Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

A few years ago Edgar Wright created one of the most brilliant movies I’ve ever seen, combining horror, humor, social commentary, and surprising character depth in Shaun of the Dead. It’s one of my very favorite movies, and I sat through most of it with my jaw on the floor, waiting for him to step wrong and being joyfully surprised over and over when every step was not only right, but better than I expected. Shaun’s morning walk to the local store; Shaun fighting off zombies with his record collection; the absolutely wrenching scene with Shaun and his mother. Here was a movie that was not afraid to do it all, to be horrifying one moment and hilarious the next, or–why not?–do both at the same time, while simultaneously saying something profound about the way people rely on each other, for better and for worse. It’s a great movie, and you should go out and rent it…tomorrow. Tonight, you need to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

I was expecting Scott Pilgrim to be wacky and fun, and it was, but I wasn’t expecting much else: it stars Michael Cera, who’s been playing the same character since Arrested Development, and the trailers made it seem far more concerned with flashy weirdness than any kind of coherent story. It’s about a guy who meets a girl and has to defeat her seven evil exes, complete with rampant video game imagery, so I figured it would be an over-the-top adventure movie with some bright colors and cool effects and an excuse to look at Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a couple of hours. What more does a movie need? What I didn’t realize going in is that this movie was also made by Edgar Wright, and he’s still not content to do one, two, or even just three things at once. When an underground rock concert turned into a fight scene, and then the fight scene turned into a Bollywood musical, I was hooked; when the rock and the fights and the craziness started actually affecting people in real, personal ways, I was in love. This is not a just a movie about a guy fighting ridiculous bad guys to win the love of a girl, though there’s plenty of that; this is a movie about a guy who has to change himself, and grow up, and become the kind of person who deserves the girl’s love. It’s a movie about flawed people becoming better, told with manic energy through the lens of rock as a lifestyle and video games as a metaphor. It’s the most audacious, crazy, wonderful movie I’ve seen in ages, and twenty years ago–even ten years ago–the creators would have been burned as witches. Today, for an audience raised on rock and Nintendo and laugh tracks and a devastating social disconnect, it’s a revolution.

In my church I teach a class of young adult men–most of them between the ages of 21 and 30, most of them still in school, many of them blindsided by adulthood and drifting a little more aimlessly than they’d like to be. They’ve grown up being told what to do and when to do it, with parents and teachers and school counselors always at their backs, pointing them in the right direction and pushing them forward. It’s easy to do things in high school because what you’re supposed to do is always obvious: go to school, study this book, take this test, get this job, flip this burger. When you’re 16 you can drive; when you’re 18 you graduate. Then you move out on your own and suddenly you’re out of benchmarks–you don’t know what comes next because the next goal is up to you. Trying to teach some of these guys how to make their own decisions and stand on their own two feet is a lot harder than you’d think. So one day I was teaching the class, talking about why we have trials–the age-old question of why a loving god would make life so dang hard all the time–and I couldn’t find a simple way to explain it until suddenly I remembered World of Warcraft. I looked at the group.

“You guys play play video games, right?”

They nodded and mumbled and sat up straighter; now I was talking their language.

“So if you’re playing a game like Warcraft or Diablo or Final Fantasy or something, how do you get stronger? How do you get better and learn new things?”

“Experience points,” said one.

“Exactly,” I said, “and how do you earn experience points?”

“By fighting monsters.”

And then everything clicked. This group that wasn’t interested, and didn’t get it, suddenly understood exactly what I was talking about, in a way that made perfect sense to all of them: you don’t get experience points by sitting on your butt, you get experience points by going out in the world and doing things and fighting monsters and overcoming obstacles and challenging yourself. You become bigger and better and stronger and smarter by making choices and stretching your limits and putting yourself at risk. Scott Pilgrim is a great movie not just because it understands this, but because it presents it in precisely the terms that speak to its audience. The real challenges in life, and the real victories, are not the flying punches and the whirlwind kicks but the choices that get you there in the first place, and the friends you make along the way, and the things you learn about them and about yourself. Scott Pilgrim doesn’t level up when he beats that final bad guy, he levels up when he chooses to face that bad guy, and thus becomes the kind of man he needs to be in order to “win.” The thrill of the movie is in the kung fu, but the heart of the movie is in the characters who do it, and the reasons they do it, and ways they grow.

Just like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie that isn’t afraid to do it all–to show you superpowered ninjas and bollywood hipster demon chicks and surprisingly frail, human characters, all at the same time.

I loved it.

