Scott Pilgrim vs. the Cultural Critique

For a movie that hasn’t made much of a splash in box office take, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World certainly seems to have people talking. The movie opened 5th in the box office last weekend. It was beaten out by two new movies, The Expendables and Eat Pray Love, and by two movies who’d fallen about 40-50% in sales (one being Inception, arguable another nerd-bait feature).

Cinema Blend offers “5 Reasons Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Failed to Find an Audience,” but its reasoning is somewhat suspect at times, and even the title seems like a misnomer to me. “Scott Pilgrim” is currently the top Trending Topic on Twitter. My friends have been talking about it for weeks; a bunch of us saw a free advance screening, and a bunch more saw it on opening weekend. The blogs I follow regularly have been generally gushing praise. The issue doesn’t really seem to be that it “failed to find an audience,” but that the audience it found wasn’t really big enough to promise the kind of box office take that you’d expect with a $60 million budget. The whole phenomenon feels strangely reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane: Everyone was expecting the hype to equal success, when in fact it might have been only enough to make sure the movie makes a modest profit in the long run.

Cinemablend may be onto something in pointing out that the pop-culture references and gamer culture in-jokes may have been a little esoteric for the cinemagoing populace at large, but I don’t think too much specialized knowledge was really required to “get” the movie. Yes, you’ll appreciate recognizing some Zelda music during one dream sequence, but knowing the music is from Zelda isn’t really necessary. The really esoteric references have been stripped in the adaptation from comic book to movie. (My favorite scene in the entire comic series shows Ramona getting dressed to go out, generally ignoring her boyfriend, while he drones on about a particular X-Men comic in which Wolverine gets crucified.) By focusing more on rock music in the plot and fairly generic 8-bit game imagery in the visual style, the movie tapped into common media tropes that should’ve been recognizable to most American moviegoers, from those who lament that punk is dead to those who actually shop at Hot Topic.

I’ve heard people suggest other reasons for why Scott Pilgrim didn’t do better, like how so many who were dying to see it saw advance screenings at Comic Con and local theaters (such as myself). It’s a fair point, but there’s no way that accounts for the $24 million gap between #5 and #1 on the weekend box office take (or even the $13 million difference between #5 and #2, Eat Pray Love, which I’ve never even seen an ad for).

Besides the possible issues of how accessible this content really is, then, I see a couple other things going on here.

One factor in Scott Pilgrim‘s reception is a backlash against the image of the “hip nerd.” A recent NPR piece on “‘Scott Pilgrim’ versus the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience” gives a hint at how sick some critics (and perhaps, by extension, some moviegoers) are getting of the nerd image:

After referring to the first part of the movie as a “dork-pandering assault,” The Boston Phoenix reviewer goes on to say that Michael Cera’s performance is “irritating” in part because of “the non-stop Pavlovian laugh track provided by the audience at the screening I attended.” (As far as I know, that’s a first: “You made the audience laugh, you irritating actor in a comedy, and that’s what’s wrong with you.”)

The review in the St. Petersburg Times begins, “First of all, I’m not a video gamer. I have discovered more appealing ways to not have a life.”

The New York Observer sniffs that the film is “clearly directed at an audience with generational ADD.”

Here’s one from Philadelphia Weekly: “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is Fan Service: The Movie, an insular, punishingly alienating experience preaching only to the faithful, devoted hearts of arrested 12-year-old boys. It’s singularly fixated on video games and shallow visions of women as one-dimensional objects to be either obtained or discarded and offers no possible point of entry to anybody over the age of 30.”

I can see how some viewers would get sick of seeing nerdy heroes lately, as that seems to be the bulk of what we’re getting in some genres, and Scott Pilgrim is the most celebratory of the bunch. This trend is reviewed somewhat in “‘Scott Pilgrim’: The End of the Nerd as We Know Him,” in which a Salon writer suggests that the titular character is a “Nerd in Name Only” (or “NINO”). The author was pretty far off in his prediction that Scott Pilgrim would beat The Expendables, but otherwise does a decent job of summarizing how the geek image has been mainstreamed and monetized.

That said, calling Scott a “NINO” (“Nerd in Name Only”) kind of misses the point of what we mean when we call ourselves nerds, but in the author’s defense, his appears to be an outsider perspective. The truth of the matter is that the pop culture image of the nerd is finally catching up to the self-image of the nerd, now that arch-geeks like Edgar Wright are at the helm of blockbuster movies. We the dorks are starting to realize, as a culture, that we are kind of neat. The self-image of the nerdy adult may include gentle, humorous, and honest self-deprecation, but it doesn’t preclude dating. It sees creative talents, like being in a kick-ass band, as part of being a nerd, not mutually exclusive with it. Its sees understanding of truly esoteric pop culture references as markers of authenticity, a shout-out to fellow nerds who know that what we are now is influenced by what we were as kids.

Calling Scott Pilgrim “dork-pandering” is unkind, but not entirely inaccurate. At least Judd Apatow’s movies have the sense to show their lovable losers getting knocked around, insulted, and embarrassed. None have the gall to introduce the protagonist with a label reading, “Rating: Awesome.” To a viewer or critic who isn’t ready to stop dismissing dorks as losers, I can see how a movie that shows geeks how we see ourselves would seem ridiculous.

I don’t think, though, that Scott Pilgrim‘s disappointing performance can be blamed only on “nerd disdain.” This leads me to the second factor I’d like to suggest. Remember how many times you watched The Phantom Menace before you realized it wasn’t as awesome as you thought? Well, Scott Pilgrim is no Episode I, but it did have some pretty major flaws.

