Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Clever Headline

In which the author embarks on a three-tiered discussion of the recent conclusion of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, and feature film adaptation.


Image: Martin Ansin

When you live in Windsor, Ontario, Scott Pilgrim is a somewhat fun if confusinglittle book by the guy who uglied up Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero [okay fine, it’s not that bad, but after Christine Norrie and Chynna Clugston’s work on the previous series, O’Malley can be pretty jarring].
But when you move to Toronto, Scott Pilgrim becomes somethingelse entirely, especially when you find out you work with the guy who married Wallace Wells. They love Scott Pilgrim up here. It’s almost totemic, a piece of art that celebrates and justifies everything from indie comics to video games to manga fandom to living in Toronto. Me being me, I did not react well to this enthusiasm.

Minor spoilers after the jump.

I’d read the first two volumes of the book back in Windsor and found them a decent read, even if I was still turned off by O’Malley’s art style [three facial expressions per person, I’m telling you]. But I could still appreciate it was an indie, creator owned property that didn’t degrade into histrionic navel gazing [*cough*Blankets*cough*].

But one thing I could never get over is figuring out just who this book is supposed to be aimed at: were there really that many indie hipsters who read shonen manga and played 8-bit video games to merit the praise shoveled on the books? How many people immediately knew that Sex Bob-Omb was an inside joke? Still, I thought they were fun, if somewhat indulgent and pleased with itself [like, ten pages devoted to a vegan shepherd’s pie recipe? Really?!].

Which would make me the only one, apparently. I moved to the city just before volume 5 released, and was witness to numerous gushings both online and at work upon the book’s release. And most of the praise heaped from coworkers started with ‘It’s set in Toronto!’ or what I took to calling the ‘I Can See My House From Here!’ syndrome. People up here seemed extra tickled that local landmarks featured prominently in the books, but that only made their success more confusing to me. Case in point: the Honest Ed’s scene.

Pretty damned accurate, actually.

In Book 3 of the graphic novels, Scott is challenged to race Evil Ex #3 Todd Ingram through Honest Ed’s, a discount department store in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Upon entering, Todd is overwhelmed, as most first time visitors are, by the store’s labyrinthine layout, endless inventory and chaotic organization, experiencing what O’Malley calls ‘The Stark Existential Horror of Honest Ed’s‘. Ingram eventually succumbs to the madness and causes the building to implode on itself.

For people who live here, this is actually pretty hysterical, and is probably my favourite in the entire series [the ‘Akira’ shout outs are a nice touch, too]. But for people who don’t, what’s in it for them? Where do they find the humour in a moment like that? Does it matter? Probably not. Yet despite all the attempts to elevate the book into some representation of a generation [another nitpick: the demographic of said ‘generation’ seems to skew towards the early 20s, yet those were not the kids playing 8-bit NES back in the day. Old farts like me were. Yay zeitgeist! I’m still relevant!], I always felt like the book never deserved the level of praise it received. Throw it a couple Eisners, sure, but it’s not reinventing comics.

So why did I love the movie so much?

Like, I adored the movie. Easily the best thing I saw this summer [yes, I saw Inception, too]. So how did a book I wasn’t crazy about turn into a movie I was?
Two reasons: Edgar Wright and a $60 million budget. With special mention to the casting director.

There has been some gnashing of teeth that the movie cuts out heaps of characterization, leaving the women in particular holding the short end of the stick, but I don’t think it’s unfair to reply with ‘what did you expect?’ No studio was going to make a trilogy out of this property, and numerous things not essential to the plot were bound to get cut making 1,000 pages of comic into 112 minutes of movie, and they did have six fights to get through. Much as I might have liked the pacing to slow down in the film’s final act, Wright&Co. had a set number of things to accomplish.

Some could see that as fault of film as a medium: it’s too small to capture all the characterization and plot of the books. That’s true. But the movie also gave me an immersive sense of the universe the characters inhabit in a way the comics never did. For all the amateur intro lit-crit essays written on the books and their sklilled bouillabaisse of indie comic, manga and videogame ingredients, for all the praise heaped on the unique world O’Malley created in the books, I never bought into it like I did when Kim Pine arched her eyebrow and an 8-bit bass note played.

All these people rule. Even Cera.

SPvTW is the best example I’ve ever seen of a film adapting the vocabulary of comics and games for its own purposes, from the onomatopoeias that accent the shots, to the panel splits and captions that litter the screen most of the time, to the pixelated, chiptune Universal theme that starts the movie.

