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Growing Up Is Figuring Out Scott Pilgrim Is The Villain

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My dad and I found community through a guitar. Not a guitar we owned, but a guitar we loved looking at; we bonded because we both drool over Rickenbackers. Fathers and sons often bond over physical things and interests more than they do emotional commonalities. Be it a sport, car, or fixer-upper project, paternal bonding is frequently more rooted in physicality than it is in the abstract, and cherry-red Rickenbackers are as physical as it gets.

There aren’t a lot of PG-13 Hollywood blockbusters that feature the California guitar brand’s smooth craftsmanship on their posters, so that’s why my dad, stepmom, and I found ourselves outside of an AMC on a sticky Virginia night with no idea what to say about the movie we’d just watched. As a 12-year-old, I was just a little too young to get anything from SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD the first time I saw it. Sure, the action was exciting, and as a young music nerd I loved the rock and roll component, but a movie about a bunch of deadbeat young adults living in a semi-digitized version of the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada didn’t resonate as hard as it would the second time I watched it a few years later.

Scott Pilgrim at a bar
Billy Corgan stressed all his hair away so quickly

Growing up I was a pretty straight-laced kid. My parents were both really protective about the media I was allowed to consume: until my sophomore year of high school, I had only seen three R-rated movies. And though I was a late bloomer in my discovery of meat and potatoes cinema, I actually stumbled upon critically acclaimed music at a surprisingly young age. The CD player in my mom’s Ford Explorer was jam-packed with Modest Mouse, early Death Cab, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums well before I was old enough to actually see any of those bands live at the clubs they were playing in nearby cities. Because of my predilection towards counterculture before my hormonal experimentation with rebellion, the only two movies I was allowed to watch between the ages of 14 and 15 that actually interested me were WAYNE’S WORLD and SCOTT PILGRIM. 

A miserable teenager, I ached for my early 20s. I basked in the post-cool ennui that my local guitar teachers, record store clerks, and baristas exuded, and I yearned for it as I spent my days trying to convince my parents to let me quit the marching band. SCOTT PILGRIM was my means of escape from the academic mediocrity of the overcrowded Northern Virginia school system in which I came of age. I spent countless high school band practices with my three best friends assigning SCOTT PILGRIM characters to the people in our classes, silently trying to push my band, All Things Null And Void, in a direction that both looked and sounded more like Sex Bob-Omb. When my mom gave me the first SCOTT PILGRIM graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, as an early Christmas gift my freshman year, I read it over and over again for a month until the day Jesus’ birth finally arrived and I got the rest of the box set. While SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD was the first thing I nerded out on, it was also a tool for transcending custody battles, behindhand pubescence, and general adolescent confusion and discontent. Revisiting SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD 10 years after its release provides more than just a source of entertainment: it evokes a palpable feeling.

The world that Brian Lee O’Malley crafted in his original series is a relic of a more naive time in indie rock. As a college dropout living in the wake of a miserable breakup with his indie famous ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams, Scott Pilgrim and his friends pass their benign hours playing garage rock in dive bars, drinking (or in Scott’s case, pretending not to drink) at parties, and sitting around playing video games. Other than some criticism from his friends, Scott experiences no real repercussions when he dates a 17-year-old. Viewing the movie after Burger Records’ cancellation, Scott Pilgrim is a caricature of the same douchey band-boy entitlement that allowed dozens of artists to get away with pedophilia in the indie rock circuit for over a decade. If Sex Bob-Omb was a band in 2020, they’d be lucky if they could quietly kick Scott Pilgrim out before Twitter publicized his wrongdoings. In O’Malley’s simple little universe of Black Lips and Broken Social Scene needle-drops, though, a verbal slap on the wrist from his drummer and the trust that he and his underage romantic interest, Knives Chau, aren’t sexually active is the only punishment he faces. As a teenager, I thought Scott Pilgrim, his god-awful fuzz rock group, and his beautiful bass were the coolest things in the world, but every time I’ve rewatched the movie post-high-school, his self-imposed unemployment and homelessness beam through in a more negative than exciting light.

Scott Pilgrim with a lady friend on a train
She applies the personality into the paste

A decade later, Ramona Flowers shines as a criminally under-represented character. While she may play the role of Marilyn Monroe for the post-Animal Collective world, she is plagued by a never ending slew of creepy art people coming out of the woodwork to beat the dog crap out of each other to try and win her hand in romance. Gideon Graves, the movie’s dreaded supervillain, is a manipulative groomer who uses mind control and a hamster wheel of conflict to ensure that Flowers never happily dates again. While we can’t help but feel bad for Scott as he keeps having to kick the shit out of various creative types in the name of love, we are never once made to feel solidarity with Ramona as her integrity and freedom of choice are compromised by the film’s patriarchal 8-bit action sequences.

In many ways, as I have gotten older leading a life that, for better or worse, mirrors the Scott Pilgrim universe, the film has become a cautionary tale. I can still relate its characters to those in my life, and, other than the Street Fighter-styled violence and borderline pedophilia, major milestones in the movie recall personal day-to-day post-college happenstance. While Scott may become a more despicable figure the older I get, the people around him are all similar to the ones in my friend group. Every auxiliary character in Scott Pilgrim experiences some kind of forward momentum while Scott stays put. Knives Chau matures from ditsy, underage side-chick to an emotionally adept, albeit jaded, young adult who has Scott’s best interests at heart despite being fed up with his bullshit. Sex Bob-Omb sign a record deal and hit the big time, but only after Scott quits. Although we never find out what becomes of Ramona, something tells me she and Scott don’t work out and that she just becomes another Envy Adams keeping him locked to his hometown, bitter for a past that he will never relive. 

Scott Pilgrim with his friends
Roman Roy: The Early Years

Taken at face value, though, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD is a highly surrealistic movie about the very real bullshit of being in your early 20s. Fleeting friends turn into rock stars, hobbies that define your social standing don’t work out, parties become a shitty way to break up the blur of a dead-end job, and, eventually, hopefully, it all leads to something more meaningful. The world keeps punching Scott Pilgrim’s life in the face as he solutionlessly wallows in his misery, but as everyone who leaves him behind perseveres, they find their places in a more fulfilling adult realm. Much like my father and I finding community through the instrument on SCOTT PILGRIM’s poster, the characters in the film find a meaningful faction of their own as they learn to escape the hometown slacker nihilism that left me so enamored with the film in my youth.

Ted Davis
Ted Davis is Music Editor of Merry-Go-Round Magazine, as well as a musician, and DJ from Virginia currently living in Northeast Los Angeles. He has put out work with the band Helanovela and on his own as DJ STEPDAD and Silk Gloves. He has performed with a number of artists including Dumbo Gets Mad and Blondie (long story).

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