Scott Pilgrim is not a superhero. He is not a hero. He is only barely a functional human being. He is a dipshit. So maybe we should be talking about Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World in a column about dipshit movies, not one about superhero movies. (Side note: I would absolutely read a column about dipshit movies.) And yet Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World qualifies as 2010’s most important superhero movie. It manages this distinction because of some uninspired competition, but it also makes the cut because Wright’s movie presents a whole new answer to the eternal question of how to properly translate a comic book into a motion picture.
Scott Pilgrim started off its life as a series of small-press black-and-white comics from the writer and artist Bryan Lee O’Malley. O’Malley had scant hopes of commercial success when he first started publishing Scott Pilgrim, a story about an unemployed Toronto loser who’s chasing after a girl way out of his league and staging exaggerated video-game battles with her “evil exes.” But O’Malley’s antic, hyper-referential, manga-influenced style won cult converts. Movie rights were flying around within a year of the first volume’s publication, and the film went into production before O’Malley had published the end of his story.
O’Malley’s comic isn’t a superhero story. Like a lot of underground comics, it’s a reaction to the superhero stories that dominate the comic market, or maybe a sly comment on them. To me, O’Malley’s books read as a funhouse-mirror exaggeration of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s history-making run on Uncanny X-Men. In those comics, the characters are always interrupting their hyperpowered battles to dive into soap-opera plot twists about tortured self-images and adolescent romances. It’s a superhero saga stitched together with young-adult melodrama. Scott Pilgrim flips that around, foregrounding the romance and psychology while stitching it together with hyperpowered battles. The hero wears an X on his jacket in homage.
As someone who was almost exactly the same age as the Scott Pilgrim character when O’Malley started publishing those books, I should’ve been the target demographic for all of this. Like Pilgrim, I was broke and awkward and living out an extended adolescence in the peripheral corners of an Eastern seaboard city’s indie rock scene. (Mine was Baltimore, not Toronto, so the music was better.) But O’Malley’s books never really appealed to me. I didn’t like the cutesy faux-anime way he drew, the not-actually-funny jokiness of the dialogue, or the constant isn’t-this-cool reference-games. And I didn’t like Scott Pilgrim the character. Even to a generally helpless post-adolescent doof, his helpless post-adolescent doofiness seemed like a bit much.
And yet I did like Wright’s movie, which came after I’d already become a husband and father and halfway-competent member of society. Wright did everything he could to adapt O’Malley’s comics as faithfully as he could, recreating individual panels right down to the onscreen sound effects. (As in, the phone rings, and the word “ring” appears, spelled out onscreen.) Wright was not the first person to think of this panel-replication trick; Robert Rodriguez did it in Sin City, and then Zack Snyder did it in 300 and Watchmen. But Rodriguez and Snyder did it to make their movies look as imposing and epic and iconic as the comics they were adapting. Wright, meanwhile, seemed to pull a certain giddy energy from the task. And in doing so, he found a way to make O’Malley’s story work better onscreen than it ever had on the page.
Wright’s Scott Pilgrim takes place in a heightened reality where everything is set-designed and color-corrected and edited within an inch of its life. There’s an appealing sort of distortion at work there: He’s taking absolute care in depicting the day-to-day lives of these young do-nothings who are not even taking the slightest care in how they’re actually living those lives. Beautiful Hollywood people wear what look like Halloween-costume versions of the shitty clothes that you might’ve worn at the point in your life when you were desperately attempting to patch together a personal aesthetic out of mall-boutique bargain racks and thrift scores. The whole thing is dizzily strange even before characters start rollerblading through each other’s dreams or exploding into coins.
It helps, certainly, that Wright assembled an enormously appealing young cast to tell this story. Many people from that cast went on to do big things, which is a fun distraction when you rewatch it today. Chris Evans, post-Human Torch but pre-Captain America, plays a vainglorious movie star. (He seems to be spoofing Jason Lee, someone who was never anywhere near as famous as Chris Evans is now.) A pre-Captain Marvel Brie Larson deadpans hard as Pilgrim’s newly famous ex. A post-Superman Brandon Routh strikes hard poses as a villain who gets his powers from being vegan. Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza are in there, too, and so is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, enormously appealing as the movie’s too-smart-for-this-shit female lead.
