Friday, August 13th, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Versus Itself

I don't want to be the guy arguing that a movie adaptation of a comic book doesn't do justice to the original comic. I especially don't want to be the one doing that about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, because there have already been dark accusations about it being too fanboyish, and I am most definitely a fanboy for Scott Pilgrim the comic book. But the little things that bug me about the movie all ultimately feed into one big complaint: the wonderful treatment of female characters in the comic book gets lost in the transition to the big screen. It's what happens when you make a big action-filled summer film. But it's not good that this requires the female characters and their particular relationships to be swept under the rug.

Let me back up, though, and explain why I love the comic so much, because I think you may be missing out on something pretty wonderful if you're dismissing the movie as another twee Michael Cera vehicle. Scott Pilgrim the comic was written by a guy named Bryan Lee O'Malley and published in six manga-sized volumes between 2004 and 2010. Though taking a lot of structural cues from Japanese comics-see Dan Kois' wonderful explanation here, which is absolutely vital and way more knowledgeable about Scott Pilgrim's relationship to comics than I can be-it's strikingly different from other indie/art comics, and even unlike the superhero comics that generally get made into big-screen adaptations (it's comparable more to Archie, since none of the characters are super and they're all stuck permanently in adolescence).

The main character, Scott Pilgrim, is a recent college graduate who lives in a one-bed apartment in Toronto with his gay roommate, plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb, and falls in love with a cute American girl named Ramona Flowers who dyes her hair and is awesome.

The story isn't about super powers or life-or-death situations or the fate of the world. It's about love, and being young, and it won an award for being the best humor comic of 2010, because it is hilarious. The people it's about aren't particularly exceptional, and the things they go through-hooking up, trying to find jobs, dealing with their past-aren't either. It's just that the reality in their universe makes their normal actions metaphorically resonant in wonderful and complex ways.

The central conceit of Scott Pilgrim is this: what if the imaginary realities of the pop culture a generation grew up with were reflected in physical reality? So, for instance, the generation that grew up with manga and video games resolved its emotional disputes through kung-fu fights, and when someone was defeated they turned into a handful of coins? What if your emotional maturation were reflected in visible improvements in your personal stats ("Heart +1," etc.) and being a vegan gave you super powers? What if music was so powerful and so important that really good bands could cause explosions with the force of their rocking?

And, most importantly, what if this was all absolutely normal-so normal that when someone turns into coins or plucks a sword out of their chests or trashes a concert hall with their performance, everyone was kind of bored and disappointed and wandered off to get pizza?

Games are an essentially new art form that only that particular generation-O'Malley's generation-have grown up knowing. So if movies or TV changed the way earlier generations experienced the world, so must video games have changed how this generation experiences the world.

The physical presence of game mechanics in the midst of one dude's post-college emotional malaise makes sense because it's an accurate externalization of his thought process. There are no thought balloons in Scott Pilgrim-either someone speaks, or we get a picture of their thoughts. Thoughts never come in words, only in pictures, and that, to me, seems like a good way of representing how confused predults haphazardly try and gain control of their lives.

What makes Scott Pilgrim not just a good comic but a great piece of art (seriously!) is that it doesn't just find a series of fun stories to tell within this reality, but tells one story (its six books constitute the entirety of the series, and tell one continuous narrative) that explores the consequences of this outlook for the people afflicted by it-their ability to connect with each other, and to accept the non-metaphorical parts of reality that can't be resolved through boss fights.

While in the first book the series looks to be about a straightforward progression of fights for Ramona's love, Ramona is not only given agency (!!!) but emotional issues of her own to deal with, and by the fourth volume, the series characters have all began to sunk into a collective malaise that will feel very, very familiar to anyone who lived through a shiftless mid-twenties. The final volume unexpectedly climaxes with a fight not between Scott and one of Ramona's evil exes, but between Scott and himself-and he only wins by losing, allowing the romantic self-image of himself as a hero to coexist with the reality that we're never always victims or victors; we're victimizers, too.

This progression spans the length of the series. In the third book, Ramona finds out that Scott and the band's drummer, Kim, dated in high school. When she asks Scott for the details, Scott demurs, but when Ramona insists, he bursts out with a story about having to fight a "crazy seven-foot-tall purple-suited dude" (see above). Ramona takes this as sarcasm, but we know from the opening of the second book that he does, in fact, have a memory of fighting said dude (in an homage to the classic NES game River City Ransom) for Kim.

