Level Up: Why Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Endures As A Cult Favorite Beyond Its Geek Appeal

Edgar Wright's affectionate graphic novel adaptation is a poignant sleeper hit that slyly examines the effects of nostalgia.

by | March 22, 2017 | Comments

Buzz can be a harsh, even brutal mistress. It can elevate small, funky little projects like The Blair Witch Project or Borat to the level of pop-culture events. Yet it can also burden smaller-scale projects with expectations, commercial or otherwise, that are impossible to live up to.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World learned this the hard way. Beloved cult auteur Edgar Wright’s (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz) feverishly anticipated adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s equally beloved cult graphic novels was the beneficiary of such deafening, overpowering buzz that for a while it looked like this plucky little sleeper was going to bust out of the geekosphere and become a huge cultural phenomenon on par with Deadpool or Guardians Of The Galaxy. 

The film functioned as a test balloon to see if intense, infectious geek enthusiasm — of the video game, comic book, and cinematic variety — would be enough to propel a relatively obscure property into the box office promised land. It was supposed to prove that in the age of the geek, brawn and bullets didn’t matter as much as smarts and hipness.

Then the film was released, and in its first weekend, it finished fifth at the box office, behind the likes of The Expendables and Eat, Pray Love. It turned out that audiences would rather pay money to see Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and pretty much every action movie star ever beat people up than watch an action-comedy whose final confrontation pits Michael Cera against Jason Schwartzman.

From a commercial standpoint, Scott Pilgrim had some obvious drawbacks, including an action hero who looks like he would lose a fight with a kitten, then try to make it up to the kitten by writing it a series of droll poems. As a wispy, willowy, doe-like man-child, Cera is no one’s conception of an action hero, which makes it good that Scott Pilgrim inhabits a fantasy world unbound by the dreary dictates of reality and logic.

Though Scott Pilgrim is an adaptation of a graphic novel series, its aesthetic borrows equally from the low-fi, high-nostalgia world of video games.

Though Scott Pilgrim is an adaptation of a graphic novel series, its aesthetic borrows equally from the low-fi, high-nostalgia world of video games, particularly of the 8-bit variety, which it realizes better than any movie other than Wreck-It Ralph. Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are the two best video game movies precisely because they’re not based on specific video game properties and consequently are free to riff on the entire field. They’re not tethered to a particular character or scenario, so they’re about our relationships with video games, and the role they play in our lives.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World consequently hit me right in the nostalgia sweet spot. I damn near teared up when I saw the Universal logo rendered in exquisitely clunky, old-school video game graphics, complete with a chiptune-style rendition of the Universal fanfare. The movie’s video game stylization extends to its protagonist, both a recognizable Michael Cera type and Player One, a video game archetype audiences can project themselves onto so that, in some strange way, they can play the movie as much as watch it.

A perfectly typecast Cera stars as the titular hero, a 22-year-old screw-up and struggling rock musician with a messy, painful romantic history that has a way of coming back to haunt him at the worst possible times. As the movie begins, Scott is dizzy with intoxication over the new woman in his life, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a fantasy girl who is a giddy realization of a number of geek fetishes: she’s a high-schooler, she’s Asian, she’s filled with guileless enthusiasm for just about everything, and she even wears a Catholic schoolgirl uniform to class every day.

In other words, she’s perfect, both an impossible fantasy and way too good for a borderline sketchy dude like Scott Pilgrim. Of course, despite being even worse at romantic relationships and emotions than most guys in their early twenties, Scott soon finds himself even more deeply besotted with another impossibly perfect, idealized dream woman in the form of low-level Amazon employee Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American who came to Canada looking for a fresh start.

Scott then finds himself faced with a dilemma common among rock stars but more or less unique among geeks: he has a gorgeous, adoring girlfriend but pines for a woman he finds even more exciting and desirable. In an even more unlikely turn of events, the object of his desire finds him attractive as well.

There is a hitch, however, and it’s a doozy. Like everyone, including Scott himself, Ramona comes with a lot of romantic baggage. Unlike everyone else, however, Ramona’s romantic baggage has somehow evolved into a Suicide Squad-like team of nefarious evil-doers known collectively as the League of Evil Exes. Scott must defeat all seven of the Evil Exes if he wants to win Ramona’s heart, and this leads to a series of action-comedy set pieces pitting all 110 shudderingly emo pounds of him against a series of outsized adversaries.

The Evil Exes represent the ghosts of Ramona’s past, but they loom just as ominously as ghosts of Scott’s future as well.