But there are two big problems to this whole funhouse that Wright has built: the character of Scott Pilgrim and the guy playing him. In 2010, Michael Cera was as famous and as widely liked as he was ever going to be. He was in the comedy pantheon for his role in Arrested Development, and he’d starred in Superbad and Juno, both huge hits. (The hyper-referential dialogue of Juno, which has not aged especially well, must’ve at least prepared him to become Pilgrim.) But as Pilgrim, Cera is a big, halting, sputtering, hemming, hawing nothing. Cera conveys the idea that Scott Pilgrim is a mess of a young man, but he does not get across why we should care about this mess. He’s the least interesting person in his own movie, and it might’ve been interesting to see what someone like Kieran Culkin, who makes way more of an impression in his way smaller role, could’ve done with the character.
But then, Cera didn’t have much to work with either. Because on the page, Scott Pilgrim is a nothing, too. This is a character who starts out the movie dating a besotted high school girl. He’s 23, and she’s 17, a clear violation of the half-your-age-plus-seven rule. He’s cold and distant with her, and he’s passive-aggressive, too. When she comes over to meet his friends, he makes her “promise to be good.” He starts dating another girl before he breaks up with her. And when he sleeps over at this other girl’s house but doesn’t have sex with her, he offers this hopelessly romantic line: “Can this not be a one-night stand? For one thing, I didn’t even get any. That was a joke.”
You could certainly argue that we’re not supposed to like Pilgrim, at least in the story’s early going. But even though we see him atoning for his wrongs and progressing as a person, that deeply unappealing core remains. And so we end up watching a whole movie full of beautiful women falling for this potato-faced dink and his homina-homina act. The high school girl remains besotted throughout the movie, even after he reveals the full depth of his dipshittery, and she also helps him get together with a girl who is not her. And the age-appropriate love interest remains interested in him throughout even though he gives her no particular reason to be. In the real world, toxic chumps often do just fine for themselves. But this movie takes one of those toxic chumps and turns him into a fantasy hero. That can be hard to watch.
So it’s a testament to Wright’s skill that he manages to build a zippy, fun movie around this wet fart of a human. Some of that is in the dizzying speed of it. Scott Pilgrim is a movie in love with its own quirkiness, but it never lingers on it for too long. The constant-references filmmaking style can be exhausting even in a master’s hands, as Steven Spielberg proved with Ready Player One. But Wright makes a kind of dance out of it, freeing himself from any notion that he should ground the story in realism.
A lot of the movie’s joy comes from its superhero fights, which are so detached from Pilgrim’s day-to-day life that they become their own running joke. (Nobody even seems disconcerted when characters blink out of existence.) Wright films the fight scenes as live-action anime, with the characters suddenly exploding into ecstatic and lethal motion. There’s a fair amount of old-school fight choreography in there; it’s the natural conclusion of the old trope of the world where everyone inexplicably turns out to be a martial-arts expert. But there are also plenty of CGI-assisted images, characters freezing in knockout-shot poses while motion lines blur all around them. It’s a whole new way to stage a superhero-movie fight scene, a nonsensical weightless blur.
Maybe in some alternate reality, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World turned out to be a huge movie, and more directors tried their hand at its heightened-reality style. In this one, that did not happen. Scott Pilgrim was a tremendous flop, earning only about half of its weirdly huge budget. In retrospect, it’s deeply strange that anyone thought a movie this deeply strange but elaborately expensive could be a viable enterprise, but I guess movie history is full of risks like that, and some of them pay off.
