Great art will stand the test of time regardless of what people think in the present. Movies the likes of Blade Runner, Home Alone, and even The Wizard of Oz weren't welcomed with open arms when they first opened, but they're still acknowledged as classics. It took a big-budget blockbuster to turn underappreciated characters from a comic like Guardians of the Galaxy into A-list movie stars. Every art form has its unsung heroes, the cult classics, the three-week treasures you saw on a whim on a rainy day and couldn't stop recommending to the rest of your high school friends.
In 2005, publishing company Oni Press came to Universal Studios with that kind of vision: author Bryan Lee O'Malley had just finished volume one of a comic called Scott Pilgrim and they were already looking to turn it into a film. In the mid-2000s, the story of a 20-something slacker with a love for geek culture, an infatuation with a mysterious new woman who rolls through town, and a literal militia of ex-partners to fight in order to end one relationship and start a new one wasn't exactly the easiest sell. People never would've imagined that a company as big as Universal would want to hire an indie director to helm a movie with a budget of almost $100 million. They did, Wright accepted, and the greatest video game movie ever made found its way into theaters on August 13, 2010.
Yes, I said "greatest video game movie ever made." On top of being a visually ambitious piece of work that just so happens to feature more nerdy references than you can shake a joystick at, there's a little more going on beneath the video game sound effects and references. Just about every element of the film is geared around Scott (Michael Cera) and how his love of games and geek culture both colors his world and hermetically seals himself inside of it.
We first meet the 22-year-old Scott as a crossroads: He's still raw over being dumped by an ex-girlfriend a year ago and is on the rebound with the chipper 17-year-old Knives Chau, a "simple" relationship that doesn't extend far beyond arcade dates and record shopping. His roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin, McCauly's younger brother) owns most of the furnishings in their apartment. His band Sex Bob-Omb is all ambition and little potential. He's content to jog in place before American delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) catches his eye at a party and he's ready to face down her seven evil exes in order to win her heart. And this is before he impishly breaks up with Knives after Wallace twists his arm.
To put it bluntly, Scott is immature and more than a bit sleazy, and vs. The World is very much his redemption story. That redemption story coming packaged like a Mega Man game with seven increasingly difficult bosses seems obvious, but the way the film seeds its more referential and meta jokes in the background proves its intelligence is more than surface level. Scott's random mastery of kung fu in the fight scenes has already been established among his friends; the fights are amazing to us but routine to everyone except Knives and Ramona, at least at first. No one bats an eye when superpowered vegan Todd Ingram (Brand Routh) is run up on and depowered by the Vegan Police with cheesy green beam effects. Characters acknowledge a running joke where Julie (Aubrey Plaza) can summon a black bar over her mouth to censor herself.
They aren't just jokes for joke's sake: they're a part of a lexicon that the characters, and therefore the backwards glancing hipster culture they all represent, all understand and relate to. Like The Last Starfighter and Tron before it, Scott Pilgrim's greatness comes from more than just being about video games. It recontextualizes the experience of young adult romance (or the mid-2000s indie movie version of that) within the iconography of geek culture and normalizes it in ways that we haven't really seen in movies of this ilk since. You can see it in the scene where Scott defeats Ramona's twin exes in a DJ battle and proceeds to get a life, both figuratively (he gets an extra life that looks like an 8-bit version of his head) and literally (he wants to grow up for Ramona) or when Scott uses said life to defeat the even more entitled manchild Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) while acknowledging how he manipulated Knives and Ramona. And it's tied up in a bow when a showdown with an evil clone of Scott ends with the two talking it out and setting up a coffee date.
Ambitous message and critical acclaim aside, the risk didn't pan out back in 2010. It brought in just over $10 million in its opening weekend and a total of $47 million worldwide, failing to recoup its $60 million budget. Some of its jokes lean a little more racist and insensitive than they did eight years ago, too. I also wish they had waited to finish the books before charting their own path, since the books have a better ending. But the film's core message and manic sense of humor hold up better than any detractors could've imagined almost a decade later. The magical realism of the video game powers is still a novel gimmick and even considering the audience split on the film's ending and the ending O'Malley penned for the books after the film had wrapped, the cast sells the hell out of every scene, especially Cera playing a slightly sleazier version of his classic timid dork character and go-for-broke work from Elizabeth Winstead and Plaza. Even the music, all real artists (Beck, Broken Social Scene) creating music for fake bands with names like The Clash At Demonhead, still sounds great.
Films based outright on video games have a reputation for never reaching better than okay, even the "best" of the bunch like Prince of Persia and the Angelina Jolie-starring Tomb Raider. Films like Scott Pilgrim and Wreck-It Ralph after prove that games can still bring us closer to understanding the human condition. It'd still be nice to get a good Mario movie, though.