Lost in the Movies: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (The Unseen 2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (The Unseen 2010)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was #4 for 2010.

The Story: Scott Pilgrim lives across the street from the house he grew up in, although we never meet his parents. His world, the world the title tells us he'll be fighting (though he looks awfully passive when we meet him), consists of practice sessions for his garage rock band Sex Bob-Omb; pep talks - or helpful negging - from sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick) over the phone or roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) in the basement flat where Wells brings a rotating cast of male hook-ups; gigs performed or attended in little Toronto clubs or, when a competition occasionally calls, swallowed up in a more massive venue; and walks through lonely, steep city parks on snowy nights, ideally with a girl he loves. At first, that girl is ostensibly Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), whose problematic age - seventeen (he's twenty-two) - provides the film's first line of dialogue. However, their companionship is chaste, more of a crush that Scott indulges while brooding over his ex, rising pop star Envy Adams (Brie Larson) and, before long, pining after his literal dream girl, pink-haired Amazon delivery woman Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who arrives in Canada from New York with baggage that Scott will spend the rest of the film unpacking.

Scott's dates with Ramona (even though he has yet to break up with Knives) end up devolving into fantastical battles with all of her exes. This is not a film which concerns itself with realism, creating an alternate universe with its own rules, or delineating between what is and isn't imagined by the protagonist. Rather, some already exaggerated semblance of everyday existence breaks open for a few minutes - sometimes just a second or two - and then returns to normal without comment or sideways glance. Think of the fight scenes as song-and-dance sequences in a musical; Wright himself quite explicitly did, and several battles double as both. First on the docket is Matthew Patel (Satya Bhaba) in a flamboyant Bollywood showdown. Next up the vain Hollywood action star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans in what appears to be prosthetic chin and...eyebrows?) unleashes not only his own muscled fury but that of his stuntmen on poor, spindly Scott. He's finally undone by his own vanity, attempting a deadly skating trick on a long, snaking stair rail down a hill. Likewise, supervegan Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh) is betrayed when he accidentally breaks his own dietary code. Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), Ramona's "bi-furious" former girlfriend, must be defeated by Ramona herself - only she knows the lover's weak spot - while Scott's own unique skills equip him to take down both of the Katayanagi twins (Shoto and Keita Saito), electronic music whizzes facing off against Scott's crunchy punk guitar in a battle of the bands.

Finally, Scott's strongest opponent turns out to be the music industry impresario Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the ex-boyfriend with the strongest hold over Ramona - literally; he's implanted a mind-control chip inside of her - and the most power to wield over Scott as threat and enticement. All of these battles unfold with video game effects from bright flashes of light to cascading coins, leading to the climactic confrontation with Gideon in which Ramona and Knives clash alongside and against Scott, as well as with one another. But is Gideon the final boss Scott must face? Or is the final boss Scott himself?

The Context: Though quintessentially millennial, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was the result of a Gen X collaboration. In the mid-zeroes, British director Edgar Wright was riding the success of his witty, lightning-fast Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead (an aesthetic perfectly captured - and contrasted with lazier comedic styles - by Tony Zhou in the video essay How to Do Visual Comedy). Handed the early volumes of Bryan Lee O'Malley's clever ongoing graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim and told that he'd love it, Wright was immediately drawn to adapt the work. Nonetheless the project took a few years to coalesce; Wright hammered out the script with Michael Bacall and kept checking in with O'Malley, whose Pilgrim narrative continued to evolve over several volumes. The big screen version finally arrived in 2010 - six years after the first novel, amidst a glut of comic book films centered around more conventional heroes (one of Ramona's evil exes would play Captain America less than a year later, something I just covered for this series). Could the conflict-oriented Scott Pilgrim miraculously bring together the worlds of, and audiences for, blockbuster heroics and twee indie quirk? ComicCon hyped the film tremendously, critics were generally impressed, and viewers left the theater with positive reactions...well, those viewers who went to the theater in the first place anyway.

