Can a movie be both ahead of its time and extremely dated? Can a movie unite an ensemble of future blockbuster stars and critical darlings yet fail miserably at the box office? Can a movie be mind-melting and mesmerizing but arguably wretched at its core?
There is one movie that happens to be all those very complicated things, as well as a profoundly fun watch in its own right. 11 years ago, maverick auteur Edgar Wright delivered an eye-popping rom-com, unlike anything comic-book fans had seen before: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Here’s why you need to see this cult classic on Netflix before it leaves on September 15.
Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World tells the story of a twentysomething bassist in Toronto, played by Michael Cera. Scott Pilgrim’s life is currently more dramatic than usual, as he struggles to dump his 17-year-old girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), make it work with his other girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and fend off an army of Ramona’s vengeful exes.
With kinetic pacing, relentlessly ingenious staging, sharp visual humor, and a genuine fondness for millennial pop culture (in particular arcade video games), Scott Pilgrim is essentially Tekken by way of John Hughes. It’s a movie fully deserving of its cult-classic status — and one that equally deserves to be grilled for its complicated legacy. It remains fast and fun after all this time, though really looking at its central character threatens to kill the party.
At a glance, Scott Pilgrim resembles a twee indie aughts comedy that had its soul sucked into the body of a colorful genre blockbuster. Its plot is low-stakes, concerning a wiry, indecisive prick placing himself between two women out of selfishness. A subplot about the rags-to-riches success of Scott’s middling rock band speaks to the more realistic interests and concerns of characters who are not Scott. And no matter how absurd things get — from Jackie Chan-style boss battles and vampire backup dancers to most memorably the Vegan Police — Scott Pilgrim doesn’t entirely lose sight of its very human characters in a very real Toronto.
In the hands of another filmmaker, Scott Pilgrim might’ve looked more like other late-2000s teen films. It would be predominantly “cute,” akin to something like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. But Wright cranks up the caffeinated sensibilities he’d only teased prior, with his zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and cop satire Hot Fuzz, to unleash unbridled, hyperactive chaos.
The abundance of comic-inspired titles and onscreen graphics, some cleverly diegetic, speak to the instincts of Scott Pilgrim’s contemporary audience of second and third-wave millennials—the younger set more attuned to the Internet than any generation before them. One could argue that the prevalent sardonic humor of TikTok, an exclusively youthful canvas defined by abrupt editing and non-stop remixes, owes much to Wright and the rhythmic mayhem of Scott Pilgrim.
Wright is far from the first artist to blend differing flavors to great effect. But due to his singular execution, Scott Pilgrim has no equal. This is why it’s unfortunate that Scott Pilgrim is such a terrible guy at the center of it all. It’s a relief that the movie righteously roasts its protagonist for his actions; even drunk roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) speaks sober truth, saying, “You should break up with your fake high school girlfriend.”
That the narrative thrust and denouement of Scott Pilgrim lies in this same man’s sense of self-respect feels awkward, as though it were an implicit validation of his character. Scott is too wimpy to be a men’s rights activist, but his behavior is no less toxic than that of such individuals. He truly does not deserve Ramona nor Knives, and how he treats them both is reason enough to ask how much gas there is in this story’s tank.
Spark a conversation about Scott Pilgrim in a room of people, and you may hear horror stories about a man too eager to see themselves as Scott or someone eager to latch onto women and call them Ramona. If any of these stories end in happy romance, color me shocked.
But how people act isn’t the fault of the movie inspiring their behavior, ever. On its own merits, Scott Pilgrim is and was a special work by a special artist who has followed the righteous journey of a cult hit.
It bombed at the box office, succumbing to The Expendables. But while Expendables spawned sequels, it was Scott Pilgrim that lingered in our pop-cultural imagination and endured the usual routes of a cult hit: Word of mouth, home video, and now, streaming. (A killer tie-in video game only added to the mythic status of the movie.)
That its crowded cast of millennial luminaries includes Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson (who performs a dead sexy rendition of Metric’s “Black Sheep”), Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Allison Pill, and more is just another impossible feat pulled off by this strange movie.
Though Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has whiffs of repellent themes, it remains the work of a master craftsman. It’s a demonstration that comic book adaptations do not have to be soulless and uncreative but can, in fact, be fresh and colorful.
Scott Pilgrim is that rare movie where pop culture-addled brains do not produce a work of lesser or derivative imagination. Instead, it remixes its influences into something uniquely arresting. And even if its main character threatens to doom the movie, Scott Pilgrim’s creative spirit engenders immense replay value.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is streaming now on Netflix until September 15.