Edgar Wright’s movies go down easy, but the aftertaste always stings, and it’s often misinterpreted. The British director has made only four features since “Shaun of the Dead” became a sensation in 2004, and each one unfolds with a delirious sense of comic timing, rapid-fire dialogue, and staccato editing that wraps each ludicrous twist in a snazzy bow. But the sparkly experience of a Wright movie is frequently at odds with its dark circumstances, whether it’s the dissolution of arrested development in “Shaun of the Dead,” the corruption of small-town life in “Hot Fuzz,” the alcoholism at the center of the body snatchers plot in “The World’s End,” or the roots of criminal ambition in “Baby Driver.” Yet none of Wright’s movies attempts this tricky balance of ostentatious storytelling and big ideas with the same verve and ambition of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.”
On the verge of the movie’s 10th anniversary, the time is ripe to consider how well “Scott Pilgrim” speaks to Wright’s filmmaking talent, as well as why it doesn’t always get a fair shake. The movie zips by at such an appealing pace that it can seem almost too sugary for its own good, when in fact it often operates as a commentary on that very same impulse: Michael Cera’s wide-eyed expression epitomizes the plight of a wayward young man so incapable of making responsible choices that he reduces his entire worldview to a crass video game, allowing him to come to terms with his own shortcomings through the pop culture vernacular that surrounds his every move.
Wright invites us into the ride, not judging Scott so much as hovering within his chaotic uncertainties. The adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series inhabits the cheeky nostalgia of 8-bit audio and pixelated graphics, while colorful CGI and ironic music cues convey the outrageous circumstances under which its love-sick anti-hero finds himself in a messy love triangle of his own making. At times, this amusing quest feels as if it’s unfolding within the confines of its self-obsessed character’s head: Scott’s a total solipsist, and even as he’s tasked with defeating each of the evil ex-boyfriends of his flame Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he’s also leaving his adoring new girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) in the dust.
Buried in the remarkable pileup of visual trickery, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” tracks the progress of a very flawed young man who keeps digging himself a deeper hole. Scott’s a borderline misogynist who thinks less about the needs of the women in his life than undulating attraction to them, and “Scott Pilgrim” doesn’t exactly force him to resolve that shortcoming. By that same token, such a maneuver might register as false. Through the process of unexpected knight-errantry, Scott learns to take care of certain problems and apologizing for misleading the people around him, but it doesn’t pretend he’s beaten the game of life. Instead, the countdown toward another extra life that precedes the movie’s end credits suggest he’s destined to keep at it, and almost certain to lose again.
Wright has mastered the art of the ambiguous ending. Consider the post-apocalyptic finale of “The World’s End,” or the prison climax of “Baby Driver” that hovers somewhere between real and imaginary circumstances. “Scott Pilgrim,” however, exists fully within the confines of its protagonist’s head from start to finish: It’s a purely solipsistic narrative, so fun to watch it’s easy to disregard the ramifications of Scott’s recklessness, much as he does for most of the movie.
In that sense, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” may have been too smart for its own good. The movie found strong critical support around its release, but flopped in theaters. Over time, however, “Scott Pilgrim” has been understood as a complex exploration of a flawed young mind — and it’s due for a second wave of scrutiny on those terms.
That seems to be in the cards: During a recent live viewing session hosted by the Academy, Wright revealed that a theatrical rerelease of “Scott Pilgrim” was originally in the works for August to coincide with its official 10th anniversary. That may not be feasible in the immediate future, but “Scott Pilgrim” deserves another shot to prove its worth, especially as we’re on the brink of another fertile period for Wright: The filmmaker’s upcoming ‘60s thriller “Last Night in Soho” has just landed a new date in early 2021, while he has a documentary on the Sparks in post-production. The next year could mark a turning point in his career, as he deepens his filmography with a range of new work. Whatever this new stage looks like, however, it ought to include giving “Scott Pilgrim” a second shot.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is now streaming on Netflix.