One of the big surprises for me, when memory confronted research, was that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a notable flop at the time. So many hot trends coalesced here: video games, comic books, Cera, Wright, a cast of rising 2010s icons, and the broader emergence of millennials as the prime youth generation. Although Wright himself casts no aspersions, studio marketing has been blamed for selling the movie as both too niche and too hard to classify; was it a romantic comedy, an action movie, even a musical? Within a few years, however, the anticipated cult following arrived; or, perhaps, the size of the audience ceased to matter as much as its enthusiasm. By the time Scott Pilgrim celebrated its tenth anniversary, thinkpieces, listicles, and other commemorations proliferated across online media (to the point where simply re-Googling relevant terms can't help me find most of the ones I already read in order to link them up - there are just way too many).

My Response: In an unintentional but fitting reflection of a film whose production and fan following took a while to coalesce (and whose protagonist is often maddeningly indecisive), I've sat on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for six months after my initial viewing. I did record a quick little capsule, about a minute or two, for my patron podcast noting the film's generational fascination for me but otherwise the experience, and my expression of it, has been brewing on the backburner. My impression while watching was that I enjoyed the movie but didn't really know if I liked it. Or...maybe vice-versa? What I mean is that I often found the main character insufferable, the depth of the romance not entirely convincing, and the flamboyant yet precise stylistic showboating both impressive and a little bit glib. But I also really dug the decision to shoot on location in Toronto (as Toronto rather than "whatever city we want to shoot in a more affordable location"); the film has the real, atmospheric flavor of a particular place, which paradoxically allows it to feel both more unique and more universal. There's a cozy melancholy vibe to the setting which nicely complements the kaleidoscopic fireworks. I was also deeply fascinated and engaged by Scott Pilgrim's confidence and ambition (the battle of the bands alone is a visionary, transporting tour-de-force) and it must bear mentioning that this was - aside from the many clips I've seen over the years - my introduction to the rather brilliant Edgar Wright.

And the movie stuck with me. While I had many other reasons to keep delaying the write-up, I knew I wasn't going to forget it, even as other, more recent viewings slipped into hazy memory. Even the elements I found more grating make it feel distinct. Scott's confused reactive quality - his unreflective glide path through life, a video game avatar interrupted and defined by whatever challenges pop up to face him - can incur frustration (for someone with such an active fantasy life, he seems surprisingly unwilling to locate himself in a narrative with larger scope). Yet this also contributes to the story's sensation of being lost inside a moment and environment. Call it a cocoonish quality, and like actual cocoons, this retreat into a comfortable absorption can ultimately result in growth and transformation. What gives the film is its distinct feeling is that the object it dips into this dreamy coating is, essentially, a fight film - clashes and pursuits of comfort intertwine. Despite the "vs." in the title, Pilgrim's battles are in many ways an escape from the larger world; his entire relationship with Ramona is an escape more than it is a discovery or transcendence. (Ramona has been described as a subversion of the "manic pixie girl" trope but, unlike the previous year's (500) Days of Summer, she doesn't really establish a separate, independent existence that forces her pursuer to find his own.) While Scott Pilgrim is a lot more hyperactive than other films that might fall into this category, it still epitomizes a quality present in all epochs but particularly in the late zeroes and early teens, when the world was charging ahead in often frightening and bewildering directions but - in certain places at least - young adults were allowed, encouraged even, to envelop themselves in in their own private universes.

One appeal of this "Unseen" series, at least when it covers releases I lived through but missed at the time, is that it allows me to experience films which evoke a zeitgeist I remember even though the films are new to me. Sometimes, they even invent new versions of those olden times for me to feel nostalgic for, and I have to remind myself that I was there, and it wasn't really like that after all. This is like dreaming about a history you never had, a "choose your own adventure" in reverse. In his essay on how the film treats time, age, and perceptions thereof, Yorgo Lee observes, "For Scott Pilgrim age means a lot. The story takes place at a moment in a characters' lives when just five years can feel like a lifetime." Noting Scott's awkward relationship with a high schooler as well as the fact that he "lives in a world as clean scrubbed of older adults as Charlie Brown's is of anyone over ten," Lee locates Pilgrim's origin point in that dead zone limbo of one's early twenties; adolescence no longer applies, but neither does the intimidating if reassuring stability expected of adulthood. This is often depicted a time one grows out of - indeed, boomer and X media (especially older boomers who came of age in the sixties) usually imbue this period with a sense of freedom and possibility, a golden age gone with the winds of mortgages and salaried careers. Millennials, however - in the wake of a global economic meltdown only reinforcing economic and social precarity - discovered that sometimes one has to grow within, around, and on top of this state of uncertainly rather than wait patiently for it to pass.

