Over the last six years, Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley chronicled the exploits of oblivious hipster cassanova Scott Pilgrim, culminating in this summer’s sixth and final volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour. The achievement of that book, which paid off all of the story’s lingering romantic plot threads in a clean, sprightly style influenced equally by pocket-sized Japanese manga and intense adolescent emotions misremembered through an 8-bit Nintendo-pixeled filter, is now certainly overshadowed by its mainstream film adaptation, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The movie will likely be the dominant pop-cultural representation of O’Malley’s site-specific Toronto indie-rock playpen. Which, given the richness of that comics world, is sort of a shame.
In certain aspects, the film is a great success. More so than maybe any comic book adapter, Wright fully embraces the loony kinetics of his source material. When Warren Beatty tackled Dick Tracy in 1990 technological limitations left him with little to work with beyond a vivid primary color palette. Visual effects have exponentially improved since then but imagination hasn’t advanced at pace. Robert Rodriguez’s over-animated Sin City was a lurid green-screen hell. The clumsy make-up effects and stagey CGI of Zach Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen just ended up ugly and faintly ridiculous instead of gritty and hyper-real (especially in super duper slo-mo). Wright gets simple nuances about the medium that have eluded other directors, like how written sound effects take up valuable, iconic space in a comic panel and can’t be easily replaced on screen with foley work alone. Where super-serious Chris Nolan probably has nightmares about the “BONK!” camp of the 60s Batman TV show, Wright keeps the vital, charming goofiness of a manga digest intact. Printed captions mirror the books’ information-loaded non-sequiturs. Waited-for phone calls literally hang in the air as ultra-dramatic “Ring-Ring!”s. Unexpected violence is softened, rounded when accompanied by a massive, ridiculous “THOOM!” (It’s also fitting that when characters lapse into nostalgic remembrance, it’s actually O’Malley’s smooth, animated line work that we see on screen.)
In terms of casting and superficial character detail, there’s not much to complain about either. Visual tokens as specific as which minor character wore which New Order shirt to which party are lifted directly from the page, helping to sell what is probably the least groan-worthy portrait of aughts indie culture yet depicted in a major studio film. (The music provided by Beck for Scott’s supposedly terrible band is almost TOO credible.) Sure, when not engaging in anachronistic martial arts prowess, Michael Cera plays the titular character as more of a milquetoast wimp than he probably ought to. The comics’ Pilgrim is less nebbish than golden retriever, with unchecked enthusiasm and zero recognition. But, with a huge assist from the throng of able character actors surrounding him, Cera carries the movie well enough. With the exception of gay roommate Wallace Wells, portrayed with a devilish glint by Kieran Culkin (whose brother should be wiping away tears of professional jealously with a stack of Home Alone hundreds), all of the books’ most memorable characters are female. When those characters were already thin on the page, like Aubrey Plaza’s Julie Powers or Anna Kendrick’s Stacy Pilgrim, the screen portrayals are spot-on. When the books provided more depth to a heroine, the movie lets them down. The surliness of Alison Pill’s Kim Pine is denied its motivating root. Ellen Wong’s Knives Chau is never given her chance to outgrow one-note teenage boy-craziness, and turn into something resembling an actual person. Scott’s art-rock superstar ex, Envy Adams, fares worst of all, reduced to Brie Larson’s pouts and glares. Her screen time barely hints at how surreal it’d be if your creative, unassuming college girlfriend Karen suddenly blossomed into a towering Karen O, leaving you stuck where she’d left you. Even the book’s purposely mysterious love interest Ramona Flowers, played with aloof charm by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is all signifying quirk absent even token hints at plausible motivation.
In the end, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World strips most all of the weight out of O’Malley’s ongoing story. The film compresses the year chronicled in the books, in which the hapless young Pilgrim progresses though recognizably big life moments (finding and losing jobs, moving in with a girlfriend for the first time) in addition to his increasingly dire flights of fanciful combat, into what seems like a very fast couple of weeks. As such, the central metaphor of the comics, how our romantic pasts are gradually discovered, grappled with, and conquered in the forming of a mature relationship, gets lost. By the books’ later phases, Ramona is fully integrated into Scott’s life and friend circle. Her absence would leave a much bigger hole than if the movie’s Scott was denied a chance to further make out with his latest crush. On screen, he barely has anything to fight for. The full humor of the story’s ridiculous video game trappings only truly works if character motivations run deeper than Street Fighter II. Now, if Blanka and Zangief are fighting because Zangief’s girlfriend broke Blanka’s heart in high school, you’ve got something absurd, and maybe even poignant. Without it, you’ve got two cartoons punching each other. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World totally gets how O’Malley told his story, but is too busy with its winning flash-bang, gee-whizzery to reflect the story that was actually told.