In the final volume, though, an epicly moping Scott goes to visit Kim in the country, where she breaks him out of his funk by reminding him that he didn't fight a giant dude-he just punched a defenseless kid named Simon Lee who had only held hands with the object of his affection.

Scott's coming to terms with this-with the fact that he had built up prime examples of his own dickishness into self-defining stories of heroism-provides one emotional climax. But the other comes when Ramona has a similar revelation in the midst of the final boss fight against her seventh evil ex, Gideon.

Though it's easy to think of Ramona as a classic manic pixie dream girl (the NYT review even compares her character, cringingly, to ur-MPDG Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), she's just as problematic a character as Scott. It's no accident, after all, that all of her exes were willing to band together into a league dedicated to wrecking her future relationships. She burned them all pretty bad.

In the end, it turns out Ramona's just been on her own epic mope alone in the country. She hasn't been running from man to man, she been dealing with her own shit, because healthy relationships aren't about one person saving the other or making them better-they're about two people filling in the gaps where their partner needs a hand, and being open enough to allow that to happen. Ramona only comes back to Scott after she figures this out, and together they can defeat impediments to their mutual happiness.

What's great about Scott Pilgrim is that it turns its gaze resolutely outward. There are lots of other things going on in Scott Pilgrim besides what's happening to Scott, and often, these are more important things. The central quest, Scott's attempt to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes (and, though we don't realize it until the end, Ramona's quest not to let that interference dissuade her from opening up to Scott, and to deal with Scott's own romantic past), is a metaphor not only for the surprising and corrosive effects of your romantic past on your romantic present, but the ways in which pop-borne images of romance and conflict can get in the way of living a full life. The triumph at the end of the series is less that Scott and Ramona have defeated the final boss than that they have both seen these illusions as illusions (rendered in pixel art and textese) and are able to face each other as full, flawed human beings.

The problem with the movie is… well, in the simplest terms, it doesn't pass the Bechdel test. For a movie based on an art comic, this is weird, to say the least. And it's absolutely not true about the comic. One of the best things about it is that Scott often seems like a minor character in the context of his friends, all of whom are living much richer and fuller lives than he is. Female characters form friendships, male characters come out of the closet off-screen, and ex-girlfriends move on. The comic makes a joke about this: Scott's self-centeredness causes him to assume, as fiction readers do, that nothing important happens without him around. But, of course, things do all the time.

They don't, though, in the movie. Again, part of this is certainly structural. Movies just have less space available to them than do comics, and clearly they had to get through all seven exes. But that necessity spins out into other necessities: the main character has to be male, there has to be a clear romantic tension and resolution, there can't be distractions from side characters. And though a lot of the great things about the comic are preserved, that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes.

I come here not to trash summer action movies; after all, I am probably going to go see The Expendables while my girlfriend is at a bridal shower I am confusingly not invited to. (I am thinking of it as my own little gender roles party!) But the process of adaptation has a way of revealing the essence of a medium. What Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World shows is just how small movies are.

Any narrative has to be cut to the bone; any visual element included for aesthetic purposes necessarily obscures a gesture or a shot that could have revealed something about character or context. And these huge differences between movies and comics speak back to Scott Pilgrim's central message about the power of pop culture to shape our understanding of the world. Might someone whose reality has been shaped by the slower progression of a comic have less expectation of sudden, dramatic change than someone whose pop culture diet was primarily movies and goal-oriented video games? Scott and Ramona's maturation mirrors the maturation of games themselves from simple 8-bit shooters to sprawling virtual worlds. The side-scrolling progression of the initial phase of their romance (go through each stage, beat the boss, go on to the next stage) turns out to be insufficient and unrewarding; it falls apart when faced with reality. So something new has to come along, something more like a sandbox game or an RPG where you're free to explore and build up experience gradually before encountering big emotional moments on your own terms.

I'm not going to argue here that video games or comics contain more positive depictions of women than do movies, because that would be crazy. Rather: they could. Movies are old enough and big enough now that their artistic expectations have become indistinguishable from their technical features; somehow, the need to have a male protagonist is as unavoidable as keeping a film under two hours, or lining the sound up with the visuals. Games and comics are still relatively new, and relatively small, and still doing a lot of internal thinking about how they can and could work. As those get figured out, they'll inevitably get wedded to aesthetic features, and harden into conventions that become self-reinforcing as audience expectation determines what will and won't be rewarding. Scott Pilgrim represents one particular argument about how comics could work, and it's an argument I like. But mostly, I like that it's having this argument. That's not really present in Scott Pilgrim the movie, and while I understand how that happens, and while I did enjoy it, I'm not entirely happy about it.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column stated something really kind of hilarious, involving an invented heterosexual marriage of Dykes To Watch Out For author Bechdel. The copy desk regrets being really tired on a Friday afternoon. Our apologies.