Looking back - back to the when the film came out I mean, not when I saw it (although that too is slipping into the past) - Scott Pilgrim does seem to belong to another era for me both personally and cinematically. The blogosphere I engaged with was still going strong, albeit just on the cusp of the discourse's sharp shift toward social media platforms and professional clickbait publications (eventually podcasts would fill the hole that blogs left as a place for prolific, homegrown engagement with media). The movie's release also coincided with my own sharp shift away from contemporary cinema, which I've discussed in later "Unseen" entries. Earlier in 2010, I'd actually deepened my commitment to cover new releases on a weekly basis. However, I quickly burnt out on this approach and ended up making a hard left turn in another direction, embracing eclectic, multimedia historical appreciation rather than attempting to follow the hot topics. As a result, I missed many of the hits and Oscarbait that year to an extent that I hadn't just a year before (2011 would be the first year since very early childhood that I skipped the Academy Awards broadcast altogether) and the pace of my dissociation from the immediate pop culture would only accelerate in the years to come. Had Pilgrim come out just six months earlier, I almost certainly would have written a review. Instead, I arrive in Scott Pilgrim's world a dozen years later, when the film can be convincingly presented as a period piece. Of course, even back then its placement was tricky...

Signs of the Times: Where to begin? My perception at the time, from seeing the trailer and hearing the buzz, was that the film might be trying too hard to be hip and relevant. While I didn't review Scott Pilgrim back then - obviously, it wouldn't be part of this series now if I had - the film and Michael Cera did come up in offhand, casually dismissive remarks that year. Looking back on Sylvester Stallone's remake of Get Carter on its tenth anniversary, I observed that while that 2000 vehicle had been a flop, Stallone was having a better year in 2010: "He struts his stuff as a proud dinosaur, still able to draw audiences as The Expendables' trouncing of hyper-00s (or is it 10s now?) Scott Pilgrim shows." And in my Facebook-styled commentary on The Social Network, I brought Cera up as a contrast with Network's similarly nebbishy, stone-faced Jesse Eisenberg. "In the Cera-Eisenberg wars, Eisenberg outflanks Cera here and I think he'll retain the advantage. He's kind of the Facebook Cera's Friendster here if you will; more nuanced and compelling than the earlier, popular model. Sorry, Cera. (Actually it's apples to oranges, I don't think Cera's ever done a real dramatic performance, but his shtick has grown a bit one-note.)"

Going into this viewing, I did recall Cera's star dimming around this time due to oversaturation; remember when he was even cast an awkward caveboy companion to Jack Black in some Stone Age comedy? However, I'd forgotten that Scott Pilgrim itself was considered by some to be a disappointment, maybe even a film that missed its moment with a new decade underway. In retrospect, its desperation to seize the zeitgeist takes on the appeal of a time capsule and much of that rockier context gets washed away. And perhaps even more notably, today it's more often characterized as being ahead of its time rather than behind. The Obama years would reinforce certain trends already present in the late Bush era: a sleek gloss on all design and branding, elite enthusiasm for the promises of new tech, and the mass adoption of online fandom as a way of life. The embracing of superheroes and comic book culture as a form of modern mythology, which was already accelerating in the zeroes, became all-encompassing in the teens. Meanwhile, the gaming world would itself become ground for cultural/political warfare with the #Gamergate controversy which evolved into the more youthful wing of the Trump upheaval in 2016.

For my own generational analysis, I dubbed the whole period from 2006 to 2014 - with 2010 smack in the middle - "iWorld". This was when millennials became the dominant "youth" generation both culturally and demographically (coinciding entirely with ages eighteen to thirty-four on the last day of that era). Arriving at almost the exact dead center of this timespan, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World arguably captures it better than any other single movie. Nonetheless, as noted, the creators of the film were of course older than the protagonists. A particularly interesting gcase is co-writer Michael Bacall, another Gen X scribe happy to serve as augur for millennials. Bacall's 2012 Project X, a notorious teen party film, marks one of the last calls for millennials' hedonistic phase before their generation (and even more so the zoomers who followed) became known more for cancelling than for partying. By decade's end, many aging Xers would complain that the kids, far from outpacing their elders' rebelliousness, had become downright buzzkills. Pilgrim captures this transitional phase between edgy zeroes snark and earnest teens accountability quite well in its own hero's journey, which one could even read as an unintended allegory for that larger generational shift. Allegory comes naturally to a narrative whose title - probably consciously - evokes The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

