Numerous people have made the point over the years: when you get down to it, there are only so many stories. Even if we move beyond the ultra-foundational elements identified by Joseph Campbell and others,[i] it’s still true that almost all the stories we encounter could fit neatly into a handful of templates, at most. And nowhere more so than in cinema, where the vast sums of money involved tend to push (or force) artists towards safe, well-established narratives. Remember when Inception came out eleven (!) years ago, and the few sparks of originality that it threw into the standard action-blowout mix felt like such a big deal? They were a big deal, because making a story feel genuinely fresh is a tall order, rarely fulfilled. How about this one: anxious, awkward slacker meets the girl of his dreams, and must grow up (in some ways, at least) to win her heart. That story has been told many times before, especially in recent years. So the creative minds behind Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—Bryan Lee O’Malley, writing the original comics, and Edgar Wright, directing this movie adaptation—couldn’t avoid the fact that they were telling a familiar story. But they could make damn sure to tell it like it’s never been told before.
That they do, in a way that’s easy enough for the viewer to grasp, even as it defies concise explanation. On the real-world surface, Scott Pilgrim is a classic rom-com slacker protagonist: 22 years old, unemployed and immature, still emotionally reeling from a bad break-up a year ago, bassist in a local garage band called Sex Bob-Omb, and therefore a fixture in the attendant hipster/artist social scene. But there’s a significant twist: the unremarkable premise is infused with the aesthetics of old-school video and arcade games—to such a thorough extent that, as A.O. Scott puts it, “the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as erased, because the filmmakers create an entirely coherent, perpetually surprising universe that builds on Mr. O’Malley’s bold and unpretentious graphic style without slavishly duplicating it.”[ii]
That last point is important, because, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, ‘retro gaming’ is not the only aesthetic filter at play here. Indie music is a big one, and not just as a typical soundtrack to enliven the action; it’s also a window into the way Scott experiences the world, the foundation of his broader social environment, and fuel for the subplot about Sex Bob-Omb trying to score a record deal, which runs parallel to, and occasionally overlaps with, Scott’s primary quest to vanquish the Evil Exes of his new love, Ramona. The movie’s other defining aesthetic, however, is obviously comic books, and the Japanese manga that they’re closely related to. I haven’t read O’Malley’s original comics, but in the reviews, every critic who had read them noted the movie’s exceptional fidelity to the source material. That in itself is not especially remarkable; what sets this movie apart is its unusual way of getting there. For all the legions of comic book movies that have come out in recent years, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the only one I’ve seen[iii] that takes this approach, aiming not just to translate the story to the screen, but to re-create the whole experience of reading the comic in film form. Those aren’t quite the same thing, and Scott Pilgrim is a showcase for how much fun the latter can be. And the approach such a natural fit for the source material, it’s easy to forget that Wright and his collaborators made a conscious choice to film it this way. That was a crucial, smart decision, but I expect it was a pretty easy one, too; it’s almost hard to imagine how dull a traditional, pseudo-realistic adaptation of this story would have been.
And to be fair, this story is notably unlike the ones in those typical adaptations. Batman, for example, is a quintessential superhero, but it’s plainly ridiculous to think of him reading superhero comics in his spare time. For Scott Pilgrim and his supporting characters, however, comic books are most likely a significant presence in their lives, just as music and retro video games are shown to be. So those zany aesthetic filters have the paradoxical effect of making the movie less traditionally ‘realistic,’ but a more authentic representation of these characters’ inner lives and the world they inhabit. Which is significant, because that subject matter is mighty specific in just about every way. As Ty Burr writes, Scott Pilgrim captures the world “through the eyes of an over-caffeinated 23-year-old man-boy playing retro video games on a handheld and listening to a jangle-core iPod playlist while waiting for his girlfriend in an all-night diner in a largish North American city. Which is to say that the movie is of this precise moment and you should probably see it now, since it will be dated by next Tuesday.”[iv]
It’s a fair point, and on that note, it’s true that my affection for Scott Pilgrim is, at least to some degree, a product of timing and personal experience. When it came out in 2010, I was 20 years old, romantically adrift in the typical way, and settling into my small Northeastern college’s version of the social scene depicted in the movie, eagerly soaking up the superior taste and encyclopedic knowledge of my peers. (When Scott’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Knives Chau, laments, “I didn’t even know there was good music until like two months ago!” it rings true to my early-freshman-year self.) And there are certainly elements that seem dated these days: the absence of smartphones (even hipsters can’t avoid them now); Ramona working for Amazon and having the time and energy to do anything else besides eat and sleep; and the fact that Scott no longer comes across as “but another in a looooong line of mopey, tousled kidults played by [Michael] Cera,”[v] who, as it turned out, was at the peak of his anti-macho ubiquity in those years. Being an early-20-something music hipster has presumably changed as well, but I aged out of the authority to speak on that several years ago, at least.
