borrow a phrase from Speed Racer. Once the clippers finally lifted away, taking half my hair with it, I felt like I was floating. And from there, I was off to the races. I phased the skirts and dresses out of my wardrobe. I bought a binder and occasionally slipped it on under my T-shirts. I embraced my penchant for loosely fitting shirts and lack of makeup. I’ve always wondered whether I changed my style to better reflect my agender identity, or whether I simply felt free from a sense of having to perform a gender in a particular way. I suppose it doesn’t really make a difference. I knew what felt right, and I chased it.


Speed has the talent, the motivation, and the family support to pursue driving as his career. He doesn’t lack the training or skill to be a racer. He’s an underdog more by family circumstance than anything else: an individual versus a megacorporation. A movie about car races could easily become repetitive—or at the very least, firmly establish the genre as either being for adults or children in the tone and execution of those races. But Speed Racer’s addition of E.P. Arnold Royalton, Esq. (a deliciously villainous Roger Allam)—or Royalton, for short—makes determining the perceived audience for Speed Racer so difficult, complicating it far beyond “the cars go fast.”

The little independent Racer Motors going up against industry giant Royalton Industries (not to mention subsequent and related discussions of stocks, market gains, and a dark history of race-fixing) means the film is less than ideal for children who might be drawn in by the bright colors and exciting races. However, the film’s sometimes-campy tone, bright palette, and comedic moments hardly seem suited for adults. It’s hard to say who the Wachowskis were making Speed Racer for—but a speech from Mom Racer lays out why they made it.

As Speed wrestles with anger and doubt over his place in the industry, his mother has a quiet talk with him. She affirms that racing is Speed’s passion, something he does because of the joy it brings him. “When I watch you do some of the things you do,” she says, “I feel like I’m watching someone paint or make music—I go to the races to watch you make art. And it’s beautiful, and inspiring, and all the things that art should be.” Speed’s racing, she continues, is an art that takes her breath away. To Speed, and to his family, racing is done for the joy of it.


The thing about coming out is that it’s something you have to do repeatedly; it’s no one-and-done thing. Putting my pronouns at the top of my social media bios means absolutely nothing when I’m meeting new people out in the world and wondering if I look agender “enough” to have someone default to they/them pronouns rather than she/her ones. (My pronouns are xe/xer, but I don’t expect people to know or guess that.) For a long time, I wasn’t out except to a few people. However, I finally became too uncomfortable with the constant misgendering, and so I changed all my bios and started practicing saying, “Hi, I’m Gretchen, pronouns xe/xer.”

You never quite know how people are going to react to that kind of statement, so you have to decide who you want to say it to, and whether you’ve guessed right that they’re not going to be terrible about it, and whether you want to even say anything at all because you’re tired of saying or because it may be a short enough interaction that it isn’t worth it. It’s a rollercoaster every time, a sickening swoop in your stomach as you hope you’ve gotten it right, that you’ve made the right choice. Or decide that you don’t care even if it was the wrong choice, because it’s worth being your full and authentic self. So you come out.

I came out in a few words added to my social media headers. I came out in an essay about Aquaman. I came out to my professors in an email signature. I came out in my Christmas newsletter. I came out in a Twitter post. I came out to my mother. I came out to my therapist. I came out to—

The point is, it’s something you have to keep doing.


“You don’t climb into a T-180 to be a driver,” the mysterious, masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) says to Speed after one of their races. “You do it because you’re driven.” Speed drives because he loves it so passionately, because it’s what unites his family, because it’s a way to remember and honor Rex, and because it’s the one way he knows how to change his world. Not all racers get on the track for the same reason, but all the racers have a reason.

One night, the loss of Rex still fresh in their hearts, Speed and his father rewatched the pivotal ‘43 Prix “cheering their heads off,” even though they knew the final outcome of the race already. Their experience of watching in that late-night moment, that shared wonder and joy in the final victory of Ben Burns, led to them rediscovering their love for racing. “We realized,” Speed says, “racing’s in our blood.” It’s more important than a sport: it’s a way of life, almost a religion. And it’s one they believe in wholeheartedly.

