Comic book movies have been dominating Hollywood for the better part of a decade now, with each four-color blockbuster more bombastic and supercharged than the last. And while that’s all well and good, it does leave some viewers in the dust, especially those who have long looked to the world of comic books and graphic novels as a way to tell stories that might be just a little more low-key than teams of costumed avengers saving the world. Well, Somebody out there was listening to those plaintive cries when they greenlit the most improbable comic book movie ever made: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The story takes place in modern-day Toronto, where the eponymous musician and slacker Scott Pilgrim shuffles his way through his early 20s in a garage band that isn’t really going anywhere, and is taking the long way to do it. He’s in a dead-end relationship with a decent girl named Knives, he’s got no plan for the future, and all his friends know it. But when he meets a mysterious delivery girl named Ramona Flowers, Scott is hit by Cupid’s arrow, and pursues Ramona despite her reticence. She tells him she’s bad news, but he doesn’t care. So after she and Scott hook up she tells him that if he really wants to be with her, he’s got to battle each of her seven exes in an ever-escalating quest that ends up in a final, titanic boss fight with the biggest, baddest ex of them all. Only then will he win Ramona’s hand. But before then, he’s gonna have to learn the hard way that no quest comes without loss, and by the time he gets to the final stage, what he wanted to win and what he should win might be very different things.
This is a coming-of-adulthood movie for late GenXers and early Millennials who were just getting in tune with the 90s memories that sustained their childhoods, and coming to grips with an early adulthood that in no way resembles the dreams of what they thought it might be. Yeah, Scott and his friends are slackers with kind of unrealistic dreams, but what the hell else are they supposed to shoot for? Throughout the movie is a pervasive feeling of kids stuck in a perpetually overcast portion of Toronto where the only thing sustaining them are a lifetime of video game and comic book references so real and so pure that whenever they face a true challenge in life, the environment becomes the very video games that served as surrogate parents for the better part of their lives.
As Scott fights through one ex after another, sometimes using improbable kung-fu powers, sometimes using his wits, we get the sense that he isn’t necessarily growing in power, just in confidence. But when you’re a man-child like Scott Pilgrim, a little confidence can be a dangerous thing. He alienates his friends, mistreats poor Knives (who he never respects enough to properly dump before seeing Ramona), overplays his hand with Ramona, and bites off more than he can easily chew in a few of his fights with Ramona’s exes. There is nothing quite like the feeling of validation that comes with the person of your dreams thinking you’re worthy enough of their affections. And there’s nothing quite like letting that newfound state wreck every other part of your life…or at least throw them so far out of balance that you begin to wonder if any of this love stuff is really worth it.
The delightful, video game surreality that drives this movie—and especially its various battle scenes—is a cultural barrier of entry that divides this film’s audience into a) those cool enough to get what the movie is trying to say and b) those who are too busy screaming at the kinds on their lawn to notice. If you’re in that second camp, then there’s no hope for you on this one. Your coolness ship probably set sail in 1989 or thereabouts. But if you’re in the first camp, the 16-bit graphics, on-screen sound effects and comic book framing are more than just visual affectations. They’re artifacts from the last era of pop culture that existed before the internet, when it was fine to love whatever geeky thing you loved, but you tended to feel like you were on an island about it. That is, until you went to college or found that crew like you and stuck with them like glue. Because these were the only folks you knew who could really get you while you drink coffee you can’t really afford and bum through record shops because records are still somehow a thing, and go practice with your band because the garage you’re in is marginally better than the apartment where you live. Every generation has its growing-up phase, but for a lot of people in Gen X and Y, Scott Pilgrim taps into a deep well of theirs. This movie might be set in Toronto, but it takes place in the hearts of geeks young and old alike.
The moment of truth is the final battle scene where Scott finally wakes the hell up and understands what he’s really fighting for and why. It’s the moment when Scott turns the corner from boyhood to manhood, and he only had to die once to do it, too. It’s a great scene, and immensely satisfying. But before we sign off on that, can we just spare a moment to talk about that fight with Ex #3 who uses his vegan super powers to throw Scott through walls? Because let me tell you something, when you’re vegan long enough, you totally get those powers. You do. And if you cheat and eat dairy on the sly, the Vegan Police will totally bust in and de-power your ass. I’ve seen it. It ain’t pretty. A vegan without their powers never is.