10 years later, Edgar Wright’s comic adaptation lingers for its bevy of influences as much as its originality.
Late in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the title character (Michael Cera) off-handedly summarizes himself. Scott, reeling from the uncertain status of his relationship with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and the attacks of her seven evil exes, snaps to his bandmate Stephen Stills (Mark Webber). “I play better when I’m in a bad mood,” he says. It takes a push for the usually apathetic Scott to step up, but when he does, he steps up.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t require the same pressure its protagonist needs to shine. At 10 years old, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World stands as both a magnificent piece of film craft and a compellingly divergent adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series of the same name.
Alongside Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World stands out as a film adaptation of a comic book that loves its source material’s medium as much as it loves its stories. Pilgrim’s creative team isn’t just adapting O’Malley’s comics to the screen; they’re adapting their narrative language.
For Scott Pilgrim specifically, this means deploying the language of video games, just as O’Malley did in the comics. Scott’s duels with members of the League are frequently framed like fighting game matches. His inaugural fight against the hipster mystic Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) goes so far as to include a full-on combo counter. When he defeats a league member, the score achieved for beating them appears, as real as Scott’s shaggy hair or his bandmate Kim’s (Alison Pill) hard-used drumsticks. An extra life is represented as a floating pixel illustration of Scott’s head.
More generally, Wright and his fellow creatives take some of comics’ most famous storytelling tools and make them work on screen. Action, be it the full-scale bombast of a battle with one of the exes or something less life-threatening like band practice, is frequently accompanied by animated sound effects that convey (or in the film’s case) enhance sound and movement through the force and feeling the effects convey.
Where Pilgrim’s love of comics as a medium really shines though, is in the way it uses panels. The layout of a page of comics dictates how the eye will read that page: where it will move, when it will move there, and how the individual moments captured in panels will combine to form a sequential narrative. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World deploys panels of its own, moments where the screen splits and highlights a character or moment. Since film as a medium already has motion covered, Pilgrim’s panels are instead about emphasis and juxtaposition.
Consider this moment when Scott and Ramona learn that the key members of a popular band are in fact their exes:
The “panels” give the cast a chance to play directly against one another even as they participate in a huge crowd shot. I’m particularly fond of the way Cera’s increasing alarm is pitted against Brandon Routh’s smarmy sneer.
Cera is terrific as the movie’s interpretation of Scott, which offers a nice segue from Scott Pilgrim’s merits as a film to its merits as an adaptation. The basic structure of the comic series and the film is the same: Scott wants to date Ramona and must defeat her seven evil exes to do so. But when it comes to the details, the two works diverge sharply (in part because the film first began development well before the comic series concluded). They remain kindred spirits, but their takes on Scott and his growth are significantly different.
In the comics, Scott’s greatest flaws are his self-centeredness and his obliviousness. At his worst, he’s capable of great cruelty that he downplays or denies. But to his immense credit, Scott matures to the point of realizing and accepting the harm he’s done, and he ultimately vows to change himself for the better. By the series’ end, Scott has reconciled with two of the people he hurt and, alongside Ramona, struck down the creep who’s been preying on them amongst many others.
Ramona herself goes through similar growth, realizing that she’s been “trying to beat the clock, outrun the universe.” The story closes with Scott and Ramona walking through a door to their unknown future. Whatever comes their way, they know themselves better than they once did, and they want to try facing it together.
Pilgrim’s creative team isn’t just adapting O’Malley’s comics to the screen; they’re adapting their narrative language.
In the film, Scott’s greatest flaw is his apathy. He’s drifting, content to let life happen to him. Cera leans into this by playing Scott as remarkably still during the picture’s opening stages—especially compared to Ellen Wong’s energetic work as Scott’s fake high school girlfriend, Knives Chau. It makes the skill and speed he performs with in Pilgrim’s fight scenes all the more striking. The film’s Scott can be passionate and driven, but it takes pressure from his friends, an extraordinary circumstance, or some combination of the two to pull him out of the grey. He’s less a man who cannot see beyond himself than a man locked up in himself.
Yet, for all the stress and angst the League of Evil Exes causes him, the film’s Scott isn’t content to fade away into mopey wallpaper. His big moment of realization, which comes facing the oblivion of death, is that he genuinely wants to stand up against the malignant Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a man he well and truly despises. And so he steps up, with some help from a 1-up he obtained earlier.
Scott’s story in the film closes with him suggesting to Ramona (more a supporting character compared to the comics, where she was the deuteragonist) that they try their relationship again. He’s engaged and involved in a way that he simply wouldn’t have been earlier in the film. When he and Ramona step through the door to what will come, the victory for Scott is in the fact that he’s stepping through the door.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t without its issues. In particular, its compressed timeframe relative to the comics—it takes place over a few days as opposed to about a year—means the wildly talented ensemble cast doesn’t get quite as much to do as they could. But the good far, far outweighs the frustrating. Its use of comics’ storytelling tools is both a wonderful love letter to the medium and seriously cool filmmaking. Its interpretation of Scott Pilgrim as a character, aided by Cera’s fine performance, makes for not just for a counterpart to the comic series, but also a counterpoint. 10 years on, Scott Pilgrim is still very much a contender.