Cast your mind back to 2010 – the year that brought us the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, David Cameron became UK Prime Minister (less said the better), Apple released their first-ever iPad, and the Chilean miners were rescued after 69 days trapped underground.
But it was also the year when Edgar Wright debuted Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Coming off the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (two thirds of The Cornetto Trilogy), Scott Pilgrim would represent a departure for the director. This would be his first North American feature without the regular collaboration of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. The cast of Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman and Thomas Jane (to name a few) have played a significant role in re-shaping the comic book landscape as superhero characters. But here, in Wright’s film, before superhero culture dominated the box office as we know it, the ensemble were a harmonic force of wit and deadpan humour.
At Comic-Con, the film was given a world premiere to an enthusiastic crowd in Hall H. For those lucky individuals in attendance, it went down a storm. The film – as it would seem – was on top of the world. One month later, that bubble was about to burst.
Despite the glowing reviews from critics, it’s still somewhat incredible, crazy and unthinkable even, that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a box office flop, but unfortunately, that was the state of the world back then. Sure, the film faced some stiff competition from the muscle-bound reunion known as The Expendables and Julia Roberts going on a self-discovery mission in Eat, Pray, Love; Wright’s film could only muster a top 5 debut, making a total of $48.1 million worldwide. It’s easy to point fingers as to why there was such a disparity – poor studio marketing, the lack of a ‘box office’ star to pull in the mass audiences, the unfamiliarity of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series in which the film is adapted from (in comparison to the recognisable juggernauts of Marvel and DC), or simply a lack of interest from the general public. But fast forward to 2020, and it’s Edgar Wright who’s having the last laugh.
It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is looked upon so favourably today. It joins the company of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Steven Lisberger’s Tron and John Carpenter’s The Thing of films that were commercial failures upon release, but has gone on to achieve cult status with a brand new lease on life. Edgar Wright’s love letter to geekdom is still wildly inventive and imaginative ten years on. If Spaced broke new ground in depicting friendships through pop culture references on British television, then Scott Pilgrim is the global culmination of that ethos, so much that it has become a staple of mainstream media now dominated by nostalgic throwbacks of yesteryear. To put it simply, before the likes of Stranger Things and Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Scott Pilgrim was ahead of its time.
Taking place in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada, Scott Pilgrim’s sharply edited aesthetic combines action, comedy, romance, and drama, all within the confines of a populist medium of superhero culture and martial arts – the Inception of genres. It’s an attack on the senses, transported to another dimension and kicked into gear in its opening credits by Kim Pine (Alison Pill). It’s the first of many synchronicities it adopts throughout, stretching between a musical (using fights instead of a ‘song and dance’) and creative scene transitions that echo a page turn of a comic book. A lot has been said about Wright’s stylised approach to filmmaking; as if he was editing on the fly, simple, mundane shots are elevated into snappy instances of energy. The film beats to its own kinetic rhythm – a character itself – long before the visual experimentation that aptly became Baby Driver.
But for what it is worth, Scott Pilgrim understands the propriety of geek culture. And if you grew up within that spectrum, that inside knowledge only enhances the film’s in-joke reputation. The brilliant mixture of comic book and video game iconography has become a quintessential signature of Wright’s talents, crafting a unique visual statement that is so far unmatched.
But the film is not purely about affirmation. Too many films (case point – The Rise of Skywalker as a recent example) are built on foundations of nostalgia without a clear identity to stand out on its own. The substance that it is desperately seeking is spent on the incredible amount of time pursuing audience approval, and therefore losing focus on the merit of their story. Safe to say, Wright’s film is the opposite.
Sharing screenwriting responsibilities with Michael Bacall (21 Jump Street), the script acknowledges the ‘uncool’, the loser, underdog group of young adults desperate to fit in with the trends of popular culture with their band Sex Bob-Omb. And their ascension to the top only highlights the battle for authenticity and identity in the cutthroat business of the music industry and the environments surrounding it.
And it’s helped by its noticeable lean into its archetypal array of eccentric characters which the script frequently pokes fun at. Whether it is the hipster pretentiousness of Comeau (Nelson Franklin), the over-the-top, action man bravado from Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) or the dim-wittedness of Todd (Brandan Routh), the absurdity and quote-a-thon dialogue are dialled up to eleven. The best belongs to Aubrey Plaza’s bleep-filled Julie Powers.
Leading that charge is Michael Cera’s Scott, the anthesis of what we expect from comic book heroes. There’s no tragic backstory aka Batman or no mission of revenge ala Punisher. It’s just one, self-centred, selfish, socially awkward and a romantically destructive guy who cheated on his girlfriends, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Through cowardice and avoidance in dealing with the emotional fallout, he also has to contend with defeating Romana’s Seven Evil Exes. Like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, every villain is a ‘level up’ encounter until Scott finally reaches boss level aka Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), and win her affection.
Cera amplifies those qualities with ease, playing a character who’s always a step out of touch from reality and his insecure desires to be with the girl of his dreams. O’Malley and Wright never paint him as the hero; Scott is the definition of unlikability and dating an underage teenager epitomises that. Scott is no different from Romana’s evil exes. Even the formation of the League in controlling Ramona’s love life is the equivalent of toxic gatekeeping. And the truth is, just like its characters (with exception of Knives – she was practically innocent), they’re all culpable as each other in the cycle of pain.
But as a storytelling concept, Scott Pilgrim plays into Edgar Wright’s strengths. Amongst all its intricate world-building and foreshadowing, there’s always a level of honesty that brings characters right down to Earth and grow up. The film is impulsive and rash in the beginning, before finding accountability that comes to terms with their actions. Story-wise, it doesn’t re-define the rulebook. Character-wise, you don’t always have to root for them. But in this coming-of-age tale, its appeal provides enough scope to relate.
It shouldn’t have taken ten years for Wright’s film to reach such acclaim. For those already ‘in the know’, Wright’s film was already a classic to begin with. Its sensory overload may not be to everyone tastes, but at the heart of it, the simplicity of the story is universal. And just like the graphic novel series, it works not only because of its faithfulness to the format, but because it takes a traditional story and switches it into an unconventional, epic adventure. And that’s part of its long-lasting charm and legacy.
With the anniversary charity script read, a 4K blu-ray on the horizon, rumours of a resurrection of the tie-in video game and a possible animated sequel, there’s still renewed life in the franchise. Because, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just a great comic book adaptation, but in a cinematic landscape where video game adaptations have been made to mixed results, this film, unconventionally, supersedes the lot.
In any other hands, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would have been relegated to the forgotten consciousness of our minds. But thanks to Edgar Wright, the film is a clubhouse in which everyone is invited to – vegan powers included.