Meanwhile, it's worth observing that the film itself may take place a bit earlier than all that. The impression of being perfectly in sync with the vibe of 2010 comes more from the style of the film itself than the world it depicts. Onscreen the tech seems a little dated, more turn-of-the-millennium (when O'Malley was developing the comic, which ends up taking place in 2004). Smartphones and social media are notably absent. Nonetheless, if Scott Pilgrim's cinematic footprint outlasted many of its more intimidating rivals (much like its title character) perhaps that's because it's attuned to other media, to comic books and video games, which increasingly have more salience than movies. The original graphic novel isn't just a classic comic book but a more cutting-edge black-and-white manga, and even the Canadian alternative music scene - which O'Malley himself was a part of - is folded into the film's soundtrack. Scott Pilgrim hurls itself wholeheartedly into a multifaceted geek subculture just as it was ceasing to be very "sub".

Other Films: With Obama's popularity declining, the Tea Party surging, and recession gripping the country, escapist family entertainment dominated the hit parade in 2010. Every single title in the top ten was a fantasy that year, ranging from comic book action (Iron Man 2) to high concept sci-fi (Inception) to several straight up fairy tales (Tangled, Shrek Forever After). Half of these were animated; in addition to those last two, How to Train Your Dragon launched a new franchise, Despicable Me had an even greater effect on pop culture by unleashing the Minions on an unsuspecting world, and Toy Story 3 topped them all at #1 internationally. The #2 film Alice in Wonderland was no slouch either; for the first time ever, both of the top films in a given year grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Rounding out this line-up, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 pitched themselves to a slightly older audience than most of the others, continuing their 2000s franchises into a new decade. The Academy (like the aforementioned The Expendables) resisted this youthful tide; despite the millennial-oriented The Social Network racking up awards and acclaim, Best Picture was awarded to the decidedly old-fashioned The King's Speech. The rising generation was compensated with Natalie Portman's Best Actress win for Black Swan.

Other notable movies of the year included Dear John, Shutter Island, Kick-Ass, Winter's Bone, Grown Ups, The Kids Are All Right, The Other Guys, Animal Kingdom, The Last Exorcism, Machete, Easy A, Jackass 3D, Carlos, Paranormal Activity 2, Saw 3D, 127 Hours, The Fighter, Tron Legacy, True Grit, and Blue Valentine. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives would go on to become one of the top ten most acclaimed films of the twenty-first century, with Nostalgia for the Light, Certified Copy, Mysteries of Lisbon, and Poetry also earning high praise. Rave reviews and best documentary awards (although not an Oscar) greeted Waiting for "Superman", inspiring lots of chatter despite its limited release and mere seven-figure gross. From the director of An Inconvenient Truth, the film captures a moment when mainstream liberals were eager to identify teachers' unions as the villains and embrace for-profit charter schools as the clear answer to America's crisis of education. My own pick for best film of the year was also a documentary: Steven Soderbergh's moving, eclectic yet cohesive portrait of Spalding Gray, And Everything is Fine (reviewed a couple years later).

The big fad of the year was 3D, following Avatar's blockbuster breakthrough in 2009, although many of these releases - unlike Avatar - were not actually shot in the format. Wikipedia counts fifty-six 3D films, astonishingly more than double the twenty-four from the previous year. (That's up from eleven the year before that, and the site registers just thirteen total for the entire decade of the nineties). This fad would only escalate in the coming years, reaching a peak of eighty-one in 2013 before tapering off to below the 2010 number by 2017. For a time 3D was, as the MCU was about to be, a life support system for theatrical moviegoing despite long-term, deep-seated threats to the business. Aside from obvious technological advances, this was actually the exact same gimmick Hollywood had embraced in the fifties when television, rather than the internet, impacted its ticket sales. The return of a new, more sophisticated 3D suited the techno-optimism of those times (already extinguished) quite well. This was the big screen equivalent to the simultaneous proliferation of iPhones and iPads, providing new ways to mediate and enhance engagement with an increasingly hostile world.

Next (uncertain date, if the series continues): Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009) • Previous: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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