As it always goes with films promoted as a big aesthetic step ahead or, potentially, a bona fide generational divider, it’s useful to look to the work’s predecessors to understand how it might have evolved. I definitely enjoyed that I couldn’t pick up any particular influence from the decade’s bumper crop of ultra-successful superhero epics, save for a quick moment reminiscent of the loathed-by-the-internet-but-still-massive-grossing Spider-Man 3: Scott knocks a dude in the face at a crucial moment and skin bunches up his face in the form of coins, a la Thomas Haden Church’s sandy countenance. Really, with all its antics and dances and broad, quippy comedy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t all that far away from the odder, less popular, weirder and livelier moments of Sam Raimi’s final spider-movie, with a heaping dash of Larry & Andy Wachowski’s infamous, elephantine artifice that was Speed Racer.
But director Edgar Wright isn’t interested in total sensory candy-coating; onscreen sound fx are mostly deployed to mask scene transitions, with total fantasy mania reserved for the big action set pieces. Mostly, more so than any fantastical movie or comic or whatever, I was reminded of Wright’s own Spaced, that name-making 1999-2001 television series tracking the stylized lives of culture-addled young people, if not quite so young as the Scott Pilgrim cast. The movie goes much further into visual stylization, externalizing all of the pop/nerd reference points the Spaced cast might deliver in dialogue -- and, of course, it lacks the writing or acting of Simon Pegg & Jessica Hynes -- but the positioning of the characters, snarky or deluded or struggling for something greater as they may be, remains reminiscent of Wright’s earlier work. Plus, the compression of 1200+ pages of comics into a 111-minute movie forces many of the character interactions into a pop-pop-pop sitcom beat, a fact apparently not lost on Wright himself; the big laugh in my audience didn’t have anything to do with manga or video games or anything like that, it was a big fat Seinfeld reference. I was pretty much doubled over myself! It’s funny because it’s true!
Deeper than that, to understand Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is still to understand compression. It’s not just a matter of slashing away extraneous scenes or abridging dialogue; Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall fundamentally alter the scope of the material by crunching the comics’ year-or-so time span to seemingly about a month. This alters the dynamic between hapless self-appointed hero Scott and love interest Ramona, who in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics shared an eventful, sexually active relationship across momentary (if angst-saturating) battles with evil exes. Movie Scott does not apparently go to bed with Ramona in anything but a chaste manner, and the story of the movie, then, becomes the story of a tryout period wherein you sorta-date someone while sifting through friends opinions, etc. This also puts teenage flirtation Knives Chau into a considerably more dominant position - Ellen Wong is for all intents and purposes female co-lead with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as the ex-girlfriend who zooms in and out of Scott’s conflict-adverse little life.
And what of Michael Cera, eh? Truth be told, he is a different Scott than the one in the comics, much more obviously deluded, and at times outright mean and creepy in a way O’Malley would disguise with an angelic exterior, so as to tease out his protagonist’s faults across long spans of character interaction. Shorthand is Wright’s tactic - this is a fast movie, whipping from situation to situation like gaming cut scenes, and often pushing supporting characters to the side as reflectors for Scott’s gregarious immaturity. Envy Adams suffers the worst, in that several of her character traits are effectively folded into Ramona by the end of the movie, though Kim Pine may hurt admirers a bit more in getting cut down to absolutely nothing other than the quippy Other Girl. Indeed, her entire saga of rescue by Scott is related by Scott to Ramona in dialogue, in a manner strictly limited to joking about how many fights Scott seems to get into.
Structurally, I can see the appeal, or even the necessity of this. Ex after ex hammers away at Scott, becoming a running metaphor for how much shit he’s learning about this woman he really wants to date seriously, and Cera’s performance grows amusingly tired and haggard as fight scene drills into fight scene. Some scenes are edited so tightly that Scott drifts without warning from fantasy to reality and between locations, almost like he’s losing his grip on sanity from the object of his affections. Gradually, Cera goes from cute-nervous to nervous-nervous, an amusing modulation of his familiar persona cleverly linked to the rushing action of the film.
And yet - it is all about Scott Pilgrim, and his fights, and his transformation into a two-fisted assertive Man, that’s part of the big problem here.
