Friday, August 27, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Vampire Slayer

Before I get back to the reviews (which I will soon, I assure you), I want to say a few words on the topic of the new Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the series of comics that inspired it. What, you ask, does this have to do with Buffy, or Joss Whedon in general? More than you might think, I say. Fans of Buffy would do well to check out Scott Pilgrim, and vice versa. Find out why after the jump.

Scott Pilgrim is the best book ever. It is the chronicle of our time. With Kung Fu, so yeah: perfect.

- Joss Whedon

The above quote adorns the back of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, the final volume of Bryan Lee O'Malley's independent comic epic, Scott Pilgrim. But Joss's admiration isn't the only connection between his work and O'Malley's I have in mind. Far from it! Scott Pilgrim is Whedonian in some pretty interesting ways, and it shares a particular affinity with Buffy. I'm not just talking about the obvious facts (it's about young people, it's full of romance and ass-kicking, it features sharp, funny, pop-culture-laden dialogue, etc); they actually use some pretty similar storytelling devices, and I think it's interesting to note the connections between the two.

With the graphic novel series done and the film adaptation by Edgar Wright now in cinemas, Scott Pilgrim has gotten more buzz than ever in the past two months, but if you've been sleeping under a rock and don't know the premise, here it is, lazily copied form my review of the film.

As the story of Scott Pilgrim opens, we are introduced to Scott (played in the film by Michael Cera), a young slacker living in Toronto. He plays in a garage rock band called Sex Bob-Omb, and enjoys an immature and utterly chaste “relationship” with a high schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who idolizes him and his band far beyond their respective merits. Scott’s world is shaken up when he meets the American delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the who is the girl of his dreams (literally: she enters his dreams, which is where he first encounters her). Scott begins to pursue a relationship with Ramona, but soon discovers that as a result of their involvement he will be attacked by the League of Evil Exes, consisting of seven of Ramona’s vindictive past lovers. And naturally, he must face them in battles to the death, which resemble arcade-style fighting games with comic-inspired visuals. The loser bursts into a shower of Canadian coins.

You might already see where I'm going with this, but if not, let's take another look at something I've mentioned on this blog a few times: Buffy's metaphorical underpinnings. The show often operates by translating the real into supernatural equivalents, often by taking clich├ęs literally. High school is hell? This one's literally built atop a gateway to hell. A girl who feels invisible becomes invisible. The main character sleeps with a guy, and then he changes.

Scott Pilgrim speaks to its audience in another dialect of the same language. Swap the horror and fantasy trappings (vampires, demons, magical spells, sacred destinies) for video game references (Leveling up, extra lives, boss battles, etc) and you'll notice that the ways in which they operate aren't so different. Just as some of the best Buffy episodes use supernatural metaphors to explore the pains of adolescence, Scott Pilgrim uses the structure of an arcade-style fighting game to explore the difficulties encountered when unpacking the "baggage" brought to a relationship.

Of course, what we really end up loving about Buffy isn't the metaphors themselves but the characters. And I suppose I can't promise Buffy fans that they're going to love Scott, Ramona, Knives, Kim, Wallace, et al. in the same way they love Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, et al. I mean, I do. But maybe you won't. The similarity I'm pointing out is that the method Whedon uses to explore the lives of these Californian teenagers is pretty similar to the one used by O'Malley to tell the story of a group of Torontonian twentysomethings.

Which is why I probably have to recommend to my fellow Whedon fans that they experience Scott Pilgrim not through Wright's film (which I think is fantastic) but through the original comics by O'Malley. Though I think there's a lot to be said for the film, I think ultimately the comic is the version that is more worthy of comparison to Whedon's work and Buffy in particular, if only for the reason that their longer narrative allows for fuller exploration of the characters.

Which is not to say you shouldn't see the film. It's very funny and exciting and sharply directed. As I mentioned before, I wrote a review, which is long and in-depth. Give it a read if you're interested.

Before concluding, I should probably say a word or two on gender issues. Buffy has often been lauded for its feminist themes. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World hasn't. In fact, it's been called misogynist by some reviewers and bloggers, many of whom accuse it of treating Ramona as little more than a prize. A blogger named Abigail Nussbaum makes just this accusation. I happen to think this is based on a misunderstanding of the film's premise, and you can read my arguments in the comments of her post. At some point I might re-organize that defense into a blog post of its own, but I've written quite a bit about Scott Pilgrim at this point and I don't think I want to undertake that task right now.

That's it from me. Come back tomorrow for a review of a Buffy episode. Really!

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