Every Zendaya Role Ranked: ‘Challengers,’ ‘Dune,’ ‘Euphoria,’ and More

This April sees Zendaya cross a milestone it honestly feels like she should have reached ages ago: a legitimate leading role in a theatrical film. The actor has been one of the biggest stars of Generation Z and a much hyped starlet for years now, and yet a quick glance at her Wikipedia page reveals a shockingly short resume.

The Oakland born star’s adult film career, after a childhood in the Disney Channel machine leading sitcoms like “Shake It Up” and “KC Undercover,” really only started in 2017, with a brief supporting turn in Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Opposite her eventual real-life boyfriend Tom Holland, she only had a scant 10 minutes or so of screentime as the sarcastic teen MJ — hardly a star is born moment, despite what the advertising for the film would have you expect.

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Zendaya would reprise her role in future Spider-Man films, and her screentime increased with each installment. But the near blink-and-you’ll-miss-her nature of her “Homecoming” performance set a precedent for her career, which has seen her demonstrate a lot of potential with little real follow through. After her “Spider-Man” role, she showed up in 2017 theaters again to play a fairly minor supporting character in “The Greatest Showman.” In 2021, she appeared in the much hyped role of Chani in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation, only for her screentime to be compared to that of a perfume ad — she would eventually get some actual things to do in the 2024 sequel. Her other film credits amount to a spattering of voice roles (Lola Bunny in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” Meechee in “Smallfoot”) and an honest to god first-billed lead role, her only before this year, in Sam Levinson’s Netflix drama “Malcolm and Marie” — a rather wretched misfire that didn’t quite set her or costar John David Washington up for the Oscar success they might have been hoping for.

On TV, it’s of course a different story. Levinson might have been responsible for the failure that was “Malcolm and Marie,” but he’s also responsible for her most acclaimed role, as recovering addict Rue in the discourse generator/HBO teen drama “Euphoria.” Her committed, volatile performance found acclaim, and earned her two Emmy Awards; her work as an executive producer on the project also helped establish her as a decision maker with an unusual amount of control over her projects for a young celebrity. Still, despite that, and with absolutely no insult to her acting abilities, it’s probably fair to say that Zendaya’s star image is more about her likable personality and gorgeous fashion offscreen than it is anything she’s done on film.

So that makes “Challengers,” her new film with Luca Guadagnino, feel like the movie we’ve been waiting for her to make for years now. Also starring Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, the tennis drama casts her as Tashi, a gifted tennis prodigy turned embittered coach following an injury, who navigates her desires for a former flame and her husband against the backdrop of a US Open-qualifying tournament. Not only is this an unqualified leading role, with Justin Kuritzkes’ script positioning Tashi as the fulcrum of the characters’ queasy threeway relationship, but it’s a very adult role as well, loaded with the history and maturity Zendaya struggled to embody in “Malcolm and Marie.” After spending her 20s delivering earnest, openhearted performances as young women and often literal teenagers, Zendaya is now 27, and “Challengers” feels like a deliberate turn of the page onto the next chapter of her career, an announcement and demonstration of the abilities she has thus far only hinted she’s capable of.

With “Challengers” in theaters April 27, IndieWire is looking back on Zendaya’s bright but scant career, to determine what sticks out in her short filmography. The “Spider-Man” series is lumped together as one entry, as are the “Dune” films. Voice acting roles in projects like “Smallfoot,” minor one-episode roles in sitcoms like “Blackish,” and her early work as a child star are excluded from the list. Projects are ranked based on Zendaya’s performance, rather than the overall quality of the film or TV show itself. Read on for eight of Zendaya’s performances, ranked from worst to best.

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