Written By: Daniel Kinsley
When writer-director Edgar Wright burst onto the film scene in 2004 with Shaun of The Dead (a love letter to the zombie genre) he quickly established himself as a fresh and clever voice, capable of balancing multiple tones with ease, and creating an impressive visual syntax through unique editing and composition. After deconstructing the action genre with equal aplomb (Hot Fuzz ), Wright went on to create the best video game movie ever made in adapting Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). For astute readers, the catch, of course is that the source material is actually a graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley; however, in crafting the story for the big screen, Wright and co. utilized the familiar language of video games to create a cinematic language that feels uniquely rooted in gaming.
What often separates a good film from a great one is the ways in which it mirrors something meaningful about the real world back at the viewer. Any creative expression is arguably a necessary method of both coping with and exploring the significance of our experiences, and the feelings that arise from them. After all, great art allows us to express things that are difficult to communicate with words. Scott Pilgrim often reaches for greatness (and nearly as often succeeds) by exploring through allegory (albeit one largely lacking in subtlety) what it feels like to deal with both the highs and lows of a new romantic relationship.
While the film was met with largely positive reviews, it severely under-performed at the box office (barely managing to make back half of its budget) and received a shrug from most casual moviegoers. Like the similarly ignored Speed Racer (2008) the experimental tone and unusual visuals were likely enough to turn audiences away sight unseen, despite a stacked cast (take a look at the murderer’s row of supporting characters; Anna Kendrick, and Chris Evans, and Brie Larson; Oh my!) and eight years later, it remains (in this writer’s opinion) a largely underrated (and likely under seen) piece of pop art.
The titular Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a twenty-three year old bass-player in a garage-band called Sex Bob-Omb. Much to the exasperation of his friends, band-mates, and family, Scott has also begun dating a high-school girl. She’s called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and the budding relationship is a move that Scott’s friends (correctly) assert is Scott’s way of dealing with a severe case of heartbreak after being dumped by Natalie (Brie Larson) a now-famous pop star who goes by the moniker, “Envy”. It is fairly clear that Natalie was the girl who broke the mold, as Scott has something of a reputation for being a lady killer, prone to chewing up the women in his life and spitting them out with little thought to their feelings. This is perhaps best exemplified in the uneasy relationship Scott shares with band-mate, Kim (Alison Pill) who still harbors hurt feelings from a dating stint which Scott brushes aside as happening a long time ago. It feels painfully obvious to everyone in Scott’s life (save for Knives) just how much the whole endeavor is designed to nurse his wounds (and his ego) without putting any real skin in the game.
When Scott stumbles upon Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) she immediately reignites Scott’s interest in a relationship built on something deeper than the innocent adoration he receives from Knives. It is easy to understand why Scott is drawn to Ramona. She is in so many words, his dream girl; unique, and beautiful, and charming, but also aloof, and funny and somewhat mysterious. The fact that she initially expresses zero interest in Scott only serves to make him fall harder for her. As Scott begins courting Ramona, he neglects to break things off with his “fake high school girlfriend” because, he opines, it is hard. The trouble with Ramona begins almost immediately after they meet, however, as Scott begins to make assumptions about the type of woman she is (like believing she would think herself too cool to show up for their date on time). In the midst of his infatuation, Scott allows these ideas, which are largely based on his needs, to affect him to an unhealthy degree, particularly each time he learns something about her past that he dislikes.
When Sex Bob-Omb is invited to play in a battle of the bands, Scott invites Ramona to the show, which creates some very awkward tension when Knives shows up, squealing over the band like the young girl she is. Everyone else in the room seems to understand what is happening, and it is understood that this behavior is par for the course for Scott. Wright uses the opportunity of the battle to turn up the crazy factor; in the middle of the band’s set, Scott is attacked by Matthew Patel, Ramona’s ex-boyfriend.