Mike Barthel has written about pop music for a bunch of places, mostly Idolator and Flagpole, and is currently doing so for the Portland Mercury and Color magazine. He continues to have a Tumblr and be a grad student in Seattle.

45 Comments / Post A Comment

Laurenn McCubbin (#6,871)

Bryan Lee O'Malley is married to Hope Larson, author and artist of Salamander Dream, Gray Horses, Chiggers & Mercury, not Alison Bechdel the (very gay) author and artist of Fun Home.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Yes, that is getting corrected, thanks.

Anthony Poliseno (#6,872)

I hate to be a pedant or misparse the sentence, but O'Malley isn't married to Beschdel. I'm pretty sure she's a lesbian? At least she was in Fun Home.

namethebats (#6,814)

I haven't read the comic books yet, but Aubrey Plaza and Alison Pill deserve their own spinoff movie.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I love love love this article, both on its own merits and because it's great to see comics get written about so well.


I have not gotten far enough in Scott Pilgrim to find out that Stephen Stills was gay. So THANKS, JERK.

(In truth, I'm pretty tolerant of spoilers. But it was still kind of a shock.)

Wasn't that obvious when he donated his sperm to Melissa Etheridge?

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

you are so sexy.

roboloki (#1,724)

jb, you do know everyone can read your comments, don't you?

C_Webb (#855)

I don't like comics or video games or Michael Cera, but somehow I really liked this, esp. the part about healthy relationships/not being someone else's superhero. Thank you.

deepomega (#1,720)

Great stuff, but the dig at Eternal Sunshine is UNWARRANTED. Also it's kind of exploded in the first memory that gets deleted, and also in the conclusion. So.

Otherwise, I enjoyed SP but felt like a lot of its narrative beats were TOO reliant on manga tropes (the whole thing about Gideon developing emotional weapons e.g.). I slammed through it in the last month or two, though, so it might've been different if I'd had its experience stretched out?

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

No, I like Et. Sun.! I think her character has been misinterpreted in future movies and taken in some regrettable directions, though.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

I thought the ur-MPDG was Natalie Portman in Garden State anyway

MikeBarthel (#1,884)


deepomega (#1,720)

Don't talk to me about Garden State. Garden State is dead to me. A vacuous monstrosity.

(Glad we're on the same page about ESotSM though!)

namethebats (#6,814)

Melanie Griffith in Something Wild? Ray Liotta's more threatening than Ramona's exes combined.

aSaltySalute (#293)

Respectfully, you're all forgetting Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. I don't blame you.

C_Webb (#855)

@deepomega: Your last two sentences are particularly wonderful when sung Gilbert and Sullivan style.

mrschem (#1,757)

Something Wild, Something Wild, Something Wild!!!!!!!

IA, Kate Winslet's character even states outright, "I am not an idea." She makes it clear that she isn't Life Uninhibited to be fallen in love with and she's just someone else trying to figure out life.

The people it's about aren't particularly exceptional, and the things they go through-hooking up, trying to find jobs, dealing with their past-aren't either.

This is also one of the major downsides to the six-volume graphic novel. A lot of the "conflicts" in the book are teenage capriciousness and idiocy making problems out of nothing.

I mean, the major conflict in book 5 is that he was dating two girls for one single day, before breaking up with the first for Ramona. Even when I was 16 I wouldn't have thought that was a big deal.

I understand how the shallowness and silliness of these problems is supposed to be a part of the book, but sitting at the age I am now, the books sometimes read as a parody of what they're simply trying to portray.


I really enjoyed this movie though I have never read the comic. I think right now it's the best movie out there.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I just saw it and you're right, it was excellent.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

What if [...] being a vegan gave you super powers?

What, like superflatulence? Supercondescension?

deepomega (#1,720)

The ability to cause perfect strangers to be a defensive dick about your eating habits, apparently.

I don't think "twee" is the right word for Michael Cera vehicles, try "dorky."

jrb (#3,020)

This made me sad, happy and think hard. Not just about this comic or movie, but about life in general.

mrschem (#1,757)

seconded. :(

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Look, enough talk about women already. Let's talk about me. How would I know if I'm going crazy or just sobering up and wondering what to do with my life?

The headaches start BEFORE you go crazy. The headaches start AFTER you are hungover. Hope this helps.

