The most interesting question raised by Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is why it left me feeling delighted rather than quivering with feminist rage. I bounced hard off the first volume in the film’s source material, a six-volume comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which follows the titular twentyish slacker as he battles the seven evil exes of his beloved, Ramona Flowers, in order to be with her. I couldn't get over the way Scott treated his teenage girlfriend Knives Chau, lying to her, neglecting her, and letting her fall deeper in love with him even though he’d already fallen for Ramona, all because he could’t face the onerous task of breaking off their relationship. Even the assurances of my friends, who are fanatic lovers of the comics and have been anticipating the film and the final volume in the series with bated breath, that O’Malley does eventually acknowledge the creepiness of Scott’s behavior, wasn’t enough to bring me back. Wright’s film, meanwhile, shies away from such an acknowledgment.
To the horror of my friends when I told them about it, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World deviates significantly from the comics, especially towards the end of the story where most of Scott’s soul-searching happens. Even outside of Scott’s self-absorbed point of view, the film's treatment of its female characters leaves much to be desired. Ramona is a near-blank whose attraction to Scott never really makes sense. Knives’s growing attachment to Scott, and her anger when she realizes he’s fallen in love with Ramona, are portrayed alternately as funny or pathetic, at least until the end of the film when she forgives Scott, helps him to defeat his last opponent, and urges him to make it work with Ramona. The fights between Scott and Ramona’s exes are explicitly described as duels in which Ramona is the prize, as opposed to the fight between Ramona and Knives, which is about Knives’s hurt feelings, without any expectation that the winner will get Scott. The only other person that Ramona fights is her female ex--otherwise, she stands back and lets Scott take a pummeling. Finally, Ramona’s behavior in the film’s last act is inexplicably out of character, and turns out to be the result of mind-control, a condition whose significance the film all but ignores and which is resolved with no fanfare whatsoever. Walking out of the theater with a big smile on my face, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Todd, the evil ex whose superpowers are revoked by the Vegan Police after Scott tricks him into drinking half-and-half (Brandon Routh, in a performance so deliciously hammy that it’s impossible to believe he made such a lackluster villain in this season of Chuck), I should be deprived of my feminist credentials.
So, assuming that I'm not simply a Bad Feminist, what is it about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that made it so easy for me to ignore the shitty way it treats its female characters? The most obvious possibility is that the film is Just That Good, and there have been other cases where I've allowed the quality of a work to obscure its more problematic aspects (The Lord of the Rings, Anathem, various Pixar films). But that's really not the case where Scott Pilgrim is concerned. The film isn't so much good as it is very, very fun. The comic's central gimmick is that the story is constructed like a video game, with Scott battling Ramona's exes and gaining points and experience as he defeats each one, until the final boss battle with her most evil ex Gideon (Jason Schwartzman). The film takes to the video game idiom so naturally that it's hard to believe that the story wasn't created for this medium, effortlessly combining a naturalistic setting with cartoonish violence, and adding to both the visual tropes of a comic book--split screens, titles that introduce characters or announce location changes, spelled-out action noises.
This could have all resulted in an unholy mess, of course, but Wright, who as the director of Hot Fuzz is no stranger to cartoonish, over-the-top comedic action, handles his material beautifully. He establishes the ground rules of his world with a scene in which Scott and Knives play, in perfect synchronization, an arcade game that is a cross between Mortal Kombat and Dance Dance Revolution, then starts delivering the action scenes, which are sweeping and exhilarating, and the jokes, which are frequently uproarious. This cartoonishness is offset and grounded by a strong cast who help us care about all this candy-colored action--Michael Cera is recycling the same performance that he's worn nearly to the nub in a mere half-decade in film, but it suits the character of Scott Pilgrim so well that one might almost imagine that the comics were written with him in mind for the role; Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives Ramona heft, ably conveying the character's understanding that both the people around her and the story she's in think of her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her exasperation at this; Kieran Culkin is a delight as Scott's roommate Wallace, who vacillates between trying to steer Scott towards better, more mature choices and taking a childish pleasure in the trainwrecks that occur when Scott fails to do so, and nearly steals the film in both capacities; everyone else is underused, but the only sour note is Schwartzman, who isn't nearly as charismatic or as evil as the build-up to Gideon's introduction leads us to expect.
Fun, however, is not quite the same thing as good, and as much as I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, it does outlast the exhilaration created by its innovative format and Wright's sharp direction. The problem here, clearly, is the necessity of cramming a six-part story with a cast of dozens into a two-hour, three-act film. It's obvious even to someone who hasn't read the comics that the majority of the cast are being seriously under-served, their plotlines reduced or entirely redacted, but their presence means that the film feels overpopulated, and by the its midpoint I was getting a little tired of the frenetic pace at which Wright was throwing characters and plot twists at me. And if, when it came to secondary characters, Wright had some wriggle room, the story's central premise was untouchable, even though Scott Pilgrim would probably have been a much tighter film with only four evil exes for Scott to battle. Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Mae Whitman are all good as exes 2-4, but between them they slow the film's pace, and it would have been better to keep only one of the three. Meanwhile, exes five and six are so unimportant that they don't even get lines or a close-up, but they still warrant a long, explosive fight scene, which is fantastic in itself but which, coming so late in the film, only stalls the story, delaying Gideon's introduction, Scott's one moment of character growth, and the climactic battle. I was thus ready for Scott Pilgrim to end a good ten or fifteen minutes before it actually did.