16 Responses to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”

  1. EJ Wesley says:

    Hey Dan,

    I’m glad to hear that SPSTW doesn’t stink. I’ve been a little disappointed by the movies this summer, and I had high hopes for this one. I loved Kick Ass, but can admit that it’s certainly not for everyone. SPSTW seems like a great general audience comic book-ish type of movie.

    Can’t wait to see it after reading your review. Thanks for sharing your take!

  2. Dude, two things:

    1. Now I want to see a movie I wasn’t interested in because Michael Cera.. yeah.

    2. Will you come and teach in my Elders Quorum?

  3. [...] Pilgrim vs. The World is my new #5 for the year. Dan Wells’ review says everything I would like to say, only better because he’s not on drugs right now. Short version: the film effectively extends [...]

  4. Wombat says:

    Hmm, so you improve yourself and your love life by killing strangers (aka possible competitors) … good to know.

  5. Patrick Roberts says:

    I was already stoked for this movie. Seeing such high praise for it here has made me want to see it even more.

    I think I’ll stop by my local theater and see it this weekend.

  6. admin says:

    Yes, Wombat, that is exactly what I meant. I’m glad somebody got it.

  7. john gray says:

    What’s also unique about is that while it was quite a respectful adaption to the comic, it seperates itself in such a way that it compliments the source by diverting from the print. Where the comic had lol filled subplots, the film brought the music that couldn’t have been experienced in the comics. In a way they complete each other.

  8. Generation Y says:

    @Wombat: So tell me, are you trying to be funny?

    Scott Pilgrim sounds like another Zombieland (which my friends can’t stop talking about 6 months after watching it). I’m definitely going to watch it!

    [edited for language]

  9. Eliza says:

    I just saw this tonight, spur of the moment in order to get into air-conditioning. I hadn’t even seen a preview, but I really like Cera, and I was super impressed! Knowing it is from the same guy as Shaun on the Dead makes a lot of sense, too.

    Definitely the best movie I’ve seen in a while, and so incredibly rich. I only hope Cera’s sometimes bad rap doesn’t scare people away.

  10. Nathan Major says:

    I LOVED the movie. Being a kid who was raised on games, from Atari to Commedore 64 to the NES, SNES, and now my Xbox360, this movie was a total love-letter to my generation and the culture we embody. I went with friends who were also “nerdy gamers,” and I think the experience was all the more better for it.

    My wife also loved it to death, which totally caught me off guard. She likes games (mostly retro ones and co-op modern ones), but I didn’t know if she’d enjoy the general weirdness of it. She did! About halfway through, we both were like “this movie is one of the best movie experiences we’ve ever been to.” I don’t know why, it just worked on so many levels.

    I didn’t like it better than Shaun of the Dead. But I did like it better than Hot Fuzz (both of which are great movies, for the record). I can’t wait to go see it again.

  11. Mercy says:

    “And then everything clicked. This group that wasn’t interested, and didn’t get it, suddenly understood exactly what I was talking about, in a way that made perfect sense to all of them: you don’t get experience points by sitting on your butt, you get experience points by going out in the world and doing things and fighting monsters and overcoming obstacles and challenging yourself.”

    I’m glad you enjoyed the film, but honestly? Adult men need to be taught that? Really? Talk about spoon-feeding! I wouldn’t date any of them.

  12. Thomas says:

    What a great review, I’d love to see this movie now, where before I dismissed it.

    @Mercy
    It’s the unfortunate truth that it is more common than you’d think. Not only does High School lead us by the hand, but the even the universities now take a very parental tone, making it easy for one to overlook finding one’s own motivations for anything. Getting out of University in the last 3 is a struggle. And many parts of our culture really discourage men from a young age from being independent, inwardly motivated, active, productive members of our society.
    Although, I agree, it’s probably best to wait until a man understands this completely before considering dating him!

    @Dan
    I can’t tell you how much that one paragraph said to me. Thank you for trying to help a group of other men like me get something so important.

  13. Arlene says:

    Still haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead. Can’t WAIT to see Scott Pilgrim!

  14. Aet says:

    “Still haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead.”

    Then you know what you have to do this weekend.

    And yes, this movie has a lot in common with Zombieland. In that they are both superb movies and they both feel like a good comic.

    It’s interesting that the two movies treat video games so differently. Zombieland treats them as a symptom of personal detachment; it’s a subtle reference but its easy to get. Gaming is shown as a leisure for people who want to be left alone. Scott Pilgrim treats gaming imagery as a metaphor for conflict, if not life itself.

    Yet another disproof of the “Games Aren’t Art” argument.

  15. [...] recently watched The Social Network, and if you read my glowing love letter to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World you can appreciate the weight of meaning when I say that The Social Network was the best movie of [...]

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