I just got back from seeing this movie and could not agree more. The movie–for all it's quick cuts, seizure-inducing flashes and wonderful visuals–felt incredibly cramped with underdeveloped characters and largely no heart where there really needed to be. Interestingly directed, it is worth seeing for the use of CGI that isn't distracting and done quite well. What IS distracting is the likeness Cera bears, as he grows older, to Jane Lynch. Dye his hair and I really couldn't tell the difference.

Multiphasic (#411)


@jrb–The very same!

Mocking Bird (#4,882)

He's just so damn sexless, like he'd squeal if he touched a boobie. He's the weak link of the whole movie, which is troublesome as he's in every scene. I read this before seeing it, and it have the movie some depth it didn't actually have, knowing that the Seven Evil Exes were more about conquering Ramona's troubled past than the actual fights. I can't help thinking a better actor as Scott would have helped.

Mount_Prion (#290)

I loved this post. That is all.

Dan Kois (#646)

This is a really smart and interesting read of the series, especially that last volume, which I read quickly and got angry at but clearly need to reread and think about more.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Thanks Dan! Always interested in hearing more thoughts from you.

I liked this review and it at least sold the graphic novels to me.

I do think the conclusion about movies is unwarranted. There are plenty of movies that aren't about men, that pass the Bechdel Test, that are still being made today by people who aren't straight men for people who aren't straight men. Yes, most movies are like this, but so are most comics and I would say almost all, if not all, video games.

It seems strange to compare Scott Pilgrim when it's, although popular, not exactly the most mainstream in the graphic novel world, to summer action flicks, even if the movie adaptation is one. To me, this is like comparing, say, Saving Face, an excellent film about a Chinese American lesbian doctor and her mother, and the current Superman run.

Grant G Brown (#3,366)

GODDAMN IT! Fucking automatic refresh, Awl! I had 3 paragraphs done and now I'm starting over. In point form.

-I loved this review, and your very close reading of the comic!

-mainstream movies and comics evolved in parallel. Their gender roles are equally inflexible. INDIE comics, however, are a more modern invention and they seem to be less restrictive. SP doesn't really belong to either group since it's a massive bestseller, but it also falls outside typical indie fare.

-I never found the female characters in the book to have particular depth or development. Stacey Pilgrim, Kim Pine, Julie –they're quite superficial. But that pretty much applies to all the characters. Even the dear, charming Wallace Wells is pretty one note. I don't think that's a bad thing, however, since the book is titled "Scott Pilgrim".

-most of the reviews I've read seem to gloss over the visuals, which is a shame because they're awesome and original. They absolutely captured the high energy of the books.

I wish the movie had done better. Finished fifth and will likely be overlooked til people catch it on video.

Ingrid Cruz (#3,771)

I feel this whole column can be summarized as follows: the book is better than the (summer action genre) movie.

Jack McNamee (#6,896)

I'm afraid games have already hardened pretty well into the exact same conventions you hate in movies. Look at this, for instance:

Danzig! (#5,318)

Certainly at Activision, but Activision has been recognizable as the soulless monolith of game publishing since, well, since EA started taking risks on games that weren't wargame FPSes about two years ago.

That still doesn't really avoid the problem, sadly. I'd like to think indie gaming is more fertile ground for diversion, but that's probably not the case. A telling example, I think, is The Witcher, a pretty big niche hit that came out of Eastern Europe (which is experiencing a game development renaissance) a few years back. Female characters existed solely as fucktoys for the player character – there were something like 30 different soft-porn trading cards you could collect for each of your conquests. I think that about sums up women and gaming, just as much as the Activision embarassment.

Merrill Hagan (#7,125)

This is a very interesting and well thought out article with a lot of valid points about the movie. Although I liked the film, it was especially heart breaking to see Kim Pine get changed into a character who's main motivation seems to be that she is still heartbroken about Scott.

All that being said, I felt I had to be a little nitpicky on one issue. Comics have existed long before films. It is kind of weird to hear it referred to as a new art form, especially when you look at the astonishing early work of someone like Winsor McCay. Bryan Lee O'Malley made some astonishing breakthroughs in layout and format in his comics, which is maybe one of the reasons the books felt so fresh and new. He switched things up on an art form that is so locked into place with rules.

Dan O'Huiginn (#9,266)

I think Scott Pilgrim does scrape through the Bechdel Test, albeit on little more than technicalities:
a) Knives crushing on Envy (yes, it does turn into "I've kissed lips that have kissed your lips", but isn't there some "you're awesome" before that?)
b) Ramona and her ex-girlfriend arguing over their relationship

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