Scott Pilgrim vs. Thematic Clarity


“You just headbutted my boyfriend so hard he burst.

“Yeah, well… you broke my heart. So I guess that makes us even.”

Somewhere embedded in this summer’s film adaptation of the game-inspired comic Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley is a critique of moral oversimplification, although you have to sift around a bit in order to find it. I will be honest. As someone who has explored the story in three distinct formats by now (comic, movie, and Ubisoft Montreal’s downloadable sidescroller), I do feel that O’Malley’s comic tackles the moral issues of its narrative with slightly more finesse than the others, although all three of them remain rather problematic.

In one major respect, in the case of the film it’s a matter of the narrative not finishing what it starts. When the story’s classic arcade-styled premise (a boy must defeat his girlfriend’s seven evil exes to win the right to date her) first derails and the film begins to concern itself with a serious treatment of relationships, it seems like the perfect opportunity for the narrative to unpack its assembled notions of masculinity, male-female relationships, and ethical immunity. Now that we know Scott is far from the unimpugnable boy-hero that he’s been made out to be, and we’re able to tackle his revised self image straight on, the story really has the opportunity to turn its might-equals-right narrative on its ear and negotiate a more interesting conclusion. It just doesn’t.

I wrote previously on how another game-inspired film, 2009’s Gamer, explored ideas of empathy and the hazards of emotional distance. Pilgrim, if anything, represents its opposite with an overall cheapening of empathy, as evidenced by the quote at the head of this article. Inasmuch as Pilgrim explores the “save the princess” archetype and questions romance as an abstracted end point arrived at through violence, the story then summarily rejects deeper characterization by asking us to forget all that and cheer for the death of the final boss anyway — simply because he’s a bigger jerk than Scott is. Ramona, the girl of Scott’s dreams, rarely rises above the level of the chorus or a visual aid, so it’s actually rather a relief in the film when Scott decides this isn’t about winning her. He acknowledges her incongruity within the flatness of his own story, but instead of reconfiguring and instilling depth in its framework to make it all work, he simply sections her off for later. Romance apparently can’t work within the very constraints that Pilgrim has set up for itself, but rather than performing the much-needed overhaul, the narrative simply accepts itself uncritically.

The official trailer for Scott Pilgrim references only one game by title, which is Donkey Kong. As G. Christopher Williams recently wrote on this blog about the early “narrative” imposed on this and similar arcade titles (“Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game Endings”, PopMatters, 28 July 2010), Donkey Kong is a title inevitably moving towards failure. Though Donkey Kong‘s framework of conflict is less direct than Pilgrim‘s seven bosses, the dangling of a passive romantic object that is ultimately unobtainable is pretty explicitly flat across both. It also brings to mind a recurring leitmotif in game criticism: can we really portray relationships successfully in a game space, or are they always doomed to immaturity?

At the end of the film version of Scott Pilgrim, I got the distinct impression that the game logic that its characters explored wasn’t fully consistent with reality, requiring that something about it change, either the framework itself or Scott’s maturity in approaching it. Game logic ala carte — do this, say this, acquire this and you can advance — just isn’t sufficient.

Obviously, games are no more or less a component to the breakdown of Western civilization as are movies, comic books, or dime novels. But the narrative components that inform mass media, like Scott Pilgrim‘s trope of physical strength correlating to sexual worthiness, affects far larger storytelling constructs than just the interactive. As a franchise that is itself multimedia in nature, Scott Pilgrim could potentially have benefited (at least from this writer’s perspective) from dismantling some of these ideas and the anxieties entangled with them. Instead, story and protagonist simply embrace how maligned everything is, excusing themselves as at least not as bad as that other thing, and leaving it at that.

To be sure, there’s something terribly en vogue about this attitude, embodied in the breathy, monotone delivery of Michael Cera’s emotionally-inchoate performance — the blase, hipster, self-aware apathy suffused with the story. I’m ambivalent about how appropriately we might say it is though, which I sense is part of what the polarizing nature of the work bears out of. There’s no one right way to talk about Scott Pilgrim as a cultural piece. Still, as Simon Carless cautions in his recent GameSetWatch article, it isn’t so much the opposite sex but people and life, itself that risk objectification thanks to games. When we superimpose game logic onto real spaces and situations, when in fact we’ve trained ourselves in modes of perception that subvert normal conventions of interaction, it seems (to use Carless’s word) potentially “dangerous”, not on the level of game-motivated violence (for as much as that receives plenty of press), but on a more fundamental level of interaction, by perceiving spaces and people as obstacles or goals, rather than as elements of a social fabric (“Love, It’s Working – Meaning and Action in Games”, Game SetWatch, 29 August 2010).

There’s nothing really wrong with Scott Pilgrim as light, gamey entertainment. In some ways, Ubisoft’s sidescroller adaptation is the most native of its three formats and definitely the most fun just to sit back and enjoy. The concerning part for me is that Pilgrim‘s narrative brings up these different moral scales between games and real-life relationships and then neglects (by error or design) to thoroughly address them. We accept the unreality of archetypes in nostalgic titles like this in part because they remain self-contained and stylized. Bringing in an element of critique, as Pilgrim does, feels as though it should be taking on an added measure of self-analysis. It just doesn’t or perhaps deliberately avoids it.

(I know that I’ve left out a great deal of nuance here with regards to the plot, so I really encourage anyone with an interest in the film to check out the comic as well, which explores several elements ignored or reworked in the adaptations. While each iteration of the story takes characters in different directions, some of them quite unique and empowering — Knives Chau, for instance. Overall, I did feel Scott’s character was let off very lightly for his actions. At the same time, I found the comic’s treatment of Scott’s flaws the most detailed and interesting. So, again, I would encourage you to give it a read.)