Walter Mitty (1UP)

by on Aug.16, 2010, under Comics, Movies

Scott Pilgrim vs The World would have been the best video game movie if it was, in fact, based on a video game instead of on a comic book informed by video games. As it is, it’s a brisk and hilarious mishmash of comic book tropes, which work poorly, video game tropes, which work really well, and dreadful gender politics.

The comic book (which I haven’t read — maybe Big Josh will weigh in) introduced a video-game world that the movie faithfully reproduces. Chyrons spring up around characters and props, placing them in context and giving the viewer vital information as if about an opponent. When Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) fights each of his girlfriend Ramona’s evil exes, the fights are riffs on Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter and other arcade games from the period just following Q*bert and the collapse of my own interest (I will whup you at Ms. Pac-Man, but little else).

In addition to the video game stylistics, the movie also employs comic book stylistics, which suffer in comparison to the former. No movie has played with comic book aesthetics better than American Splendor. Ang Lee’s Hulk gave it a try, but Harvey Pekar’s story benefited from having the form address the content — it is the story of a man who tells his own life in comics. In Scott Pilgrim, the form and experience of video games is native to the original story, which (like The Hulk) happened to be told in comic book form. So effects like having visible ‘D-D-D-D-D’s come out of Scott’s bass, or animating the exit wound when drummer Kim pantomimes shooting herself, add nothing but clutter.

The style of the film is exciting in other, more light-handed ways. Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) hopscotches through the first act, jumping from setting to setting while remaining in one linear conversation. I’ve seen it done before, but never so deftly or without care for suspension of disbelief, and it allows Scott’s world to be introduced visually without any expositional slowing.

Spoilers and gender politics-grumbling below the fold.

When Ramona Flowers comes to Toronto, Scott Pilgrim must win her heart. This does not prove difficult. Although he embarrasses himself in front of her twice and displays no real aptitude or personality, she consents to go out with him immediately. Then he must fight her seven evil exes.

It’s a credit to the film that a separate reality of these fights, which unfold a little like superhero fights but mostly like video-game battles, is never established. The fights don’t represent any other activity than themselves: they’re displays of video-game violence that end with the evil exes exploding into a rain of quarters.

Still, it’s impossible not to read the fights into our own reality, and what we know of Scott Pilgrim is this: he may be an adequate rock bassist; he’s a coward in relationships; he lives in a shared, barely furnished studio apartment. And he’s great at Dance Dance Revolution. There’s no reason to think that he’s physically capable of defending himself against Ramona’s exes, and there’s no reason to think he’s more stalwart, or soulful, or nimble of wit than they. And of course, the fights resemble nothing more than video games.

So the film’s plot is a kind of listless lad sexual wish-fulfillment: attractive strangers can be wooed and won by no exertion greater than really good videogame-playing. It’s Nice Guy apologetics (spoiler alert) in which if a girl tells you she’s getting back together with her slightly more alpha-male ex-boyfriend, it’s not likely to be her own feelings and emotions playing out, let alone something wrong with you — it’s her ex using a mind control device.

At The Awl, Mike Barthel suggests that this dynamic plays out more subtly in the comic books, and the movie makes a few gestures to tarnish the hero’s shining armor and to cast Ramona as something more than a blank trophy. But it never questions that he would win her without any sincere effort or emotional connection.

The romance at the spine of the story is hollow. But there’s so much else going on — in the visuals, in the pace, in the style, and in the comedy — that such a big complaint isn’t at all lethal.

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6 Comments for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    Yeah, I’ve read the books. I didn’t have much to add to what Mike Barthel said in his good review–other than what Dan Fienberg said in his, which is that one MAJOR deficit of the movie is that Michael Cera was completely miscast as Scott Pilgrim. Michael Cera does some things very well, but acting attractive or showing maturation aren’t two of them, and beyond that, as awkward and unhip as Scott may be in the book, he’s basically comfortable in his skin. Michael Cera never is. As I said in the comments there, how Dev Patel played Anwar in Skins is a much better model.

    Finally, Eustacia Vye and I agreed that if anything, the movie followed the plot of the books much too slavishly. There was no reason the movie needed all seven fights. We could have gotten by with three (douchey movie star, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman) and made more room for some of the character development that was cut. Even if it was secretly kind of cool to see Anne and George Michael fight.

  • Josh H. Pille

    That was Ann Veal?!?! Holy shit how did I miss that?!

  • Josh K-sky

    Sorry about the mind-control spoiler, Pille, but you woulda seen it coming too, right?

  • Joshua Malbin

    I just reread the final volume to remind myself how things played out in the book and boy is it different in some critical ways.

    1) When Ramona splits on Scott she doesn’t go back to Gordon Graves, even though he thinks she has. She’s on her own, trying to figure things out for a few months.

    2) Scott tells Knives he thinks they should have casual sex. She tells him she’s over him.

    3) Scott goes to visit Kim Pine on the farm, has a long talk with her, tries to mack on her and gets rejected, and realizes that all of his romantic memories are partial lies that shield him from the truth that he is not the Nice Guy he wants to believe he is. He has to fight himself (and accept this) before he is ready to go back to Toronto and fight for Ramona.

    4) There’s this whole thing going on about people being able to enter each other’s heads, so Gordon Graves’s eeevil control is really about having implanted a suggestion in Ramona’s mind, or something like that. When Scott goes into Ramona’s head to fight him he gets his ass whupped and the rest of Ramona has to gather her strength to kick Gordon Graves out and save him. See, it’s about her getting over the ex herself rather than Scott saving her. Then they kill Gordon Graves IRL together, and he explodes into 7 million coins.

  • Josh K-sky

    4) reminds me of the throwaway line in the movie where Ramona shows up in Scott’s dream for the second time and says something like “I just have a subneural pathway that runs through here, that’s all.” The movie didn’t connect that to the mind control device — are they similar phenomena?

  • Joshua Malbin

    “Subspace highway” that runs through there. Ramona is able to make superfast deliveries because she can hop onto the subspace highway, which happens to run through Scott’s head. Yes, it’s the same phenomenon, and there is no device in the book.

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