The following is the result of a conscious attempt to not solely compare and contrast, point by point, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s beloved graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim, with its film adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Even if this does devolve into such an investigation, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) probably wouldn’t kill me: In a late scene in the movie, we catch a character mutter “comic book’s better than the movie…” as our hero Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) storms by. Meta!
In this scene, Scott’s on his way to fight one of dreamy new girl Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil ex-boyfriends, and if Scott really means to date her (he does), he has to defeat them all. These are the rules governing the Scott Pilgrim story, where there are inexplicable extra lives, save points, and fights that turn opponents into piles of coins. When they’re not engaged in battle, Scott and his friends are just twenty-somethings in Toronto in the second half of the 2000s who play in bands and go thrifting. They’re unemployed or excessively part-time employed, and they take turns asking one another’s roommates to take a hike for romantic evening purposes. Prepare to laugh knowingly and often, young alt folks (for the older folks who’ve been there/done that, don’t disdain us!).
The movie’s casting is a check in its favor from the beginning, as it is dead-on beyond physical resemblance. For the most part, the actors activate their character’s essence without resorting to caricature, and Cera in particular wins the overall bonus-level points. He’s very funny, with a comedic timing and presence that make simple visual gags — for instance, slouching on a recliner with a plate of bacon resting on his belly — positively riotous. As far as I’m concerned, Scott on screen is even fuller and more likable than the comic book Scott*.
The few questionable performances come from Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate Wallace Wells, who is gay, which I mention because neither the books nor the movie ever stop mentioning it. It’s one joke I don’t really get. (If you’ll allow me to get into it, it’s as if this recurrent gag stands for the series/movie trying to prove it’s so totally cool with gay people because its roommate is gay, you guys, while maintaining a figurative distance from that gay person and othering them at the same time: Are these strictly face-value jokes made at a gay character’s expense? Or is this a self-conscious send-up of pseudo-progressive young people’s insecurities and the revealing faux-pas they unwittingly make?) Culkin plays Wallace a touch too smarmy at times, perhaps due to his character being particularly slutty. Meanwhile, Aubrey Plaza doesn’t fare as well as the aggressively irritable Julie Powers, a sometimes-girlfriend of Scott’s bandmate Stephen Stills (Mark Webber). She stays at the same pitch throughout, all goofy snarls and scowls. Plaza is a solid comic actor, so it’s strange to see her miss the mark.
On Wright’s end, it feels like he and Scott Pilgrim were meant to be. In one scene, Scott talks in a phone booth to his 17-year-old girlfriend Knives Chau, whose uncanny knowledge of his outfit creates a suspenseful moment culminating in her abrupt appearance in the window. It’s a perfect zombie moment straight out of Shaun of the Dead. And then there’s the comic books’ disjointed timeline, in which Scott’s past and his Ramona dreams melt into and out of the present storyline without warning. Wright renders the shifts in seamless matches on the action that recall Shaun of the Dead’s false-zombie-alarm opening montage, proving that his personal style well suits Scott Pilgrim’s needs.
Exploring Scott’s life, friendships, and relationships with the cast of characters around him accounts for the first large portion of the film, and it’s just, I mean, like, really super fun and funny, as any of them might put it. When the second half doesn’t give itself much more to work with than battle after battle after battle to bring the saga to a close, things get tiresome. The difference is that when you handle the comic books, where fight scenes take up a few pages at most, you can linger or zip through it as you wish. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it’s as if Wright felt obligated to action-movie the complete shit out of each battle, and so they often go on endlessly.
But even if general comic book adaptations are so hot right now, this particular adaptation was a fantastic idea. Forget about comic books making easy storyboards for rote, verbatim film versions designed to make easy ticket dollars. The Scott Pilgrim series’ unique videogame stylings, frenetic temporal plot-hopping, and smart visual gags couldn’t be better suited to celluloid, and it’s palpable how much the team behind it cares about its source material. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for the win.
*Don’t hurt me, diehards.