Extra Lives: SCOTT PILGRIM Reboots the Hero’s Journey

By: Victoria Large

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – 2010 – dir. Edgar Wright

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, co-writer and director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s celebrated comic book series, is an engagingly oddball affair and an almost-instant cult hit: it perhaps was not the massive mainstream success that the studio had hoped for upon its initial theatrical release, but it has a cadre of dedicated fans who embrace its rapid fire pop culture references and cheeky sense of style. One of Wright’s first major projects was Spaced, a sharp-witted British sitcom that slides in and out of pop pastiches without warning (For example: in one minute Spaced’s twentysomething lead is playing Playstation’s quintessential fighting game, Tekken; in the next he is arguing with his roommate while the fight announcer from Tekken comments on the action.), and Scott Pilgrim gives Wright a chance to further demonstrate his mastery of a distinctive kind of pop-saturated, slipstream comedy.

Scott Pilgrim takes many of its cues from O’Malley’s comic, with visual effects that imitate comic book panels (the word “CLICK” or “THUNK” might drifts across the screen when something clicks or thumps, for instance). There are even changing aspect ratios that reflect the changing dimensions of comic book frames. Perhaps most distinctively of all, Wright runs with O’Malley’s frequent videogame references, bringing us a universe where our eponymous hero fights his way from one level to the next, and the bad guys explode into coins when they’re defeated. Given the task of condensing the events of O’Malley’s six books into less than two hours, Wright and his co-writer Michael Bacall also use videogame tropes as a means of toying with the traditional three-act structure of a feature film.

Christopher Vogler’s popular screenwriting book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (and many another screenwriting manual like it) draws heavily on the work of Joseph Campbell in order to suggest that in classical, three-act Hollywood narratives, there must be “an Ordeal in which the hero must die or appear to die so that she can be born again,” returning from the ordeal better and stronger than before, now carrying a reward – an “elixir” – for surviving the ordeal. Wright and Bacall give Scott Pilgrim such an ordeal (brace yourself for a few spoilers from now on). At the end of Act II, he’s both his girlfriend Ramona and his rock band Sex Bob-Omb to Gideon, the preening rock promoter played by Jason Schwartzman.

But Wright and Bacall have some fun riffing on conventional screenwriting wisdom. When Act III rolls around and Scott confronts Gideon in order to win Ramona back, publically declaring his love, a flaming sword appears in his chest and a videogame announcer booms, “Scott earned the Power of Love!” while graphics appear on the screen indicating Scott’s new prize. The implicit reward of the hero’s journey is made explicit, but there’s a catch: Scott Pilgrim, our immature and very flawed hero, had it wrong all along. The “Power of Love” sword shatters, and Gideon kills Scott. Scott doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, and he fails.

In the afterlife/dream sequence that follows, Scott realizes his mistake and hilariously says aloud, “I feel like I learned something!” before seizing the videogame-style “Extra Life” that he earned earlier in the film, and subsequently doing most of the film’s third act over again, this time earning the “Power of Self-Respect.” It’s a cute bit of metacommentary, and Wright and Bacall were actually even more explicit in acknowledging the conventions of Hollywood screenwriting in a deleted scene. In a bit that didn’t make the final cut of the film, Scott tells his roommate Wallace:

“Wallace, when my journey began, I was living in an ordinary world. Ramona skated through my dreams, and it was like a call to adventure. A call I considered refusing. But my mentor – that’s you – told me that if I want something bad enough, I have to fight for it. So I did. There were tests, allies, enemies. I approached a deep cave and went through a crazy ordeal, during which I totally seized the sword. Sadly, I died. Then I resurrected! Now I realize what I should have been fighting for all along…”

On his commentary track for the deleted scene, Wright explains: “We had this idea of setting up the ending by having Scott do a whole monologue about the hero’s journey….that is a little joke for people who’ve read a lot of screenwriting books and for readers of Creative Screenwriting magazine, but maybe not for general audiences.” Scott’s Joseph Campbell-inspired monologue might ultimately be too insider-y, but audience members schooled by a lifetime of videogames and adventure movies (i.e. most members of Scott Pilgrim’s intended demographic) should nevertheless appreciate the final version of film’s tweaking of storytelling convention.

Indeed, Wright and Bacall aren’t just looking to be clever. The videogame motif actually does a fine job of reinforcing the film’s belief in second (and third and fourth, and seventh and eighth) chances. Scott and Ramona both struggle to let go of past failed relationships, and the idea of extra lives – life after game over – resonates meaningfully in that context. So we end with Scott and Ramona passing into the unknown together, while a videogame announcer asks that key question: “Continue?” It’s a neat metaphor for starting over – romance for the age of interactive media.