Once upon a time, it looked like we were going to see what happened when Wright took his slaphappy style and applied it to a more traditional superhero movie. For years, Wright was slated to direct Ant-Man, bringing one of Marvel’s goofiest superheroes into its cinematic universe. But Marvel hadn’t yet figured out how to fold strong directorial voices into the company’s house style, and so Wright and Marvel eventually parted ways, though Wright did have a writing credit on the movie when it finally came out in 2015. Instead, Wright’s dizzy vision became one more path not taken for the superhero movie, a genre that was still figuring out what it would become at the beginning of this decade.
Other notable 2010 superhero movies: The big superhero-movie release of 2010 was Iron Man 2, which brought back original writer-director Jon Favreau and which pretty spectacularly failed to recapture the snappy charm of the original. There’s plenty to like about Iron Man 2, with Robert Downey Jr. honing his high-speed-patter schtick and with a few of his co-stars keeping up. (I really love the maybe four seconds of screen time where Sam Rockwell is dancing to the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces.”) And it expanded the young Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing Black Widow and giving Nick Fury a couple of things to do and hinting at the coming arrival of Thor. But it’s bogged down with an incoherent plot, an undeveloped alcoholism storyline, and a deeply hammy Russian-accented Mickey Rourke villain performance. In hindsight, it’s amazing that Marvel followed up the first Iron Man with so many stumbles and still became the juggernaut it is now.
For whatever reason, 2010 was also heavy on hyper-violent dark comedies with this premise: “Dude, what if someone tried to become a superhero in real life? Wouldn’t that be fucked up?” The bigger and flashier of these two was Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, in which a pre-Quicksilver Aaron Johnson plays a high school dork who loses his pain receptors and gets in over his head with bloodthirsty gangsters and real-life vigilantes. The premise is thin, and the cartoonishly over-the-top violence is the main joke, but a concurrent-with-Ghost Rider Nicolas Cage is in there, devoting more emotional energy to the material than it probably deserves.
James Gunn’s low-budget indie Super pretty much has the exact same premise as Kick-Ass, except with a hero who’s an emotionally stunted adult taking out his unhealthy aggressions on whoever violates his idea of upright behavior. The fact that the hero, played by The Office’s Rainn Wilson, is supposed to be deeply unappealing doesn’t exactly make it fun to watch. (The rest of the cast, however, is pretty great, including a post-Kitty Pryde Ellen Page, a pre-Sebastian Shaw Kevin Bacon, and a post-Betty Ross Liv Tyler.) Again, the movie’s big claim to fame is its reliance on unexpected gut-churning violence. My favorite thing about Kick-Ass and Super is that both movies’ directors went on to direct actual superhero movies and that both of those movies turned out to be better than their attempts to subvert the genre.
Tom McGrath’s Megamind managed to get a pretty fun B-level kids’ animated movie out of the idea of a supervillain who unexpectedly defeats his superhero nemesis and then doesn’t know what to do next. Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt have fun as the villain and the hero, respectively, and the animation, while existing in that weird sub-Pixar nether-universe, holds up well enough. It’s one of the maybe five DreamWorks Animation movies that are any good.
And then there’s Jonah Hex. The idea was cool enough: A pre-Thanos/Cable Josh Brolin plays a hideously scarred Civil War vet out to kill an ex-Confederate general to avenge his murdered family. The impressive talent assembled—John Malkovich, a pre-Magneto Michael Fassbender, a pre-General Zod Michael Shannon, a score from metal greats Mastodon—should, at the very least, be enough to overcome Megan Fox’s attempt at a Southern accent. But the person bringing the long-running DC character to the screen was the veteran animator Jimmy Hayward. Working in live-action for the first time, he couldn’t even stretch his deeply incoherent story out to 90 minutes. The result is one of the most bafflingly amateurish big-budget movies you will ever see, and it’s a wonder that Brolin ever came back to comic book movies after that.
Next time: Marvel goes back in time and recruits The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston to make Captain America: The First Avenger into a deeply effective old-school adventure yarn, turning a potentially corny character into a timeless pillar of virtue.