The best video game movie ever made was not based on a video game. This weekend, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” celebrates its 10th anniversary, with a Dolby re-release to AMC theaters. The film performed poorly when it was first dropped, but has since developed a cult following for its innovative visuals, creative storytelling, winning performances, and likable characters.
“Scott Pilgrim vs the World” was based on the comic series of the same name by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It tells the story of Scott, a 23-year old slacker and bassist in a “terrible” garage band who skates through life without ambition, reeling from heartbreak and dating a high schooler. His life changes when he meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams (whom he first saw in a dream).
However, there’s a catch: in order to date her, he needs to defeat her seven evil exes, who are successively coming after Scott to prevent Ramona from moving on. He must face the league of evil exes, while coming to terms with his own past to earn a happy ending.
Edgar Wright directed the film adaptation, which was in development alongside the comics’ release. Michael Cera played the eponymous character with Mary Elizabeth Windstead as Ramona. The supporting cast was likewise filled out with great talent, including Chris Evans as a famous actor and one of the evil exes, Anna Kendrick as Scott’s sister, Aubrey Plaza as the mean friend, Kieran Culkin as Scott’s “cool gay roommate,” and Brie Larson in her only likable role to date as rockstar – and Scott’s own evil ex – Envy Adams.
The action set pieces are spectacular, using creative visuals, a video game sensibility, and comic-panel style framing to bring the action to life. Defeated opponents burst into coins rather than die and multicolored lights trail the characters’ weapons. A film with this many fights could drag or feel repetitive, but the unique imagery injects new life into every battle.
However, the video game and comic book aesthetic is not relegated exclusively to the action. It influences the look of the entire film. Meta-jokes, from the breakdown of ownership of the content and Scott and his roommate’s apartment, frames detailing characters’ nicknames and salient traits, and neon depictions of emotional states permeate this world.
In a market oversaturated with comic book adaptations, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” truly stands apart. The majority of the current output tends to fall into one of two categories: either hyper gritty and realistic, like DC’s frequent output; or quippy and fun action fare, relying on huge CGI armies attacking each other, like the majority of Marvel movies. Both of these formats have created excellent products, including “The Dark Knight” trilogy or “Watchmen” for the former and films like “Thor: Ragnarok” or anything featuring Iron Man for the latter.
As wonderful as they are, a good visual aesthetic alone does not make a film great. A strong central story saves “Scott Pilgrim” from being all style, no substance. At first glance, the plot appears to follow standard romantic adventure conventions, where the hero must accomplish a task to win the girl. However, the movie ultimately averts this accomplishment-based attitude towards relationships, where the love interest is the prize at the end of the journey.
Yes, Scott must literally destroy seven evil exes in order to be with her, but this quest only provides him the option of dating Ramona; it doesn’t guarantee their relationship. The real victory does not come until he is able to come to terms with himself, his own past, and the wrongs he’s done in his life. For a standard romcom plot, depicting ultimate victory as the hero gaining self-respect and only then deserving the girl is a monumental departure from form in the best way.
Another manner in which the film stands out is in its excellent characters. It would be so easy to allow the central figures to fall into one-dimensional tropes, but Wright and O’Malley avert that beautifully by crafting flawed, three-dimensional characters to fill out the central love triangle.
Scott is an everyman, but his indecisiveness and thoughtless treatment of the women in his life presents the real challenge he must get past. In some ways, the League of Evil Exes seem to represent Scott’s challenges with his worse qualities. Near the end of both mediums, Scott must physically face his dark side in the form of Nega-Scott, physicalizing his internal struggles towards redemption.
Ramona so easily could have been the quintessential cool girl with a little personality and her major contribution be her “manic pixie dream girl” influence on Scott; instead, as the comic progresses, she is revealed to be far more complex. She can be callous and cruel, but she’s trying to become a better person.
Knives, the teenage girlfriend, oscillates between sweet and loving girlfriend, immature borderline-stalker, and smart, self-possessive young woman. When all of Scott’s friends tell Knives that she’s too good for him, you get the sense that they’re right, even as she makes some baffling choices in order to win back her boyfriend.
Unsurprising to anyone who enjoys Edgar Wright’s films, the score is awesome. Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb, while far from polished or well-practiced, has a good, grungy sound, and their songs are quite enjoyable. Contrary to what many characters say, they are far from “terrible.”
My favorite would have to be Larson’s cover of “Black Sheep” by Metric. The stream-of-conscious lyrics, paired with her suitably disinfected delivery, make for a truly spectacular scene. Wright really leaned into the comic book look with this sequence, using cuts, close-ups, and wipes to emulate the panels on the page of a comic book.
With many of the central characters in various bands, music is infused into the film’s DNA. It plays an integral role in the story, rather than just providing a fun soundtrack. Relationship dramas play out at concerts, characters develop during band practice, and three of the central battle sequences take place either during a battle of the bands or after a concert.
The first evil ex attacks with Bollywood-inspired battle anthem, complete with demon backup dancers. The third ex fight sees Scott physically use music to combat Brandon Routh’s vegan rockstar through warring bass lines. Alt-rock and electronica go head to head in the fifth and sixth fight, when a “battle of the bands” becomes a literal fight.
These touches demonstrate the film’s intelligence and creativity, going above and beyond to create a wholly original and exciting world. It’s a shame that during its initial release the movie didn’t get the attention deserves. However, in the year since, it was elevated to cult status, as more and more people realize its unique charm and appeal. There’s no other film quite like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and as it turns 10, I’m at least glad we got this one.