Belief is a critical component to Speed’s journey as well: belief in the truth, and in the power of family. When Racer X appears on the racetracks alongside Speed, Speed looks to X as a surrogate brother figure. And why shouldn’t he? X looks out for him, protects him from larger forces. After getting to drive on a team together and feeling a sense of familiarity, Speed confronts X with the belief that Racer X is Rex, having faked his death and started a new life. Revealing his face at last, X disappoints Speed, but says that Rex would be immensely proud of him for sticking to his ideals and trying to make a difference. “From what I’ve read,” X says, “that’s all [Rex] tried to do.” While Racer X attempts to distance himself from the Racer family, he provides Speed with a reminder of why he is racing, and what he hopes to accomplish in doing so.

This may all sound very simple and straightforward, and that is because, in fact, sincerity is the best word to describe Speed Racer. It is direct and heartfelt—the emotional resonance of each moment is clearly more important than the realism. Even so, there is a charm to this unabashedly straightforward approach. Fundamentally, Speed Racer is aiming not for subtlety, but clarity. It has a purpose and a theme, and it is, if you’ll pardon the pun, driving towards them at all times.


I was visiting another queer friend during Pride last year. It was a small celebration: he was recovering from surgery, and there were COVID-19 restrictions to keep in mind. We got slices of rainbow cake from a local grocery store, drew flags on our cheeks with eyeshadow that morning, and made the requisite heart-and-flag posts on social media celebrating both people who were out and people who weren’t. Love for everyone. Love wins. That kind of thing. Maybe the parades and rallies appeal to some, but I loved this quiet, intimate sharing. I remember using a Snapchat filter that added prismatic glints to the photos I took, giving a natural-looking flair to the already sunny day. It felt important to add color as well as light to our celebration, to express the vibrancy of our joy.

Queer joy was something we were both thinking about. We’d both recently taken steps to affirm ourselves and our identities; that first day of June, we wanted to focus not on the pain or struggle of the journey, but the wonderful exhale of being openly ourselves. We had talked earlier that week about the importance of affirmation and happiness in queer narratives, and how important it was to tell stories other than coming-out ones, or stories where there was little trauma or conflict over the character’s identity. We wanted stories about found families, or moments of triumph, or stories where relationships simply existed without comment. We wanted stories we could laugh with, or feel heartwarmed by, or could rejoice in.

We watched Speed Racer that night.


Speed Racer didn’t perform well at the box office—though it has since developed a cult following, proving that its intended audience has found it after all—but it may be my favorite of the Wachowski films, purely because of what it’s trying to say about art and doing what you love. Though it does not have explicitly queer themes (in contrast to films like The Matrix or Jupiter Ascending, where I could argue that transgender themes are present), Speed Racer is more of an artist statement than anything else. Its raison d’être is to exist in the world as a piece of art, regardless of whether that artwork is appreciated or analyzed, simply because the Wachowskis believe this kind of art should exist.

Speed Racer is fundamentally about doing the things you love and being your truest self while being supported by the people who love you most. Forget profit or marketability. Is what you’re doing beautiful? Is it joyful? Does it fulfill you? If so, then do it, and keep doing it for as long as you can. Take pride in your work—and take pride in remaining yourself while you do that work, despite every force that wants to make you turn away from that self.


The climax of the film comes as Speed races through the Grand Prix in a gorgeous gallery of memory, moments from his life flashing before his and our eyes. We know he’s going to win (Spritle tells us that as he begins the final lap) and so the question is not one of victory, but how Speed got this far—and, of course, what keeps him going. What drives him. “Racing isn’t about cars, or drivers,” a ghost-Royalton sneers, and in a sense, he’s even right—it’s about making something beautiful and unique and doing it in a way that is thoroughly your own.

That’s what the Wachowski sisters have done in Speed Racer, and why I want to wave (victory) flags every time I watch it. Every frame sings with sincerity and wonder: it is childlike in the best possible way. Speed Racer asks you to open up and go along for the ride with all its scintillating beauty, with all its dazzling heart. It is a story about family (born and chosen), and creativity, and being true to yourself even when the world actively discourages it. It’s about joy. And it will take your breath away.