Release Date: August 13th, 2010
Director: Edgar Wright | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10
For as long as humans have gathered, myths have remained foundational to the development and communication of cultural ideas, themes, and motifs. While many characteristics of mythological storytelling exist, there are three main components that are central to the form: the collision of the supernatural and the natural, commentary on the human condition, and metaphoric storytelling as a vehicle to communicate meaning. Though Western culture in recent centuries has distanced itself from this sort myth-making, widely considering them relics of an ancient humanity far less civilized or intelligent, there nevertheless remain stories that serve as meaning-making machines for humans living in the modern world, and film tends to be the dominant medium through which they are told.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (SPVTW), Edgar Wright’s 2010 action comedy starring Michael Cera as the titular main character, is a striking example of a modern myth that hearkens back to these ancient roots. I recently streamed the film at home (yes, I confess it was my first time watching, so I apologize to all you Wright stans out there), and its storytelling seemed at once familiar and out of place. In the case of the former, it fills the major categories of the classic ancient myths, albeit with a decidedly modern, video game tone. In the case of the latter, it is rare in that it presents a grandiose plot with rules not explicitly defined by modern science or modernistic assumptions. By providing a collision of the supernatural and the natural, a commentary on the human condition, and metaphoric storytelling, SPVTW serves as a refreshing repackaging of an ancient mode of storytelling, one that both uses and critiques the modern world.
The film begins by introducing Scott Pilgrim, a 22 year old bassist for the unsuccessful garage band Sex Bob-Omb. Scott is dating a high school student, 17 year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), to the disapproval of his bandmates and friends. Following a dream involving a mysterious rollerblading delivery girl, he discovers soon after that this delivery girl actually exists. He sees her at the library, and other fortunate circumstances lead him to find out that this mystery girl’s name: Ramona Flowers (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Scott immediately falls for her, and soon after their initial interaction they begin to date. Beyond the obvious problem of a self-created love triangle, Scott quickly learns that dating Ramona also carries a daunting challenge: he must battle and defeat each of her seven evil exes in order to properly earn her heart.
These battles serve as the setting of the film’s collisions between the natural and the supernatural, as Scott’s ordinary life is suddenly infringed upon by the supernatural fighting abilities of Ramona’s exes. The rules of this world are never explained; we are never told how or where Scott developed his fighting abilities, nor why all of Ramona’s exes are capable of such powerful antagonistic abilities. Yet Wright does not allow these battles to take the audience out of the film. Instead, his introduction to the world emphasizes the alternate reality we are living in before theses fights even begin, with creative cinematography and excellent sound work encouraging the audience to suspend its disbelief and go with the story.
Achilles, Icarus, Odysseus, Hercules – all these famed mythical heroes had specific flaws that they needed to overcome in order to succeed, and if they didn’t, they would be ruined. We find in Scott Pilgrim our own version of this archetypical hero, a young 20s male navigating dating in the 21st century. Pilgrim is selfish, only viewing people as means to his own end, and while Michael Cera’s innocent charm may serve to mask this, we find that his actions are constantly motivated by a pursuit of his own good at the expense of others. He is regularly letting down his bandmates, creating pain for Knives in his pursuit of Ramona, and constantly concerned with the way he might benefit from the relationships around him. Such a flawed central character provides an effective vehicle for bringing metaphorical meaning through the film.
We find a character in Scott that exposes much about the modern masculinity of our world: impulsive attraction, an assumption of the disposability of others, and the belief in deserving whatever he wants, so long as he earns it. These pitfalls both move the character forward and serve as his primary downfall, as many of the problems he faces are self-imposed. The film also serves as a clear picture of dating in the modern world; where relationships, and particularly physical intimacy, are more accessible than ever, it also creates a variety of ‘battles’ that must be won over previous relationships. While Scott’s enemies are literally fighting him in the film, they serve as metaphorical markers of the ways in which the modern couple must navigate their own relationship baggage, fighting expectations and assumptions from the past in order to build a healthy present.
While SPVTW certainly serves as a restoration of an ancient mode of storytelling, it also exposes the limits of the modern imagination as it stacks up against the other ‘supernatural’ films of our day. Our superheroes have become our mythical characters, and while they often are shown to have unique flaws that both motivate and harm them, these modern heroes are often explained away by science and empirical data. The MCU, for example, goes to great lengths to root its stories in ‘this world’ explanations. While the main characters have powers, they are nearly always traced to some sort of scientifically verifiable source, which then creates a problem when one starts to introduce more magical elements into the storytelling. In SPVTW, a modernistic audience is forced to admit the presence of the supernatural as an assumption going into the story, allowing the characters to embody dramatic flaws and successes that serve as greater vehicles for commentary on the human condition. The result is a refreshing take on our modern storytelling, a myth that is messy and magical, at once otherworldly and strikingly human.