It’s been ten years since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World hit theatres, and while it was a monumental flop (financially finishing its opening weekend behind both The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love), it’s hard to find people who don’t love it today. On paper it was a recipe for guaranteed success: it’s a comic book movie, released mere months after Captain America made Chris Evans a household name and further cemented comic book movies as cash cows. Edgar Wright was being hailed as a prodigy of a director, having re-written the rules on both zombie horror (Shaun of the Dead) and action blockbusters (Hot Fuzz), and the cast was a who’s-who of A-listers and young actors on the cusp of becoming A-listers.
With everything about the movie being so right, what went wrong?
And even after it all went wrong, and everything wrong with the film (more on that in a moment), what makes it still hold up as being oh so right?
It’s a movie best watched without too deep of an examination, because it’s wild and frenetic and beautiful…and all of those trappings cover up some pretty malicious material. It’s rife with toxic masculinity and misogyny, so much so that it’s a wonder that the horrible incel movement hasn’t adopted it as their own - but what ultimately saves it is that we get to watch and see Scott’s growth, and that willingness to grow and learn and overcome his own problems are what saves it for the audience.
Everybody loves a good-guy-wins-in-the-end story, but Scott (Michael Cera) isn’t a good guy. He’s an unemployed 20-something picking up high school girls and bragging about being in a band (in which he plays bass, poorly) to make himself look and feel and seem cool. He can’t date women his own age because he has nothing to offer - he’s the “nice guy,” the “damaged” and “broken” and “poor, tortured soul” who just needs to be given a chance…
Except he hasn’t earned it. If anything, he spends most of the movie proving to us that he doesn’t deserve it; he uses his high-school aged girlfriend to assuage his ego until Romana (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, most recently seen as John McClane’s daughter in Live Free or Die Hard) catches his eye and he starts awkwardly hitting on her and stalking her. Thankfully, the movie calls him out on it (Aubrey Plaza is an unsung hero of this film), but it doesn’t dissuade him from continuing to try…while still dating his HIGH-SCHOOL AGED GIRLFRIEND (Ellen Wong as the terminally chipper Knives Chau). It’s played for laughs when he whines about having to break up with her, but he never suffers for it, he never loses either of his romantic interests.
On the flip side, we have Ramona, the true hero of the movie. The woman who is cursed with seven evil exes who hold her romantic life prisoner because none of them can handle the idea of her ever moving on from them.
(There’s a whole novel’s worth of story as to how each of the seven came to handle the other six - did each of them have to beat the previous number in order to date Ramona? Why only seven? Did she only ever date seven people before meeting Scott? Were there other relationships and partners who didn’t make the cut? Gideon says he formed the league, but why? How? I want to know, and Bryan Lee O’Malley won’t take my calls.)
This is what happens when you apply a microscope to this movie; you realize that Scott is a pervy stalker who doesn’t deserve ANY romance until he gets his shit figured out. Ramona is a victim of possessive, overbearing exes who can’t seem to let her go, and she, until now, never breaks free from. Scott’s guilty of the same, of course, as he refuses to move past his relationship with Envy Adams (the always talented Brie Larson), and even when he does (by punching a de-powered Brandon Routh into coins), it’s not for him - it’s to continue in his quest to “win” Ramona for “his own.”
But that fight - evil ex number three - is the turning point in the film, and this is where it starts to redeem itself.
Scott standing up to Envy is the first good thing he does in the whole movie, and it ultimately leads to his, Ramona’s, and Knives’ redemption.
For the first three fights, Ramona takes a back seat - dutifully playing the (sexist and gross) role of damsel in distress, the prize to be won. But with evil ex number four (the incredible Mae Whitman (…her?), on whom I have a huge crush), Ramona starts to fight for herself. Scott’s armor is cracked and broken (as it should be), but the tone shifts to show that if he can overcome his greatest loss, then Ramona needs to take control of her own life, as well. Not for Scott, but for herself.
The Katayanagi twins…regrettably, are forgettable. Which is a shame, because while it’s an amazing CGI spectacle, they seem to serve little purpose other than filler while the rest of the characters work through their shit.
And when we finally get to Gideon Graves himself (played with an arrogance that only Jason Schwartzman can provide), we see things come to a head for all of our heroes…and Scott. Remember, Scott fails at fighting Gideon, because he’s doing it (still) for all the wrong reasons. It’s not until Knives attacks Ramona and Gideon kills Scott that he learns what a dick he is, and that he has to fix it.
That’s why the final power-up in the movie is Scott earning “the power of self-respect,” and that’s what pulls the movie out of the depths to redeem it. By the end, he’s not fighting for anybody but himself; he’s honest for the first time in the film, telling Kim (the insanely underrated Alison Pill) that he’s “sorry about me,” telling the band that they’re better off without him, that Young Neil is simply Neil, admitting that he cheated on both Ramona and Knives… The culmination of the whole movie is that other people matter more, and that being selfish and stupid is a shitty thing to do and be. Ramona breaks free from Gideon’s control, Knives accepts that Scott cheated on her, and it takes all three of them to finish the fight against Gideon. By the time Nega-Scott shows up, there’s no fight left to fight, because he’s already won it.
Even after all the final resolution, when Ramona decides to leave him, for the first time in the whole movie he asks her if he can come with her instead of forcing himself on her. There’s always the argument that he should be with Knives, that she was better for him and more right for him the whole time, but I would defer to Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O’Malley and their knowledge of the characters to trust that they made the right ending.
There’s a bit of poetic irony when Ramona admits that Scott is the nicest guy she ever dated and Scott replies “That’s kinda sad.” It is kinda sad - really sad, honestly - that a pervy, stalkery, possessive, selfish asshole like him is the nicest guy she ever dated…but he’s also the only one who grew up and improved, which, I trust, is why she ultimately accepted him in the end.
(And Knives is 100% correct when she says “I’m too cool for you anyways.” She is, she always was, and she always will be)
So here we are - ten years later and ten years smarter, looking back on a comic book movie that wasn’t a comic book movie (I imagine part of why it flopped was because people heard “comic book movie” and thought of Iron Man, but got Scott Pilgrim, instead) about one of the worst romantic heroes in cinematic history. But while it failed in theatres, it resonated with people because it’s about growth - it’s about being able to admit that you’re wrong, and being willing to accept that you don’t deserve anything, not even the chance to prove that you’re a good guy (when you’re clearly not). We all need to be reminded to be introspective and reflect on ourselves once in a while - it’s the only way we’re ever going to improve. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we might just have someone to hold hands with as we step out into the void to find whatever comes next.
Postscript: Kieran Culkin deserves his own call-out, because he was, arguably, the best part of the movie. He was honest and forthcoming, he knew himself and accepted and loved himself for who he is, he wasn’t afraid to be honest with Scott - even going so far as to tell him to get the fuck out and move away - and he does it all with a smile on his face and love in his heart. He steals every damn scene he’s in because he’s infinitely watchable and engaging and awesome, and the movie is worth watching just to see him shine throughout.