For me, a critical presence in O’Malley’s comics is Kunihiko Ikuhara, director of much of the television anime version of Sailor Moon -- both the acknowledged ground zero of his early interest in anime and its visual style, and a massive force in building interest in anime and manga among North American female audiences -- and then director/co-creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena, a madly gender role-bending fantasy battle extravaganza from whence came the pulling of all those Scott Pilgrim swords from people’s chests. And while I wouldn’t call O’Malley’s comics gender-bendable in character-based terms, they are unusual in drawing so much influence from girls’ or women’s manga; people seem to ‘remember’ the fights in Scott Pilgrim, but until the final volume they’d typically only take up a handful of pages, sometimes ending in an evil ex making a terrible mistake steeped in their own hubris, but usually at least slathered in character dynamics. People getting to know each other, teasing out their secrets: folks joining the party. Video games don’t have to be all fights, you see.
Frankly, Wright’s movie is almost all about the fights, and when you get down to it nobody really gets to know anyone save for Scott and Knives and Ramona. And the fights are often compressed in such a way that shortens the character dynamics at work into simple tactics: both Lucas Lee and (especially) Todd Ingram don’t fall so much from their own dumb actions -- which is important for the comics’ metaphor of self-betterment (leveling up) by understanding and evading the flaws of others -- but because clever Scott tricks them so he can win. It’s a far cry from Kim tricking Scott so he can overcome the Katayanagi twins - girls don’t really participate in these battles outside of the final confrontation save for as backup or to fight other girls, like Ramona controlling Scott as a puppet to battle Roxy Richter and then revealing the sexual secret that in the movie spells instant defeat. I’ll clarify: the female ex dies when she has an orgasm. I’m sorry, THAT’S REALLY GROSS.
When you pick up on things like this, the problem with Wright’s movie grows from accumulation. It’s not that Scott tricking people to win is itself bad -- in those early-ish fights it fits in with the movie version of the character nicely -- but it saps the interrelationship stuff that’s unique about the comics, that was crucial to the comics’ gentle bemusement with fight manga tropes, the subtle bleed of soapy, Ai Yazawa relationship drama into the fights themselves, so that by the time vol. 6 rolls around the actual book-busting 33%-of-the-page-count final clash sees Scott and Ramona function as basically equals. Scott is the main character, so naturally we’re following him for most of the story, but you get the feeling there’s a whole Ramona Flowers comic happening in the background when she goes away for a while, and when she returns she shares revelatory space with Scott.
Wright does none of this; at times he seems intent on making the source material as boyish and combat-oriented as conceivably possible, not just scrubbing away the shojo and josei element of the comic as much as he can but reducing the entire notion of video gaming to hand-to-hand fights and bruising music battles, all the better if huge monsters rise up to beat the shit out of each other! Since Ramona sort of combines with Envy, she spends a bunch of the final battle in a state of dithering confusion, hers and Knives’ motivations supplicated to Scott Pilgrim Getting it Together. The secret is in the final swords pulled by Scott: in the comic, it’s the Power of Understanding, in that he finally understands Gideon’s motivations by understanding what he’s done in the past, following Ramona’s exploded baggage and her own seizing of the Power of Love. In the movie, it’s the Power of Self-Respect, surrounded by Scott beating the shit out of bad guys good and hard and proving himself strong with his fists. Forget talking, it’s the Level That Made a Man out of Mike!
Now don’t get me wrong - it’s all made clear that manning up requires a grown-ass man to be forthcoming about his intentions with his various potential lady loves, sure. Yet it’s also telling that NegaScott appears as little more than a post-battle joke - everyone can be buddies once enough asses are kicked. After a while you wonder -- ignorantly, I hasten to add -- if the money demanded by a big movie production likewise demanded an intent focus on the male geek culture demographic, and make absolutely no mistake there - in bigger, cinematographic media, in big ticket movies, ‘geek’ means ‘guy.’ But inside of comics, our contemporary changing popular comics, of which Scott Pilgrim is a most visible iteration of - it doesn’t have to be that way.
My complaint here isn’t that director/co-writer Edgar Wright’s movie is different from writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic; they are separate things, possessed of their own worlds, and contained by the limitations -- monetary, spatial, etc. -- of their own forms. This new one is hollow, I think, funny and lively but awfully pat, and not even so rich in examining its pop cultural atmosphere. Let’s put it this way: both of these things end with a happy couple plunging into subspace, ready for the unknown. But only one of them seems aware that when you enter subspace in Super Mario Brothers 2 -- not much of a kick-ass fighting game, that -- some established rules are reversed, and those shitty vegetables become gleaming coins, there dug right out from the earth. I know which one I prefer.
If you haven't read it already, check out Joe's extensive discussion with Bryan Lee O'Malley over at Comics Comics.