These foes pose two problems. The more immediate problem is that they want to destroy Scott physically so that he cannot get the girl at the end of the game. But they also represent a less urgent but more emotionally resonant threat: they represent the world that Ramona inhabited before Scott met her, a world where they shared with Ramona, if only briefly, the kind of hyper-intense, extremely fragile romantic bond that Scott currently has with her. They represent the ghosts of Ramona’s past, but they loom just as ominously as ghosts of Scott’s future as well, as a vision of what his life might be like with Ramona in it only as a memory.

Wright and his collaborators have enormous fun with this collection of colorful villains, who represent everything that Scott is not. This is particularly true of Lucas Lee, a movie star and skateboarder that Chris Evans plays as a hilariously over-the-top parody of action-flick macho. While Cera is so slight and wispy it seems like a swift wind would knock him over, Evans seems like he’s made of concrete and granite, and he speaks in a rasp so gritty and gravely it makes Christian Bale’s Batman voice sound like Mike Tyson.

The clashes lead up to a climactic battle between Scott and Gideon Graves, a music industry bigwig and smirking tastemaker that Jason Schwartzman plays as a fiendishly clever homage to the character Paul Williams played in Phantom Of The Paradise, a cross between Phil Spector and Satan. Who would have imagined that Satan would actually be the less creepy part of that equation?

In addition to the League of Evil Exes, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is graced by a group I like to call the Confederacy of Sardonic, Sass-Mouthed Smartasses. It’s an impressive collection of some of the coolest, hippest, funniest, and most talented young actresses around, including Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mae Whitman, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Pill, and of course Winstead herself. If the battles are stylized smartly as video-game skirmishes, complete with magical coins erupting from nowhere, Super Mario Brothers 2 style, the rest of the movie has the whip-smart, super-fast, and uber-hip tone of Arrested Development and Wright’s own Spaced.

The surprising emotional resonance of Scott Pilgrim lies in the simple but effective way it externalizes our inability to deal with the past. At the beginning of the film, Scott is still wrestling unhappily with the memory of a girlfriend who dumped him a year earlier, sending him into a state of emotional and romantic stasis that Knives and Ramona lift him out of. Yet it isn’t long until Scott’s fears and anxieties about both Ramona’s past and his own take on a physical form, hell-bent on kicking Scott’s skinny white ass.

It’s about the way our personal histories and weakness for nostalgia can keep us from becoming our best selves.

Like Wright’s follow-up, The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World is concerned with the difficult yet necessary business of letting go of the past. It’s about the way our personal histories and weakness for nostalgia — of both the personal and pop-culture form — can keep us from becoming our best selves because we’re so stuck in the easy pleasures of our youth.

There is an underlying melancholy to Winstead’s performance that comes from her character’s understanding of the role she is blessed and cursed to play in people’s romantic fantasies and how little control she has in those worlds. Scott Pilgrim is not worthy of Ramona (or Knives, for that matter), but none of her previous exes were worthy of her either.

Ramona reminds me a lot of Clementine, the woman Kate Winslet played in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and not just because they have a similar fondness for colorfully dyed hair. Both are real, flawed, three-dimensional women with hopes and dreams and agency who hunger for a real, genuine, substantive connection, despite knowing that the men and woman who love them will project their own fantasies onto them with little consideration for who they really are. People can’t help but create fantasy versions of Ramona in their heads without understanding the damage they’re doing to the real thing.

Among its many peculiarities, Scott Pilgrim is Canadian in a way you just don’t see very often in movies released theatrically in the states. When a movie is shot in Canada, it’s generally treated like a big secret, but Scott Pilgrim engages with Canadian culture in a way that I found enormously endearing but that probably hurt its box-office everywhere except for Canada.

In retrospect, it’s not hard to figure out why a proudly Canadian adaptation of a largely unfamiliar graphic novel starring a tiny slip of a man and filled with video-game style fight scenes did not connect with a huge international audience. But it’s just as obvious why the movie was immediately embraced by a large and devoted cult. It’s spectacularly entertaining, but there’s also deceptive substance behind the dizzy parade of eye candy.

Box-office-wise, Scott Pilgrim just didn’t happen. So Wright and his gifted collaborators will have to console themselves with the knowledge that they made a terrifically innovative and enduring cult classic that will be remembered long after the movies that trumped it at the box office are forgotten. Yes, even Eat Pray Love.

Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 81 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh

Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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