2010, adaptation, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Brandon Routh, Bryan Lee O'Malley, Chris Evans, comic book, Edgar Wright, Ellen Wong, graphic novel, Harry Potter, Hot Fuzz, Iron Man, Jason Schwartzman, Jiminy Cricket, Kieran Culkin, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Bacal, Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shaun of the Dead, Sin City, Spaced, The Dark Knight, Watchmen
Written by: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman, Ellen Wong, Brandon Routh, Chris Evans
The comic book film adaptation is a strange trend, and is not easy to master. In recent years there has been a glut of comic book movies, some of them have been genre-changing masterpieces and some of them have been trash. The major problem faced by the makers of these films is how to create a unique cinema experience, while remaining true to the source material. Some films, like The Dark Knight (2008) or Iron Man (2008) have been successful in utilizing concepts and characters and rooting them in real-world settings, employing stylish visuals without retaining a comic book atmosphere. Others, such as Watchmen (2009) and Sin City (2005) have gone to great lengths to construct and almost frame-by-frame recreation of the original story and artwork. Either way, it is tricky to strike a balance when making comic book films, and it is even trickier to impress nerds.
Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a very unique film indeed. The Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley are so deeply rooted in the comic book medium itself that as I was reading them, I was skeptical that a film adaptation could possibly do the books justice. O’Malley deftly utilizes the modes of comic books, filling his pages with visual jokes and incongruities. One of the major features of the books is the way that O’Malley creates an impossible universe, one where settings and circumstances can change in the space of one frame to the next, slipping in and out of the real world and the pop-culture fed fantasy the characters occupy. If anyone is capable of juggling this material into a film, surely that person is Edgar Wright. Wright’s previous work, Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and the television series Spaced (1999-2001), are so informed by video games, popular culture, science fiction and comic books that they’re all composed of minute in-jokes and visual quotations. Wright is a master at portraying the world of someone raised on heaps of T.V. and video games.
But even Wright surprises here as he adapts Scott Pilgrim cleverly and instead of attempting a non-canon story, or doing a direct retelling, he tweaks the style of the books and translates them into the language of cinema. Where O’Malley stuffs his books with informed winks at the graphic medium, Wright stuffs his film with the shorthand of film. From sly references to film and television, to the way hair and clothing change in the span of a single frame cut, the characters in Wright’s film inhabit a strange universe in which their hobbies inform their day-to-day lives. Wright’s hallmark editing style works more to achieve the tone of the books than perhaps any other single element. As Wright cuts from one scene to the next, time seems to speed up or slow down, and conversations begin in one place in the afternoon but end somewhere else at night, without pause.
Much of the humour in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World comes from the unbelievable apathy of all the characters. As Scott (Michael Cera) falls in love with Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he learns he must defeat her 7 Evil Exes, and takes the news as more of an inconvenience than anything. When he is unexpectedly attacked by the First Evil Ex, Scott casually wonders how to react until he’s reminded to fight, which he then does. Scott just happens to be an unbelievably talented fighter. When Scott first sees Ramona, she’s in his dreams and when he asks her about it she casually tells him that he has a “convenient subspace highway” that runs through his head, it makes her job as a delivery person much easier. It’s as though the characters in this film having been weaned on bad TV and old video games, are so detached from the weight of real life that not even the most unpredictable series of events could be worth getting out of bed for. Except love.
The performances in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are a real treat, and everyone seems to be having a really good time. Michael Cera is great as Scott, and offers something a little different than his usual shtick. Winstead makes a wonderful Ramona, doing a great job of subtly exposing the cracks in Ramona’s cool facade; she’s not really that indifferent, she’s just afraid of getting hurt (or of Scott getting hurt). The best performance of all comes from Kieran Culkin who plays Scott’s “cool gay roommate” Wallace Wells. Wallace is the Jiminy Cricket of the 21st Century, a disinterested conscience with fickle morals. Wallace is also Scott’s best friend, his financial support, his parent figure and a huge gossip.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a pretty singular film. It’s based on a comic book series, but it doesn’t resemble other comic book films (except in the ways that it does, but that’s on purpose). The books stretch over 6 volumes, and Wright and Co. surely could have stretched the Pilgrim series into something akin to the Harry Potter films, but instead it’s succinct and self-contained. There is no “To Be Continued” or cliffhanger ending. This is a movie made with love. The goal wasn’t box-office sales or merchandising, and there has been no attempt to change the source material to reach a broader audience. This is also one of the absolutely most successful comic book movies I’ve seen, at least insofar as adaptation goes. Wright nails the tone of the book without competing with it. Full disclosure: this has been my 8th time watching it since its release.