My first time through Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I was reminded of something my friend said while playing through Metal Gear Solid 3’s opening. In the game, a helicopter drops into sight just as you approach a bridge. Suddenly the scientist you were sent to rescue is lifted into the air by a mesh net of hornets controlled by an obese masked man known only as “The Pain”. From within the helicopter, some nameless Russian with a brick-shaped head begins shooting bullets at you from between his fingers. Narrowly escaping death, you jump from the bridge, breaking your arm, yet nonetheless swimming to safety. Sometime around the hornets my friend turned to me and said “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. In my life. I don’t want to play this.” And he turned it off. I initially had the same reaction to Scott Pilgrim; Wright’s infusion of video game elements into the cinematic world felt shoehorned and awkward—trippy and cultish in the same vein as The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. It was only the second time around that I was able to get past the misplaced aesthetics and really feel the heart of this film. Sure, the whole thing views like a self-masturbatory lovefest for Eighties babies, and that’ll turn some people off, but every beat is hit—everything thrives with charisma, from the characters to the music, never letting up for a moment of boredom or fatigue.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old jobless manbaby—his newest girlfriend, the 17-year-old Knives Chou (Ellen Wong), is just one in a long series of women he uses to convince himself he’s cool—and for sex. He lives across the street from his parents with his gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), owns nothing in their apartment (including the single mattress they share) and plays bass for Sex Bob-Omb, a band he shirks off for any and all personal concerns, from women to spite. After a few absurdist dream sequences and run-ins with the magenta-haired Ramona Flowers, Scott commits himself to dating the newly transplanted girl. Luring her to his place by ordering things for hand-delivery off Amazon, he snags a date and swiftly falls in love, forgetting to break up with Knives despite countless warnings to “break up with your fake high school girlfriend”. This sets everything up for an incredibly awkward confrontation at Sex Bob-Omb’s first show in the Toronto Battle of the Bands, where Scott’s sister, Stacey, has invited Knives to join Ramona, Wallace, and herself. Scott and the other members take stage just as Ramona and Knives begin chatting, when—holy shit—an Indian dude comes crashing through the ceiling, challenging young Scott to a duel to the death over Ramona’s heart! He shoots fireballs from his hands, summons shades of goth hipster chicks, and is the first of seven evil ex-boyfriends Scott must defeat if he wants to continue dating Ramona.
Throughout the movie I waited for the eventual turn when it would be revealed that Scott wasn’t actually battling anyone—that the League of Evil Exes’ superpowers were projections of his own insecurities with Ramona’s romantic past, and that he was just being an enormous asshole to a bunch of strangers. The movie touches on this with its ending, but it’s really up to the audience to attach the movie’s constant battles—and they are constant—with this symbolism. After the confrontation with evil ex number one the film speeds from battle to battle, almost to a fault. There’s character development, and a lot of funny moments, but the last two thirds feel rushed—too focused on battles and avoidant of interactions. As a man who hates most movies that run past the two hour mark, I would’ve gladly watched another twenty minutes of anything in this film—the music is awesome, the characters hilarious and lovable. It’s one of those rare experiences akin to refusing to finish a book because it’s too good—as Gideon Graves puts it, Edgar Wright is a man who “knows how to put on a show”. Yet for all the time they hijack from the film’s latter half, the battles are well-realized and extremely entertaining; the fight with Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), or Evil Ex number three, features the music of Metric, crazy superhero-ish airborn combat, a bass battle, and finishes on one of the most absurd and funniest moments in the film. As for the video game visuals, you’ve got to take them for what they are. Scott Pilgrim is the kind of movie that’s inevitably going to disappoint if you refuse to surrender to its charm—it’s unconventional and experimental in every way. Unlike Watchmen or The Dark Knight, which toned down their comic book roots in the name of realism, Scott Pilgrim is a glorified celebration of juvenile culture, from Zelda and Mario to the high-flying super-powered action that so defines the comic book medium. It’s at once an analysis of how immersive nostalgia can distort a person’s perception and a grandiose tribute to the cultural tropes we were raised on. But more than that, it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s been a long time since a movie with this much heart dared to be this experimental—give it a shot.