Edgar Wright takes on a cult comic-book icon in Scott Pilgrim vs the World
David Fear and Holly Sands
Based on the Scott Pilgrim comic book series by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs the World sees unlikely superhero Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno) take on the ‘seven deadly exes’ of his intended beau so he can date her without fear of execution. Directed by Brit Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), it’s less Spiderman and more Kick-Ass, mocking the traditional depiction of action heroes by picking comic-book geeks to play the leads, and injecting a much darker humour into the script. This formula worked well for the aforementioned Kick-Ass earlier in the year, a huge commercial success with takings of US$113.6 million. With so much hype already surrounding the Scott Pilgrim movie, we’re expecting equally geek-chic things.
‘There is no real end to Donkey Kong!’ screams Edgar Wright about the 1981 Nintendo video game, so passionately that you can practically picture him rising from his chair in a Boston conference room, bellowing into the phone receiver. ‘It wasn’t until I’d seen that amazing documentary on video-game fanatics, The King of Kong, that I realised you can’t ever rescue the princess. It doesn’t matter how many quarters you put into the machine. It doesn’t matter how many barrels you smash. It doesn’t matter how many levels you win.’ Even though he’s laughing now, Wright takes great pains to emphasise each word of the final, bitter lesson he’s learned. ‘You. Never. Get. The. Girl!’
If there were any doubts that the 36-year-old British director was born to make Scott Pilgrim vs the World, an adaption of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic-novel series about a twentysomething Torontonian, that outburst would have permanently laid them to rest. Not that anyone scoffed when Wright took on the task of bringing the beloved Pilgrim (who obsesses over his indie-rock band and hipster-hottie Ramona Flowers, though not in that order) to the big screen. Like O’Malley, the filmmaker has always worn his fanboy fixations – zombie movies (2004’s Shaun of the Dead) and ’80s-style action flicks (2007’s Hot Fuzz) – on his sleeve. And anyone who caught his late-’90s BBC series, Spaced, about romantically confused Gen-Xers geeking out over comic books and Star Wars, could tell that Wright intimately understood the way pop culture colours postcollegiate life. But it’s his frustration and fervour over Kong’s exercise in romantic futility that confirms the perfect match. Pilgrim, after all, is a young man who can’t ‘get the girl’ until he passes some tests – namely, beating all seven of Ramona’s evil exes in cartoonish duels to the death.
‘I always loved how Bryan had each of the fights represent a different stage of their relationship, from confidence to crippling insecurity,’ the filmmaker says. ‘Eventually, Scott has got to defeat his own neuroses and esteem issues as well; it’s a movie that’s about self-love as much as young love. I mean, he’s a 22-year-old who occasionally displays the emotional maturity of a sullen 12-year-old: “If I defeat the bad guys, I get the shiny object.” Ramona isn’t a reward, she’s a person!’
Given how often the books depict Scott’s lovelorn perspective, it’s actually surprising that the screen version of Ramona isn’t reduced to some hair-dyed, stand-in for female perfection – much of which can be credited to the young woman who plays her. ‘Yeah, none of us wanted to turn Ramona into some sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype,’ says Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the 25-year-old actor best known as this generation’s premier scream queen (Black Christmas, Final Destination 3). ‘I really tried to give her some sense of substantial weight as a character, instead of just being some clichéd, kooky young woman with psycho exes. Edgar was always very clear that this was a movie about moving past those adolescent notions of romance, albeit in an extreme way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about twentysomethings quite like this. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any movie like this.’
Winstead is referring to the film’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink style – texted onomatopoeic sound effects, The Legend of Zelda-ish fight sequences, kisses accompanied by animated hearts and scored to Pixies songs, the Seinfeld bass riff – that replicates Scott’s media-fried mindset. Whether you’re put off by the ADD aesthetic or praise such tech-expressionistic verve will be a matter of taste. ‘I’ve heard that some audiences have literally had their heads blown apart,’ jokes Wright. ‘I told [cinematographer] Bill Pope, “Remember how you shot The Matrix and the pilot for Freaks and Geeks? This movie is the unholy offspring of the two.” It was a legitimate chance to incorporate the pop-art aspects of comic books and video games…which is usually the first thing that movies about comics and video games leave out.’
He’s also prepared to face up to the potential criticism that the emphasis on Nintendo graphics and ’90s alt-rock speaks more to his nostalgia than the characters’ present. ‘I’ve already heard that complaint, yeah,’ he admits. ‘But everyone in my cast is in their early-to-mid-twenties, and I didn’t have to explain a single retro reference to them. That Generation X culture has infected everybody now. Super Mario is like the modern era’s Mickey Mouse.’ He pauses. ‘Even if he can’t save the Donkey Kong princess.’ Scott Pilgrim vs the World is in Dubai cinemas from October 14.