As I recently sat through season 1 of the Netflix adaptation of comic book hero Daredevil, I began to ponder the idea of redemption. For many, Daredevil is certainly redemption for the poorly received Ben Affleck vehicle foisted upon the masses over a decade ago. Another recent redemption-one that doesn’t merely ignore the past so much as erases it entirely was when Bryan Singer & Co. effectively blew up the historical timeline that contained Brett Ratner’s terrible version of an X-Men:Last Stand story with Days of Future Past. Sometimes attempts at redemption fail, as with Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot or as I call it “lesson in studio meddling 101”, but all in all a good redemption story is a truly uplifting experience for those who feel like they’ve been shorted on a promise of cinematic delivery.
When I thought about what my personal Hollywood redemption project would be, the first thing that came to mind was the Alien franchise. Alien and Aliens both rank high in my pantheon of favorite movies and for years my dream was to write a third chapter that ignored everything that came after. However, this turned out to be less of an original idea as I thought as Neill Blomkamp is well on his way to seeing my dream realized, having already received the blessing of all concerned parties to reroute the franchise in just such a manner. With that franchise off the table, my mind quickly turned to Scott Pilgrim.
Years back, when I heard that Universal and Edgar Wright were bringing the graphic novel series chronicling the adventures of Scott Pilgrim to the big screen I was as ecstatic as any fan of the material. I consider the Pilgrim books to be one of the best fictional twenty-something coming of age stories the literary world has to offer and Wright had the geek cred to bring the series’ quirky machinations to the screen. Granted, it was a lot to expect that anyone could take over a thousand pages of material and winnow it down to a single two-hour film, but if the production could just hit the main character arcs and stay true to the heart of the story Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was sure to be a masterpiece.
The first big miss came with the casting of Michael Cera. Cera was nerd royalty at the time, coming so recently off of the success of Juno, and I’m sure to many he seemed like a perfect choice to fill the shoes of Scott Pilgrim. Don’t get me wrong here, I really enjoy Cera, who, when given the rare opportunity to work outside of his type-cast such as in a film like Youth in Revolt, where he nailed the devilish alter ego Francois, he is undoubtedly a talented actor. In Pilgrim, though, Cera’s sole direction appears to be, “Do that character you always do. You know, the kind of awkward, soft-spoken but subtly intelligent and endearing guy from Arrested Development.” And sure, a lot of people talked themselves into believing that was exactly what the role of Scott Pilgrim called for. Even Brian Lee O’Malley, creator of the graphic novels praised Cera for his portrayal. But the Pilgrim I know was more of a self-absorbed ladies’ man. Sure, he lived in a nerdy world, but he was kind of a big fish in that setting, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him without even realizing it. He’s frenetic and clueless. Scott Pilgrim is the farthest thing from awkward in the world. While he occasionally frets over a haircut, he’s almost too comfortable in his own skin. Michael Cera doesn’t even look comfortable in blue jeans.
Then there’s Ramona. Nothing against Mary Elizabeth Winstead as I’m sure she had little say in the way the character was written for film, but what a horrible portrayal of one of the most crush-worthy ladies in all of literature. Ramona starts out as mysterious, but goes on to create relationships within Scott’s universe that make her one of the most down-to-earth characters in the series. Her relationship with Scott is sweet and typical and her journey is every bit as important as his own. By the end of the final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, there is no doubt as to whether you want to see Scott end up with Ramona. In the movie, the writers read “mysterious” on page two and quit.
Which brings us to Knives. Knives Chau is a fantastic character in the movie. Too fantastic. Yes, Chau is an incredibly sympathetic character in the book, but her relationship with Scott is more or less disregarded early on and she embarks on her own journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, she is one of many who help Scott find his way to some powerful self-reflection. In the film, she is so sympathetic, kind and caring while Ramona is so cold and distant, that you honestly feel like Scott belongs with Knives and in fact it feels weird that he walks off into the future with Ramona. It’s such an uncomfortable conclusion in place of what was originally one of the more satisfying endings put to page.
I will give credit where credit is due. Wright’s Pilgrim has the most spectacular peripheral cast of all time, even if they are sadly underutilized. Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans and Brie Larson just to name a handful and they are all delightful. Jason Schwartzman is perfectly cast as Gideon-although that might be nothing more than a product of him looking so much like the drawing that it didn’t take any real thought to cast him.
Wright also nails the visuals. The production is slick and flashy in a way that brilliantly brings out the video game elements that lend Pilgrim’s world a unique aesthetic quality. The pace manages not to feel too frenetic for how many elements had to be smushed into so little time and that’s a real triumph. Ultimately, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a tremendously watchable movie, and in my world that carries a considerable amount of weight, but it doesn’t excuse the overall way it missed the mark in telling the story.
Really, Scott Pilgrim isn’t just about Scott’s story and that’s important. Scott and Ramona are a lynchpin for so many stories that are worth hearing. Some important characters are left out completely while inspiring characters like Kim Pine and Steven Stills get short shrift in the feature film treatment. I’d love to see a streaming service like Netflix let someone take a crack at telling Scott Pilgrim & Co’s stories over a series long format. To give them the detail and attention their stories deserve. Scott Pilgrim has a geek vibe to it, but it is overall a tale that everyone can relate to. It would be great if everyone had the chance. Well, there’s always the books. I think it’s about time I picked them up again.