The fight with Patel is a visual feast, and it is an absolute blast. Anyone familiar with gaming will immediately recognize the oversized punches and kicks, the anime style leaps into the air, and the way Patel explodes into coins when Scott lands the knockout blow. Before Patel is defeated, however, Scott learns that he is a member of the League of Seven Evil Exes that Scott must defeat in order to date Ramona. In the midst of the fight, Scott literally stops the action to ask Ramona “You really went out with this guy?” It is a fairly astute (not to mention fun) way of externalizing a largely internal battle, and one that is usually explored very little in romantic films. The evil exes are the amalgamation of the way we get hung up on a lover’s past; Scott quickly develops an unhealthy obsession with Ramona’s past, comparing himself to her exes, and in some ways, judging the choices she made, too.
It is a bold perspective to explore, as a lesser film would risk alienating the audience by making Scott completely unlikable as he judges his new partner for having had a life before they met. While there are plenty of films that investigate the effects of toxic masculinity, Scott Pilgrim handles the subject deftly; while Scott follows in the footsteps of Rob Gordon (High Fidelity) and Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother) at times, the film makes it easier to sympathize with Scott, as he literally battles his unhealthy demons and begins to grow beyond his myopia, due in large part to the way he feels for Ramona. What the metaphor lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in sharp insight. Most romantic films ignore the notion that a new relationship, while exciting, is still ripe for bumps in the road as two people who do not know much about each other figure one another out.
After Patel is defeated, Scott finally finds the guts to break up with Knives, who blames Ramona for stealing him, and vows to win him back. As the film goes on, each fight with the evil exes forces both Scott and Ramona outside of their comfort zone, acting as a sort of litmus test for how much stress their relationship can take before it breaks. Wright continues to push the language of film and gaming together, creating a surreal and silly world, which also manages to maintain its emotional stakes. Scott is able to defeat exes in all manner of outlandish ways, like defeating Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) by goading him into an absurdly dangerous (not to mention impossible) skateboarding stunt, or super-powered vegan Todd (Brandon Routh) by tricking him into consuming dairy. The metaphor does not always hold up to terribly close scrutiny, but taken as a whole, each battle is an externalization of Scott’s emotional arc; in order to be with the woman of his dreams, Scott must grow past his insecurities. In order to do so, Scott has to learn to accept that there were other men in Ramona’s life before him, while understanding that the existence of said past does not make him any less worthy of her love in the present.
For her part, Ramona seems to deal with her past by simply not thinking about it. As the relationship progresses, Ramona repeatedly begs Scott to leave things alone, insisting it is not his problem. Early on, it is mentioned offhandedly that Ramona moved to town to get away from a break-up, and it is a telling detail that is indicative of her state of mind. She is a woman who seems to be constantly on the run, having been hurt badly enough by someone she loved that she now remains aloof, keeping one foot out the door at all times. As Scott battles his way through the exes, the reason that the League exists begins to crystallize. While Scott is responsible for his reactions to Ramona’s life, she remains involved, as she has allowed these parts of her life to linger in a harmful way. The past is (literally) catching up to her, and it is clear that she has been running from these feelings rather than confronting them. Though Ramona fears getting stuck, she spends a lot of time looking back, in spite of the pain it causes her (and indirectly, her new partner) in the present.
After Scott and Ramona team up to defeat the fourth ex, Roxy Richter (“I was just a little bi-curious” “I’m just a little BI-FURIOUS!”) Scott reaches his nadir, confronting her about whether she has ever dated anyone who was not a total ass. Ramona grows frustrated, challenging Scott to understand that everyone comes attached with baggage, and subsequently breaks up with him. After Scott defeats the fifth and sixth ex at the next round of the battle of the bands (gaining himself an extra life in the process, in true gamer fashion), he discovers that Ramona has reunited with her seventh evil ex, Gideon “G-Man” Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the architect of both the battle of the bands, and the League of Seven Evil Exes.
Once Scott has reached this stage, he realizes that he loves Ramona enough to move beyond his selfish feelings. Ramona insists that she cannot be with Scott, however, because she just cannot help herself around Gideon. In gaming parlance, Gideon is the Big Bad, the Final Boss who must be defeated in order for Scott to achieve what his heart truly desires. If the battling of the exes is Scott’s conflict writ large, then Gideon is the manifestation of all of Ramona’s unresolved feelings towards the past.
