Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the Superhero Movie, and Contemporary Culture

The eponymous Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a twenty-three-year-old geek who lives in Toronto with his gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin). Scott goes out with high-school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) in an attempt to recover from his break-up with the now successful and ironically named singer Envy Adams (Brie Larson), while his own group, the Sex Bob-Omb, stagnates. Scott’s surreal life is further transformed when he falls for the illustrious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and learns that to be with her he must defeat her seven evil exes in combat.

Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book, the film manages to retain most of the original source’s aesthetic appearance and style through an extensive use of special effects, from titanic fights to kisses accompanied by literal floating hearts. This excessive use of special effects has been criticized for being superfluous, yet it is also a welcome attempt at conveying the pop aesthetic of comic books, which is something often ignored in recent adaptations of Spiderman, Batman, and the like. For the persona of the superhero is typically translated onto the silver screen in all their costumed glory, but the fantastical charm of their initial incarnation is generally left behind on the page. British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) went even further into the world of Geekdom, borrowing as liberally from the artistic traits of video games as from the stylistic conventions of comic books. The film’s structure notably ignores the generic coming-of-age journey pattern employed in similar narratives and replaces this with seven levels that Scott has to complete in order to get the girl of his dreams. Wright’s directorial style translates Scott’s perception of events from the banal and mundane visuals of normality to a bizarre fantasy world, yet this is paradoxically a distorted world that can often seem more “real” than reality. Indeed, when raised in a media-saturated environment that provides numerous alternative realities, the concept of what is exactly “the real world” becomes difficult to define, a feeling that the summer blockbuster Inception also investigated with its multi-layered and highly convoluted narrative. Despite this pervasive element of the surreal, Scott’s problems are genuine and rooted in typical human scenarios, for as Ramona succinctly says when dismissing the absurdity of the evil ex situation with brilliantly cutting understatement, “we all have baggage”. The way Scott sees life is, however, slightly more exciting – with the socially accepted presence of superpowers and fights to the death being common occurrences – because his existence is predominantly influenced by comic books, video games, and movies. Michael Cera is perfect in the role of the quirky geek that falls for an unattainable girl, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a surprisingly non-stereotypical damsel in distress, given her well-staged lines and a strong, even disquieting, personality. Scott’s roommate Wallace is one of the most noteworthy secondary characters of the year, and he gets the best of the larger-than-life dialogues: “Okay, presumably, you may have just seen a dude’s junk, and I’m very sorry for that… so is he.” The film’s entertainment value comes as much from the special effects as from the countless comic encounters and jokes. Irony is pervasive within the film and deliberately heavy-handed, hence one of the evil exes, Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), gets his trademark superpower from his fanatic veganism, because, as everybody is aware of, vegans are superior to the rest of humanity. The film, however, failed to impact at the box office, ironically undermined by its own target audience, more prone to download films than to pay for the cinematic experience. And yet Scott Pilgrim vs. the World still remains one of the best movies released this year, combining bold directorial style, perfect casting, hilarious jokes, and a unique portrayal of contemporary youth.

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