Deconstructing Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Slacker Boyfriends: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

When director Edgar Wright (known for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Spaced) talked about why he had decided to take on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World as a film project, he brought up the conceit of the comics. “I just really liked the of having to fight for love,” he said. Of course, he meant fight for love literally. Or as literally as you could in the context of a video game.

But Scott Pilgrim managed far more than that in design, direction, and humor. While Bryan Lee O’Malley’s creation was busy showing the world a new kind of comic book, Scott Pilgrim the film did something unexpected—it utterly subverted most popular romantic comedies of the past decade.

The film had to handle these themes differently due to the constraint in time, but what it offered in place of what the comics excelled at was a stellar cast and Edgar Wright’s impeccable editing sense. His smash cuts, close-ups on mundane activity, the speed that he demands of comedic dialogue, all worked so well to establish the only sort of universe that Scott Pilgrim could possibly operate in. Other films had tackled snappy, ironic teenage dialogue in a similar manner (think Juno and Easy A), but failed to offer a compatible world where the setting matched the frankly unrealistic rapid-fire exchanges.

But what was truly interesting about the movie was how it chose to tackle two heavily examined rom-com character types: the manic pixie dream girl and the loser (usually stoner) boyfriend. Much analysis has been made over these two and the problems they create by being treated as healthy relationship prospects. It’s common to find quirky women who are artistic and flighty and oh so in touch with the freedom of living moment to moment. It’s equally common to find some guy without a job who lives on his best friend’s couch and hotboxes all day. And both of these characters manage to attract people who have no reason to fall for them in their right minds.

At first glance, Ramona Flowers could easily be that girl. She has a host of exes that she has dumped in turn, most for seemingly flimsy reasons. She changes her hair color all the time, making Scott worry that she’s “spontaneous” and “impulsive.” She disappears without a word and wants her life to be uncomplicated, always changing her mind once she gets uncomfortable. She literally first appears to Scott in a dream.

On the other hand, Ramona is self-sufficient and thankfully un-flighty. She has a job, she owns quite a few shares of sarcasm stock, and she isn’t interested in being put on a pedestal. And when Scott attempts to put her there, he is often rebuffed with a harsh reality check, in the form of an evil ex out for his blood or in the form of Ramona’s own indifference. The film makes its point loud and clear; she’s cool, she’s odd, she’s alluring, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that one special girl will solve all of your own problems.

Which brings us to Scott who, if we’re being honest, is not really much of a catch at the start of the film. He has no motivation, he’s incapable of moving on from a relationship that ended over a year ago, and he’s been a jerk to most of the other women in his life. His “path of least resistance” attitude to everything is reminiscent of the sort of parts Seth Rogen always plays and Kevin Smith always writes. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, except when they are presented as the ultimate adorable romantic lead. Because it makes no sense.

But Scott is young, and this whole shebang turns out to be a pretty valuable learning tool for him. He learns to take responsibility for his actions, to own up to the mistakes he’s made with other people’s hearts, and more importantly, he gains enough self-esteem to go for the things he cares about. Rather than pair Scott and Ramona off because they are the two cute hipster kids we want to root for, we’re left wondering if they’re truly right for each other. But we can’t fault them for wanting to try.

And since that’s what real relationships are like, we can bask in the glow of one ending that isn’t a guaranteed happily ever after. It brings this film down to earth in a way that most romantic comedies could never pretend at, and they can’t blame their lack of realism on 8-bit battles and leveling up.

The game nostalgia plays another bittersweet note—when we were young it was all about beating the next boss, topping the high score list, collecting our coins and continuing on our giddy way. Perhaps if we were all able to view life more like those games that challenged us as children, we wouldn’t be so afraid to leap after what we want.

In that way, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World may be the best film to use a video game conceit out there. Because it isn’t simply about putting your Playstation on screen for fun and profit. It about using familiar types of storytelling to get us to conquer fears and continue to grow. And that is always a worthwhile reason to exploit your formative years.

Emily Asher-Perrin never goes anywhere without her stunt team. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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