I hate the Scott Pilgrim movie. You’d think I wouldn’t because it’s all about video games and meet-cutes and boy heroes and martial arts. But it’s just so misogynist and every character’s an asshole. Even the good guys.
Stage 1: Bad Casting
I hate Michael Cera (as an actor, I’m sure he’s a fine person). Some actors just rub me the wrong way and seem wrong for any role they’re in. I feel the same about Matthew Broderick, Kristen Stewart, Tom Cruise, Shia LaBeouf, and Ashton Kutcher. They’ve never done anything wrong in my eyes. They’re just… bad to watch.
And Michael Cera’s top of the list for me. I hated him in Juno. I hated him in Superbad. And I hated him in this. His persona as a mealy-mouthed, soft-skinned, unthreatening teen who has trouble talking to girls holds no water for me. He’s an antithesis of masculinity, which is one of the reasons why he was cast in this movie–to contrast against the toxic masculine stereotypes he has to fight against.
But taking away toxic masculinity doesn’t make you a good guy. Instead, he’s a eunuch. I don’t believe he could fight a snail much less seven evil exes. He doesn’t have the stage presence to make you believe he’s falling in love or mourning a lost relationship or rising above himself to triumph at the end. Michael Cera is a Milhouse, not a Bart Simpson. He looks like a medieval pageboy with consumption or pneumonia. Something where he won’t see his seventeenth birthday.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead just sits there and doesn’t do anything. She’s not the other player in this game, she’s the ball. She sits around and looks pretty with her big-ass eyes and acts as a prize to be won. She and Cera have no chemistry–I’m not even convinced Cera knows he’s supposed to care about her. I think he’s doing it because that’s what it says in the script.
And the rest of the supporting cast underacts or overacts. There’s no in-between. Kieran Culkin, the gay best friend, looks like he’s dying of AIDS (maybe he wandered in off the Rent set). Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza are all right, but they’re playing to type. And all the exes act like clowns by way of DragonBall Z.
Stage 2: Bad Characters
Scott Pilgrim is a mopey, timid, feeble, self-obsessed loser who drags everybody down. The first thing we see him doing is dating a seventeen-year-old high school girl… as a twenty-two-year-old. Yuck. Plus, he’s an absolute shit to her from beginning to end. Nothing he does redeems the way he’s treated her. He’s a self-conscious, sex-obsessed, go-nowhere dweeb with no friends (the friends he does have just yell at him) because he’s manipulative and cowardly and blames everyone else for his problems. He’s me in high school.
His goal is bullshit. It’s not to get the girl, not to form a relationship with her. It’s to defeat her seven ex-boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend) in combat, so he can date her. What kind of white knight bullshit is this? It’s like the Michigan lockdown protestors and BLM militias–they’re willing to do anything for love as long as it means they get to do violence. Actually talk to the girl? Fuck that. That’s weakness, that’s compromise. True men don’t woo women, they conquer.
I mean, the ending is literally the last ex-boyfriend on a throne with Ramona shackled next to him. I’m half-expecting her to cry out “Mario!” in a high-pitched voice. It’s the kind of thing you see in Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies. I would make a Jabba the Hutt/Slave Leia reference, but even Slave Leia had more agency chained up to a greasy slug.
And Scott Pilgrim’s big character-flip moment is… gaining self-respect. Except that wasn’t his problem. His problem was treating others like shit. It was being a self-absorbed jerkass. If he thought he could win against seven people in mortal combat, he never lacked confidence. He certainly had the ego to date Knives and Ramona at the same time. (“I forgot to tell you I dumped you”… tch, coward.)
We’re solving the wrong problem here. The movie even gives him a chance to fight his internal evil with “Nega Scott”. But then the movie throws that away, and he MAKES FRIENDS with it. They go out for brunch! Does that mean he’s embracing his evil? Does that mean he’s giving in to those negative tendencies? He’s going to keep being a dick? Even Scott says “he’s actually a nice guy”. What does that sound like? (Answer: it sounds like every murderer or rapist apologist out there).
All right, enough about him. Who else is there? Ramona? Blander than Canadian candy. She’s bitter and gloomy, and not in the fun way like Aubrey Plaza. I couldn’t tell you a thing about her personality except that she’s “haunted” by relationships past. She never smiles, she’s never happy, even when she’s rescued.
Then this should be her story, not Scott Pilgrim’s (but asshole that he is, he makes it his own). The movie’s central theme is about moving beyond the jealousy of one’s past relationships. Not judging a person by who they were but who they are.
It’s Ramona’s problem–if she wants to find love, she has to move past the stigma of her past mistakes. It shouldn’t be the job of the boy who wants to date her. Scott is solving her problem, not his own. She has to realize that the past is a part of who she is, but she doesn’t have to let it define her.
Maybe this is why I don’t understand the movie–as much as I judge others, I judge based on the now, not the backstory. I have no moment in my past of “wow, how can I compete with that guy”. I’ve dated women who had nine ex-boyfriends. I didn’t care. She was with me now. Maybe it meant I’d eventually become a notch in her history, but we’ve got to take that risk for love.
Then we get to the Knives Chau. Obnoxious little teenybopper who mimics every J-Pop otaku and obsesses over Scott. She’s like Shampoo from Ranma ½. Is she meant to be that way? I don’t know. But it doesn’t mean I want to see her on screen. It’s like she exists to drain sympathy from Scott, but doesn’t earn any herself. Especially when the movie parallels her to Yoko Ono.