Besides these structural problems, however, there is the more crucial flaw that Scott Pilgrim doesn't really know what to do with its main character. Scott defeats Gideon by, as the film puts it, gaining the power of self-esteem (which is represented by a sword), but it's not as if a tendency to be self-abnegating or retiring was ever this kid's problem--if anything he's overconfident, taking it for granted that his selfishness and failures as a boyfriend will be shrugged off and forgiven--and the character's final triumph thus rings a little hollow, more like the standard Hollywood template of what character growth at the end of a summer blockbuster should look like than anything relating to who Scott actually is. In the original comics, I'm told, there is a character called nega-Scott who forces Scott to face up to his self-serving recollections of his past relationships, and to the hurt he's caused the women in his life, which is more like the kind of growth this character needs, but in the film nega-Scott is done away with with an (admittedly quite funny) gag. None of these are fatal flaws, and the film's energy and inventive look are more than enough to carry it through its rough patches, but taken together they do keep Scott Pilgrim from the greatness that might have justified, or at least made it easier to ignore, its misogyny.
So, if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a searing masterpiece for the ages whose quality overwhelms any and all problems with its politics, why was it so easy for me to ignore those problems? Another possible answer is that the film is too silly, too steeped in and conscious of its unreality, to take seriously enough to criticize. This is probably closer to the mark, though not for the obvious reason that Scott Pilgrim is a semi-cartoon about people who fight video game battles in real life. Rather, it's because of the way the film depicts romance and sexual attraction. The male gaze is almost entirely absent from Scott Pilgrim. Its female characters are not sexualized or fetishized--most of them spend the film covered from head to toe and muffled in heavy coats, the better to protect themselves from the snowy Toronto weather that is almost its own character. Scott, meanwhile, is almost asexual. He gets a huge kick out of modest intimacies such as holding hands or cuddling--or rather, he doesn't. His excitement at these acts is emotional, not sexual, and the sexual component of his desire for Ramona and Knives gets almost no play in the film. This approach has the effect of making the film and its characters seem innocent and childlike. Scott isn't a manchild; he's just a child. It's easy, therefore, to disassociate his behavior towards the women in his life from the familiar figure of the entitled nerd/gamer/musician/hipster who believes that having been the target of bullying absolves them from ever examining their behavior towards others--the same figure that, as I understand it, the original Scott Pilgrim was created to examine and, to a certain extent, decry.
To this mitigating factor I'd add another, which is that the film offers other pleasures besides the romance between Scott and Ramona. In fact, I would go further and say that, unlike (500) Days of Summer, a film that it resembles in several respects, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World doesn't really try to hook its viewers by getting them to root for the romance or feel a vicarious infatuation with the object of the main character's affection. Instead, like the best computer games, the pleasure of the film is rooted in the quest itself--defeating the seven evil exes--rather than in Scott's pursuit of Ramona, who is literally his reward. This is, of course, risible, but it also means that there are aspects of the film one can enjoy without buying into a poorly conceived, unconvincing romance. In fact, at the very end of the film Scott and Knives team up again to fight Gideon, mirroring their game session at its start, and do such a good job that even Ramona comments that they make a good team right before walking off because she thinks that there is too much drama in her relationship with Scott. For a minute it seemed entirely possible that the film would end by pairing up Scott and Knives, or leaving Scott on his own but more confident, and so uninvested was I in the relationship between Scott and Ramona that this seemed like an entirely reasonable and satisfying ending (it helps that Ellen Wong's effervescent performance as Knives is so much more accessible than Winstead's, whose work is mostly done below the surface). So on the one hand, Scott Pilgrim is a romance that pays very little attention to the female half of its central couple, but on the other hand, it doesn't force its viewers to buy into that couple, or even pay it a great deal of attention, if they want to enjoy the film.
Let's be clear--the mitigating factors I note here are not intended as a
defense of the film against the accusation that it is misogynistic.
There is no such defense. This is a misogynistic film. It's also a fun
one. When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, that's often the best one can hope for, and Scott Pilgrim might almost be described as a better sort of misogynistic film because if offers distractions from its misogyny rather than foregrounding it as so many others do. But especially given that, according to my friends who are its fans,
Scott Pilgrim the comic is a story that tries to combat much of the
misogyny that underlies Scott Pilgrim the film and other works of its
ilk, it's a shame that this is the best Edgar Wright could come up
with--a film that uses flashing lights and bright colors to distract its
viewers from the unpleasantness at its core. In an aside to a blog entry from a few months ago, Sady Doyle discusses consuming pop culture while feminist, and touches on a lot of the issues I tried to raise in this post last year, doing a much better job at articulating the frustrations I tried to express in it. How firmly, Doyle asks, should we cling to our feminism goggles? Is it right to always filter art through a political stance? Is it right to let that stance take a back seat to artistic appreciation? Scott Pilgrim vs. the World raises these questions from a direction I wasn't expecting--is it OK to enjoy a silly, frivolous piece of art even though you can clearly see that it is toxic? I'm not sure what the answer is, or whether it even matters--it won't change the fact that I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, and I'm not so masochistic as to wish I'd suffered through it for the sake of ideological purity. What I do wish, however, is that I lived in a world in which the choice between the two was not forced upon me quite so often.