Considering the loads of announcements coming out regarding comic book adaptations and a recent summer of said adaptations (with some bound to be of dubious quality), it makes sense to take a look at what’s working and what isn’t. And considering the critical hype and ubiquitous viral campaigning surrounding it, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World seems a good starting point.
There’s not much question of how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (released this week on DVD, actually) fared critically. The fast-paced geek-fueled romp got a warm response from most writers, making it, at least by most standards, something of a success.
But it wasn’t a commercial one — and there’s a reason for that.
The film, a high-energy thrill ride fueled by countless nods to retro video game and general “nerd” culture was missing something: emotional resonance. Though it certainly channeled a lot of great things about the comic — the visual style, the poppy-fun attitude, a self-effacing, highly satirical sense of humor — it didn’t really hit home in any major thematic way.
That’s not to say the film didn’t have its strengths. Visually, the film was nothing short of a blast, successfully incorporating a variety of spirited, campy effects that no other film really can. Like the (excellent) game, it did a splendid job of adapting the “spirit” of the comic, if not the substance — and I don’t exactly mean plot points. Though the film was highly enjoyable, it was more about visual and aural stimulation than any sort of depth. There was just never a sense in watching that anything mattered. And even in comedies, romantic and otherwise, things need to matter.
This issue of underdeveloped or meaningless conflicts afflicts a rash of recent comic-related films, and it’s a pretty major problem. Conflict, at least from a traditional standpoint, is what makes films emotional, evocative, and affecting, instead of disappointingly forgettable. Movies that actually say something can transcend their labels as “genre films” — it’s why Dawn of the Dead (namely the original) doesn’t feel like your everyday B-movie, but watching Land of the Dead is, frankly, a little boring. It’s fun in a way, sure, but not especially engaging. And some of the summer’s other comic-related properties, like Iron Man 2 and Jonah Hex didn’t fare a whole lot better, at least in terms of depth.
Yet we still have films like Ghost World, V for Vendetta and A History of Violence, which balance both substance and style in addition to sometimes surpassing the quality of their predecessors. So, clearly, maintaining intricacies is possible. And as fun as it is to see style adapted in as creative a way as Edgar Wright did with Scott Pilgrim, it’s a little too easy to poke holes in the feel-good romp. The weakly-developed central romance, the sense of an oversized, gimicky cast of characters and the loss of the introspection present (especially in later volumes) all severely weakened the film’s reach, making these elements come off as porous and underdeveloped — at least in relation to the comic.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not one of those “the book is always better” types. I loved Scott Pilgrim (the movie), I really did. But I also loved it for what it was and as what it chose to be — a summer blockbuster, and one that acted accordingly. As such, the film went for a sense of pure, unbridled energy, and, considering the amount of compression required — six graphic novels into a two-hour-ish film — it was probably the right choice. It masked a lot of its flaws and won out in a lot of the right ways, but it’s easy to see why the appeal was lost on so many.
By missing the thematic depth and character beats of the fairly intricate (if lighthearted) comic, the movie is still accompanied by a sense of some loss. Because while it, like many comic book films coming out lately, is spectacular visually, it just doesn’t carry the kind of weight that any movie needs. And without that, I can’t help but wonder how well it, or many of these adaptations, can really endure.