Wallace Wells is a sex maniac and a hypocrite. He’s supposed to be a best friend. The voice of reason. Spock, Samwise Gamgee, Hermione Granger, Donkey. Except he tells Scott not to cheat on Knives when he himself is cheating on his boyfriend. And generally being promiscuous. And he’s constantly insulting Scott.
Stacey Pilgrim and Julie Powers are all right. They have a dark humor and react rationally to everything that’s going on. And they’re always telling Scott off–yelling at him when he keeps doing the stupid wrong thing. I like the women in this cast, but they’re all there to support the male lead. It technically passes the Bechdel Test, but only on insignificant throwaway lines. At no point does the movie care what Ramona or Knives or the drummer or the female exes feel. They’re all fodder for the battlefield.
And notice that I haven’t mentioned the primary antagonists in this movie–the evil exes. That’s because they’re nothing. They’re comic book villains. And not good ones. I’m talking like Stilt Man and Paste Pot Pete. They’re just brutes and comedy relief. The male equivalent of sexy lamps.
The only character I liked was the redheaded drummer (but I may be biased).
Stage 3: Bad World-Building/Effects
I’m not talking about the CGI effects that mimic video game tricks, like points being scored or coins spontaneously erupting. Those are fine. The fighting is good too. They did a good job of melding the martial arts/stuntwork with actors who are clearly NOT physical (e.g. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Michael Cera). The stylization is not the problem.
But everything else looks like it was designed by Hollywood committees. Like the make-up and costumer were white-haired old men with beer bellies and suspenders. They were constantly asking “Eh? Is this how the kids are dressing these days? Is this what they like? The video games and the clothings? Anime? That’s the Japanese cartoons where the women have big boobs, right?”
The costuming looks like someone saw Street Fighter II and Ranma ½, then threw up on the clothes. (Why do I keep bringing up Ranma ½? Maybe because my anime DVD case is right in front of me.) The make-up artists had been to Burning Man too many times (or possibly thought
they were still there). Give the love interest some brightly colored hair–that’s an anime thing, right? Satya Bhabha (Matthew Patel) looks like a raccoon and there’s something wrong with Chris Evans’s eyebrows.
The fighting (and this is as much a problem with the movie’s story as it is the special effects) has all the tension of a WWE match. Scott takes kicks that should implode his chest cavity. But he gets up. And often defeats his enemies with fewer punches than he just took. You don’t know the rules so you don’t know when you should worry about the character. How much damage can Scott take? Does he have a regenerating shield like Halo? He never bleeds so does he have hit points? How many? Yu-Gi-Oh had firmer rules than this.
Final Stage: Bad Story
The story has the same veiled anti-moral of Ready Player One — it rewards the protagonist for a toxic obsession over a thing. Ramona is a maguffin. Scott’s obstacles are “on the way to” the prize rather than what it is. He doesn’t produce anything new, he regurgitates what has already been produced.
If you take out the hipsters and video games references, there really is nothing here. I’ve already talked about the unlikeable characters. Without them, you don’t have a plot. You’ve got a guy who already has a girlfriend who he’s too chickenshit to break up with. He sees someone better, someone he had a “dream-vision” about (which I hate and has no place in a movie like this). Is the universe trying to tell him he should be with Ramona? The universe is a dick.
Everyone at the party can’t stop gushing about what a cool chick she is, she’s got guys groveling at her feet. But all she’s doing is moping against a wall, alone. (Show, don’t tell, movie.) She doesn’t seem remotely interested in him, but she accepts his date because the movie demands it. She even resigns herself to making out with him.
But right before their relationship can move further (and maybe we can get into an interesting love triangle) her ex-boyfriends appear. Then the movie stops so they can fight over and over again. (Except for the Designated Girl Fight between Ramona and her own ex-girlfriend, because our “hero” wouldn’t hit a girl) And the time where it’s actually his band fighting. And there’s two of them (because we’ve got to get this story moving goddammit). BTW, is he murdering these people? Forget it, I don’t want to know. Everyone deserves to die anyway.
And through all this, we’re just accepting the conceit that, in this world, you have to defeat your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends before you can date her. Like, is that a law? Is it just Ramona Flowers who gets this treatment? Why is she so special? There’s no explanation of why this is a thing.
In the end, Knives proves that she and Scott are better together (as it’s the two of them fighting in tandem, like in their favorite video game, that defeats the final boss). Ramona just stands there until she kicks him in the junk. A cheap shot for a cheap shot. It seems like the ending is moving towards Scott choosing someone who was actually dedicated to him and being wrong for his crush on Ramona. But nope.
By the way, there’s no consequences for his cheating. Everyone just kisses and makes up and goes home.
This movie is trendy and retro and quirky and became a cult hit. In the same way the Proud Boys are a cult. Who wouldn’t want to defend a lady’s honor with flaming laser swords? What kind of person dreams of fighting teen actors, skateboarders, slutty pop stars, vegans, lesbians, and Japanese DJs?
It’s full of flash and cute icons and distractions to keep you engaged while a poor act plays out with poor characters. Just because you slap Mario on a thing doesn’t mean every nostalgia gen-Xer is going to love it. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is insipid and misanthropic, glorifying toxic masculinity, and depriving women of their agency.