|Scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word|
There is one popular opinion in cinema's rich history: adaptations of video games tend to be terrible. There's little to suggest against this, as Warcraft, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, The Prince of Persia, and Assassin's Creed all were met with middling reviews. If the track record is so low, why keep making them then? It's an allure that is perfectly answered in director Edgar Wright's 2010 action-comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It is theoretically not a video game adaptation, but it's hard not to see a Nintendo console attached to its heart. It is a film that single-handedly reinvented the teenage comedy with innovative editing styles while focusing on things that teenagers care about: video games, garage bands, and love. While Scott Pilgrim isn't solely about video games, it captures the thrill of the medium that has had trouble adapting to film, and makes the case for why it's difficult to make them work.
Scott Pilgrim holds an interesting place in Wright's filmography. Of the six films to date, it is his only adaptation. Based on the Bryan Lee O'Malley comics, it follows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) as he falls in love with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and discovers that he must fight her "League of Evil Exes" to be with her. This is a mold that already has an ingenious video game structure. It establishes premise and then gives levels, each being more challenging than the last, for Scott to fight. Unlike most of the video game references that the film references, Scott isn't a macho man. He is this wimpy Canadian boy who is indecisive and a bit insecure about any criticism. He is delusional in only the way that men in their early-20's could be, believing that he is more than capable of dating an Asian high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Despite having an 8-bit logo for Universal Studios open the film, the film doesn't get too video game-y until the second act, once Ramona and Scott feel like a sure shot.
If there's only six central fight scenes that have the visual panache of video games, why is Scott Pilgrim so expertly an ode to a retro gaming style? It helps that O'Malley's original story is intricately layered with memorable characters of varying ages. They all have that apathetic hipster vibe that is somehow understood. Even Scott's band's drummer Kim Pines (Alison Pill) is a memorable ex of Scott's despite largely being used for sardonic insults. The cast is full of a who's who of young comedic talents who all don't seem moved by their setting. Even if the world is ostensibly normal, albeit in a Canadian way, there are those traces of video game culture that fill their lives. The film opens with comic book descriptions of Scott's house before displaying the manic editing that takes the lengthy first book in O'Malley's series and films what feels like four pages a second. As it introduces the characters, they all get boiler-plate cards underneath, comically describing their personalities.
Before the film hits the exciting opening credits sequence set to Scott's band Sex Bob-omb's "We Are Sex Bob-omb," there's even more traces that this world is literally animated. Various onomatopoeia fly around the characters. The banging of drum sticks is given proper connotation. The speakers are giving wavy effects as well. This is a film whose real world already feels comic, down to a Fight Club-esque first act where Scott's apartment is itemized with the signature boiler-plate descriptions only to have the continuous edited scenes feel idiosyncratically placed together to suggest that Scott is sleepwalking through life. It's manic, but serves to cut down the slower moments of a film desperately trying to stay under two hours (and barely achieving that).
It isn't really until Scott and Knives play video games at the local arcade that it becomes a video game movie. While playing a game that is akin to Dance Dance Revolution, the rules for later fight scenes are discussed through the simulation. It is also understood that video games connect these characters, showing how important this form of entertainment is. While one could argue that the effects, such as Knives saying "Love" in a pink cloud is more borrowed from comic books, the world's artifice begins to turn from the oddest teenage comedy to an invaluable cut scene full of important information. It's because of these supernatural elements that the fights to follow makes sense. By the time that Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) comes in to initiate the first fight, it's no longer a shock that Scott's journey will be drenched in video game culture.
The League of Evil Exes serve as each level of a video game's Big Boss. The job is to defeat them through nefarious means. Each fight is different enough, and largely has different video game history references placed in to show depth. The only difference is that while many of the visual cues feel borrowed from 8-bit, Scott's fights are allowed to take place in a 360 degree environment. Even with some flatter scenes, the most incredible feat of Wright's action direction is that he shows perspectives that are limited on video games. He shows the exhilaration of the people who stand by and watch Scott fight. He shows the passion that everyone has for video games through an allegory about fighting for love and the fear of being a future evil ex. It helps that there's Bill Hader as a video game announcer who fills in the progress that Scott has made throughout the film, often with electric descriptions boxed in the corner of the screen.
The film works because Scott is familiar enough to people who consume video games. He is a bit aloof and selfish, but makes progress throughout the film. This isn't just seen literally in how he fights and achieves his goal. He also grows emotionally with each moment. At its core, Scott Pilgrim isn't a great character in the video game sense, but he's a great protagonist for a video game movie because he subverts masculine stereotypes while reflecting his audience. They don't just love games. They like nuanced pop culture references and are totally fine with having a gay roommate (Kieran Culkin). The world is complex, and it's why some ex-boyfriends are hipsters (Bhabha) and others intimidating vegans (Brandon Routh). Even with the heightened world, these archetypes feel like the familiar gambit of teenage personas. Placing them with their own video game character makes it all the more fascinating as a film.
So why then is Scott Pilgrim more successful than almost every video game adaptation? It's because it doesn't have limitations to the console world. There is no story that the adapter has to be faithful to. Even if you excuse that, most of the films lack a balance of character and action. Whereas video games are allowed to be at times impersonal for the sake of play, movies have to feature characters that engage a docile audience, unable to press up, down, A, B, R1, and L2. There's plenty of wiggle room for video games, but purists will never be satisfied in large part because video games are allowed to tell more expansive stories that can't be cut down to convenient story lengths. They can be fun movies, but expansive histories are impossible to fit into a two hour movie.
Scott Pilgrim succeeds because it captures the essence of video game culture through its central audience. People want to feel cool and heroic when they play video games. They want to be heroes. Wright shows the disparaging reality that seeps into living that dream. True, Scott is somehow a mighty hero, but his flaws shine through even as he fights for his literal dream girl. There's stakes beyond beating a Big Boss. There's a need to make a character who learns something personally. Scott learns plenty on his journey, making the final moments doubly rewarding. Still, having those video game references reflect his psyche in ways that a droll indie couldn't achieve. If more people were able to balance action and heart in their adaptations, maybe they would be more successful movies. Even then, that's probably what people don't play video games for. Still, Scott Pilgrim reflects what video game movies could be. Only Wreck-It Ralph has come close to even matching that magic.