Case in point: halfway through the movie Scott goes into the Second Cup looking for his sister, only to be greeted by the dreaded Julie Powers, who hates him. He barely gets a word out before Julie begins cussing him out, though every profanity is visually obscured by a black bar over Julie’s mouth and aurally by a wonk of electro distortion. It’s the filmic equivalent of the wingdings used to block out profanity in all-ages comic books. But in a genius move, Scott furrows his brow and asks, ‘How are you doing that with your mouth?’ The effect is not the hand of some omniscient censor, this is the reality the characters exist in. All the chaos, the people exploding into coins, the way Ramona melts snow by rollerblading through it, Cera’s titanium strength forearms capable of deflecting any attack…this is all accepted as normal, and it’s not something I felt got across in the books, not without sound, motion and yes, colour [Not a hater, I just don’t think a book so steeped in the mythology of video games should be in black and white].

But the film’s strongest element is the cast. Having just reread the whole series before seeing the film, I knew the film team lifted large portions of the dialogue from the GN’s, and everyone in the cast sounded better than the voices in my head [extra credit to Brandon Routh, Chris Evans and Kieran Culkin]. Every character in the book is appealing in their way, even if they’re not likeable, a testament to O’Malley’s skill as a writer as much as the cast. Even Cera. This is not a case of Cera playing George Michael, Class of 2010 again; yes he gives Scott the trademark awkwardness when the role calls for it, but when it’s time to knock heads and go heroic, he’ll make you believe it.

As for the effects, that $60 million was put to good use. Maybe I just like the shiny things too much, but as a man of a certain age and disposition, there’s something so elementally satisfying when two combatants face each other and ‘VS” appears between them with a boom of percussion. When Scott finally faced Gideon I felt the same rush go through me when Cloud raised his buster sword to Sephiroth in FF7.
I mean, the movie’s not without its flaws, but it’s one of the summer’s better entries, the sort of thing that can make anyone burned out on superheroes believe there’s still life in the comic adaptation.

So why did it come in fifth?


Not so fast, guy.

There has been much handwringing this week trying to discern just what kept SPvTW from cracking the top 3 movies of the week, where a lot of people thought it would place [present company included]. Competition last weekend might have been the strongest it’s been all summer, and no one could reasonably expect the film to beat Eat, Pray, Love or The Expendables. But a fifth place finish seemed to surprise some people, and spawned a number of angtsy comment threads on everything from Comicon’s status as cultural barometer to the marketing plan for the flick [mass appeal rom-com with kung-fu fighting].
I’m not really concerned with SP’s “underperformance,” because really, can a movie based on a mostly unknown property that places in the top five with an average of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes be considered “underperforming”? I’m more interested in what the finish says about (i) Toronto and (ii) the Internet.

For me, the film’s opening weekend box office seemed so low because the thing was everywhere up here. Inescapable. Because Toronto needed to trumpet the film anywhere they could find, because the thing you learn once you live here, is that Toronto has low self-esteem. In the high school of Canada, Toronto is the captain of the cheerleading team who vomits in the bathroom sink and cries that she’ll never be as pretty as New York. This movie was so important because it was a major Hollywood movie, set in Toronto that admits it’s set there. Toronto needed this movie so it could stand up, wipe the snot from its nose and point at the screen saying, ‘See, world! We told you we were cool!’ Is a $10.5 million opening the sound of the world awkwardly fidgeting and slinking out of the auditorium?
The other place this movie was ubiquitous? The Internet, or the corner I seem to dwell in. EW, The Awl, and Slate all ran numerous articles. The G4 Network dedicated segment after segment. IGN had the downloadable game covered. I could not escape this thing. But then, I don’t know if I was trying to.
Look, I’m not going to spend too long here rallying against our increased ability with which technology allows us to filter our lives into only what interests us [but it’s making us stupider], but there’s evidence of this in what happened to the Scott Pilgrim movie: the people who were most shocked are the ones most immersed in this subsection of popular culture. Same thing happened with Snakes on a Plane years ago [though please make no mistake: SP is a far superior piece of film]: this relatively small demographic got locked into a cyclonic vacuum of discussion and hype about a piece of art, faced with a cold reminder come Sunday night of the world outside, peopled by women who want pat spiritual epiphanies and dudes who want to see saggy action stars and former MMA champs blow shit up real good.
And there will always be more of them than there are of us. That doesn’t change the fact that the movie was a solid piece of entertainment, and we’re blowing through our stock of the books at work every few days or so. That’s a tick in the ‘win’ column as far as I’m concerned.


  1. Aw, Jordan. Sometimes I love you so hard.
    This is a spectacularly well written lil somethin somethin. Kudos to you, sir.

  2. “…because the thing you learn once you live here, is that Toronto has low self-esteem. In the high school of Canada, Toronto is the captain of the cheerleading team who vomits in the bathroom sink and cries that she’ll never be as pretty as New York.”
    so much better than my toronto-is-the-sales-bin-of-urban-culture analogy. haha!
    loved this.

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