During the first iteration of the climax, Scott challenges Gideon to a fight for Ramona, earning the “Power of Love” sword. During the battle, Knives interrupts the fight, attacking Ramona while Scott attempts to defeat Gideon. Scott is forced to confront both women and admit his duplicitous behavior, much to the outrage of each. It is an important scene because Scott must acknowledge (perhaps for the first time) the negligent, thoughtless way he has treated the women in his life. By beginning to close the loop on his own bad behavior, Scott can begin to understand, in his own way, that the past does not have to define the present. Unfortunately, Gideon takes advantage of Scott’s distracted epiphany, and kills him.
Scott comes to in Limbo, where he is visited by Ramona. It is revealed that the reason Ramona cannot give up on Gideon because he has implanted her with a mind-control device. While this is a literal obstacle, it also remains a symbolic one; Gideon is the one ex that Ramona just cannot seem to shake. In many ways, Gideon was to Ramona what she was to Scott upon meeting: mysterious, complicated, intoxicating, and it offers some insight as to why it has been so difficult for her to truly let go. Having seen the failure of something that felt so significant, Ramona seems to feel less worthy of love, therefore allowing these fragments of the past to infect her relationship with Scott.
Scott uses his extra life to return to the world, and challenges Gideon to a fight once again. This time, however, Scott challenges Gideon for himself, earning the “Power of Self-Respect” sword. It is an important distinction in character motive, as Scott realizes he should not be fighting on behalf of either Ramona, or Knives (both of whom are largely more than capable of fighting their own battles). Instead, Scott reconciles that he has done harm to those he loves, embracing his flawed tendencies, but also learning something from them. He finally apologizes to both Ramona and Knives for cheating, and Knives and Scott team up to defeat Gideon, once and for all. While it may seem as if Ramona’s exclusion is indicative of her failing to let go, this assertion ignores the most basic premise of the film. Ultimately, battling the seven evil exes was the manifestation of Scott’s internal struggle. By confronting the way he treated Knives, and subsequently receiving her forgiveness, he is able to make peace with his pattern of destructive behavior towards others, thus allowing the two of them (Scott’s present, and his past, if you will) to defeat the last of his unhealthy demons.
It is a battle which plays out a final time when Nega Scott (the shadow version of Scott Pilgrim) shows up to do battle. Both women prepare to join him in the fight, but Scott insists he must go at it alone. The resolution to this battle may feel anti-climatic, as the two do not fight at all, but rather, talk it out off-screen. This writer would argue, however, that because Scott has (literally) done battle with his feelings, he is able to confront himself with a sense of calm that he did not possess before. Nega Scott is less an enemy than a manifestation of Scott’s flaws. He is not an enemy, and therefore, he does need to be defeated. Rather, he is a part of Scott’s dark impulses which he must achieve balance toward in order to move beyond them.
In the end, Ramona once again chooses to leave, perhaps still feeling unworthy of love due to all of the pain she believes she has caused. Scott nearly lets her go, before being prodded by Knives to go after her. For all of the jokes at Knives’ expense from other characters, she demonstrates more grace and maturity here than any of Ramona’s adult exes, allowing Scott to be free of his past, without any strings.
When Scott catches up to her, Ramona expresses surprise that he still wants to be with her after everything that has happened. To Scott, however, it is an easy choice. He is finally able to see Ramona Flowers clearly for the first time. Freed from his expectations, and assumptions, Scott has not only begun walking the road toward betterment of self, but he has gifted Ramona with the genuine belief that she is worthy and deserving of love, a message that seemed to have been lost to her after Gideon broke her heart. As a result, Ramona is able to see a way beyond running, and accepts Scott’s love, thus finally letting go of what came before. As she takes his hand, they move toward a door that seems like it could lead anywhere. In order to truly move forward, they must do so together.