On the whole, though, Scott Pilgrim holds up surprisingly well—except that shouldn’t be a surprise at all, since it’s Edgar Wright working his magic behind the camera. I’ve long since given up trying to determine the ‘best’ director working today, but Wright is right at the top of the list. He’s unquestionably one of my favorites, and even more so than other auteur filmmakers, nobody else can do what he does—once you’re familiar with it, his madcap, uber-kinetic style is instantly recognizable. Scott Pilgrim is actually a minor entry in his filmography, and hardly anyone would call it his best. Not when his body of work also includes Baby Driver (2017), a wondrous hybrid of comedy and straight-up action mayhem, and the cheekily named Three Flavors Cornetto[vi] trilogy of endlessly entertaining genre spoofs: romantic comedy and zombie horror in Shaun of the Dead (2004), buddy-cop action in Hot Fuzz (2007), and alien invasion sci-fi in The World’s End (2013). He was also the original director hired for Ant-Man (2015), but ended up quitting over creative differences with the Marvel overlords, which is a damn shame—the movie was good, but he could’ve done something special with it.
I actually don’t think Scott Pilgrim is Wright’s best movie, either (that would have to be the remarkable Baby Driver, which will absolutely get its own article on this site someday) but do think it’s his most underrated, and one of his most subtly interesting. Every movie Wright has directed, he’s also written or co-written, which makes some sense; unique and exhilarating as his style is, you can see how he might have trouble applying it to a script he didn’t write. And he usually starts from scratch; Scott Pilgrim is his only movie with a screenplay adapted from someone else’s source material.[vii] But it works, because everything about his style—the snappy dialogue laced with wordplay, the fast-paced cuts and transitions, the frenetic-yet-precise movements and amped-up soundscape—turns out to be an ideal fit for this story. The comic book flourishes blend quite seamlessly with those Wright hallmarks, and they all help to imbue mundane events with outsized drama and exaggerated energy, which is what O’Malley’s comics are all about. Scott Pilgrim shows that in certain instances, Wright’s talents can not only dovetail with a printed story, but elevate it, making the movie adaptation funnier and perhaps more poignant than it would have been in the hands of someone with a more straightforward style.
Without a doubt, he makes it funnier. Wright is a type of artist that’s frustratingly rare among major filmmakers these days: not just a director of comedies, but a comic auteur. Like everyone else, he delivers plenty of standard laugh lines through dialogue, some of which inevitably land better than others. But in his movies, those jokes are only a fraction of the total. Among live-action directors, at least, he’s unmatched in his ability to use the other tools of filmmaking—editing; sound effects; and especially movement into, out of, and around the frame—to get a laugh.[viii] In short, there’s a kind of infectious comedic rhythm that permeates an Edgar Wright movie at every level, and Scott Pilgrim is no exception. Add in those comic-book flourishes—the text and other animated accents livening up the frame—and there’s such a wealth of visual and auditory comedy here that it hardly matters if some of the traditional jokes don’t land.
Behind this great abundance is an inclination that’s essential for any successful comedian: keep the jokes coming, and try everything. Wright knows that what people find funny is largely subjective, and he can’t ever be sure a given joke will get a laugh—all he can do is guarantee that another one is just around the corner, and that they don’t get too predictable. His style has its trademarks, and he has the wherewithal to make Scott’s evil ex battles into comedic musical numbers as well as epic action sequences, but that try-anything instinct yields some delightfully unexpected curveballs. How else to explain an exchange between Scott and his roommate, Wallace, accompanied by a lame-sitcom laugh track, or a pair of ‘Vegan Police’ officers doing a hammy slow-motion high-five as they exit, or filling a few seconds of dead air with evil ex Lucas Lee looking at something on his phone (that we never see) and going, “Haha! That’s actually hilarious…” (Something about the way Chris Evans delivers that line gets me every time.)