I know I am inviting some serious flaming on this one. Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed the movie. It was fun, and it was funny. I laughed several times, mostly at lines I remembered from the comic book. But let’s be frank: The basic plot—boy meets girl, boy fights enemies to be with girl—was generic. And, perhaps most problematic, the pacing was extremely rushed. Hollywood movies have a very codified sense of pacing that audiences have come to expect. (Watch The Mutant Chronicles sometime for an example of a movie that ignores this at its own peril.) When the reviewer cited in that blockquote above notes that it was made for those with “generational ADD,” I think that’s a critique of the transitions as much as the audience. The movie jumps from scene to scene with reckless abandon, featuring a non-stop energy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If the filmmakers hadn’t been so concerned with being true to the comic, there’s no way there would have been a full seven evil exes. There just wasn’t time for them all.

I wonder whether the movie dropped the ball attracting those nerds who weren’t already reading the comic and plugged into the hype surrounding this. If you weren’t already looking forward to it, but still belonged to the hip/nerdy potential target market, I think the best that could be said of the movie was summed up in that Salon piece mentioned above: “The film is empty-headed and utterly devoid of drama, yet aesthetically elating.” That was my own main disappointment with the movie, though not really a surprising one to me: It was fun, but emotionally and thematically vapid compared to the comic book.

This may be a bad thing for the movie, but it’s at least somewhat heartening when you think about the development of traditionally geeky media more generally. The reason I love that scene with Scott babbling on about an X-Men comic to Ramona is because it feels awkwardly, painfully real and familiar. It’s a piece of the drama of their relationship, something that goes beyond the generic “defeat the baddies, get the girl” plot. The Scott Pilgrim movie had to focus on “boss fights” to reach the end, while the Scott Pilgrim comics had a lot more wiggle room to explore the experience of being a directionless twenty-something trying to figure out how friendships and relationships are supposed to work.

I think that point is a major part of what’s missing from so many of the cultural critiques about the ascendency of the nerd to the “pop culture overlord,” in the words of that Salon piece. Yes, “geek chic” has a great deal to do with marketers and content producers finally realizing that geeks represent an audience eager to spend money on media. But it’s also important to note that this also represents a sort of ascendency of traditionally geeky media to something more complex, more sophisticated, more—well, adult.

It’s delightful to hear Zelda music in a dream sequence and to see foes burst into coinage when defeated on the big screen. Blockbusters can’t always sail on mere delight. We all know it’ll make a killing in DVD sales, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not the sign of the Revenge of the Nerds that so many thought was foretold. At the end of the day, though, at least we can reassure ourselves that it was a much better adaptation than LXG.

6 thoughts on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the Cultural Critique

  1. There’s a lot to chew on here. I thought that the abandoning of the side bits was obvious, but if they could have done three evil exes and kept Scott getting a job et al., it might have played better in Peoria.

    There’s something to the visual style as well. It reminded me a lot of Speed Racer (the recent movie) which I thought was genius, but nobody else did.

  2. Haven’t seen Speed Racer, but I vaguely remember people complaining about the style. Perhaps Scott Pilgrim similarly nudged some viewers the wrong way.

    Talking to my girlfriend about this tonight, we got to thinking that it might’ve been nice to see the movie trimmed down to focus on the battles with Todd (and Envy) and Gideon. The stuff that happens AFTER the relationship really gets underway is where the real meat of the story ends up being.

    But again, you can only fit so much in a movie. Too bad it wasn’t exactly trilogy material.

  3. It’s doing rather well on Rotten Tomatoes (81% vs. Expendables’ 41%), so it might just be a critic/public sort of movie (and yet Speed Racer got a 37%. I’m convinced everyone else saw a different movie than I did.)

    OTOH, this review seems to support the hipster-backlash theory
    (I’m not quite clear on what yourlocalguardian is. Something like the Examiner here in the States?)

  4. Interesting. Also, in terms of criticism of the movie’s plot-related issues, I’m going to have to agree with Rob Bricken’s spoiler-laden review. (In sum: The ending is weird, and Scott and Ramona lack chemistry, which I agree was even a problem in the comic.)

  5. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the last book yet), but I’d say part of the problem would be that the book was an epic–or more acturately something of a Arch-aware of its self-mock epic–and cramming it all into under two hours just wouldn’t work.

    Scott and Ramona’s chemistry in the book is, at least at first explained away as being caused by Ramona’s use of Scott’s brain as a short cut–which explains why Scott loves her (or it actually tries to excuse Scott for not having any real reason for being interested in her). Then, on some level, in the books, it feels like essentially they are always playing catch up: Scott is always learning new stuff about his Cool American Ninja Girl, until blips out of existence at the end of book 5. Point is, they don’t have much an actual relationship in the books really–Scott might be invested in fighting off exes, but he really isn’t invested in getting to know her (which might be the larger point of the book, but I can’t imagine that would be something to base a hollywood movie on 🙂 )

    So I don’t know. I do want to see the movie, but mostly for seeing what they did with the book that I enjoyed (I giggled when I saw the trailer/ad that had the garlic bread scene in it. I was very happy that made it in.)

  6. Well, we’ve already delved into spoiler territory with that comment, so I might as well continue to be (somewhat) spoilery.

    I agree that the comic presents Scott’s infatuation as being somewhat immature and hard to explain. The movie compounds this, I thought, leaving me wondering why I’m supposed to root for them as a couple. I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with how the comic resolves that matter, either. You do, at least, have the months of “history” to explain why they’d matter to each other at all in the comic, of course, whereas the events of the movie take place over a week or so.

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