It’s worth noting that, especially since the movie is apparently such a faithful adaptation of the source material, many of these flourishes and comic touches are shared achievements by Wright and O’Malley, and since I haven’t read the comic books, I don’t know where the dividing line is. It’s safe to assume that O’Malley is responsible for the glorious character names; Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers may be nothing special in that regard, but their supporting cast is another story. Envy Adams, Wallace Wells,[ix] Roxy Richter, Knives Chau, Young Neil—those names are the work of someone who understands the comic value of a well-conceived character. The simple act of presenting Scott’s final foe, the video game End Boss reimagined as a manipulative, intimidatingly successful older-guy ex-boyfriend named Gideon Graves, is good for a laugh. Credit O’Malley, too, for the wry little info boxes that pop up next to a new character: Comeau, Age: 25, Knows Everyone; Julie Powers, Age: 22, Has Issues; Stacey Pilgrim, Age: 18, Rating: T for ‘Teen’. Wright, meanwhile, throws in some jokes specific to the film industry: Scott’s bemused reaction to the news that movies are made in Toronto (one of Hollywood’s go-to stand-ins for other, less accommodating North American cities), and some subtly clever bits of casting. For cinephiles, there’s something sublime about seeing Chris Evans, fresh off the Human Torch and soon to be Captain America, scoff at Michael Cera, “You really think you stand a chance against an A-lister, bro?” Same with seeing Brandon Routh, who had recently lost his Superman gig, as the evil ex Todd, whose vegan superpowers are zapped away by a kryptonite-green ray gun, or Roxy; the evil ex from Ramona’s bi-curious days, played by Mae Whitman, who was once paired with Cera on Arrested Development as his hyper-religious girlfriend, Ann Veal.[x]
When it comes to the ‘serious’ side of Scott Pilgrim, the romance and youthful angst undergirding all the comedic mayhem, I can’t say which ideas originate with which creator, but it’s clear to me that Wright’s and O’Malley’s sensibilities complement each other, resulting in a movie that, silly as it often gets, is still emotionally coherent. Through those text boxes that introduce the characters, the Sex Bob-Omb music composed by Beck, and countless other details, they evince an intimate familiarity with the social clique portrayed here, and while the specifics of hipster culture are probably a bit different now, I expect that the movie still feels relevant, because beneath the ironic, awkward-yet-cool exteriors, the core emotions and yearnings—for love, acceptance, self-assurance, creative fulfillment, etc.—are pretty timeless, and have not changed much.
How well the central romance between Scott and Ramona works will vary depending on the viewer—and Wright includes plenty of comedy and action to keep you occupied if it doesn’t (like them or not, his movies are never, ever dull)—but it’s worth noting that their relationship, even setting aside the evil exes, isn’t entirely a retread of the loser-and-woman-way-out-of-his-league dynamic. As A.O. Scott notes, “Somehow they make it work, in part because Ramona never lets go of her skepticism even as she warms to Scott, and in part because Scott is never the abject weakling he often wants everyone to believe he is. His quivery diffidence contains quite a bit of guile, and what we know of his romantic history suggests a wolf in wet noodle’s clothing.” The supporting characters play a key role in this, too; Scott’s traits and behavior are often exasperating enough that it would be hard to root for him without the likes of Wallace, Stacey and others consistently on hand to call out his immaturity, or speak uncomfortably truths about his relationship with Knives, or simply tell him to buck up and grow up.
Then there’s the fantasy element, with Scott acquiring the durability and fighting skills of a video game avatar to battle Ramona’s evil exes. The symbolism of this isn’t particularly mysterious, but Wright (and O’Malley before him), use the conceit creatively enough to keep it from getting stale. (I especially like the point bonuses that Scott accrues on the way to his second attempt at the climactic battle, as he makes things right with Kim, shoves a couple of random hipsters, and tells Gideon how much he sucks.) The superpowers that it grants the characters also have a way of smoothing out some of the story’s rough edges; for example, we’re asked to sympathize with Scott even as he treats Knives pretty badly, and while she does end up more emotionally mature most of her older counterparts, her storyline might still be problematic if she didn’t also get to become an avenging badass in the process. The fact that there really is no visible divide between the video game world and regular old Toronto, is a consistent source of humor, especially when it comes to the reactions of bystanders, who regard Scott’s battles with equal parts amazement and bemusement—as wild and crazy, but also not particularly extraordinary, just two people working through their emotional baggage in public.
If I have one issue with the central romance, it’s the way Scott and Ramona also work through those emotions in regular dialogue. It’s a minor quibble, though, and these lines are not so much badly written or poorly delivered as simply unnecessary—in effect, telling literally what Scott’s outlandish battles are already doing a fine job of showing figuratively: that responsibility and self-respect are essential to true happiness, and that building a healthy relationship and dealing with the baggage of the past requires effort, vulnerability, and growth from both people involved.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is hardly the first movie to tell that story. But no other movie tells it with this kind of energy. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[ii] Scott gets it, as always: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/movies/13scott.html?ref=movies
[iii] With the possible exception of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), which is so wildly different in every other way that it doesn’t seem like a very useful comparison.
[v] That’s Robert Wilonsky, for the Village Voice: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/08/11/michael-ceras-precious-little-life-gets-soul-in-scott-pilgrim/
[vi] As in the packaged ice cream dessert found in British convenience stores, which is referenced in all three movies.
[vii] Wright’s script for Ant-Man was adapted as well, of course, but the studio’s demand for a rewrite by somebody was the main reason he left the project. He retained a writing credit, but who knows how much of his original script made it into the final version.
[ix] Not to be confused, these days, with the journalist David Wallace-Wells, whose terrifying 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth ought to be required reading for anyone with any control over climate policy.
[x] Speaking of shows that absolutely crushed their character names. I still laugh out loud every time I remember the Bluth family’s lawyer, Bob Loblaw.