Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is every bit as faithful to its source material (Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume series about a 22-year-old go-nowhere man-boy fending off his new girlfriend's seven evil exes) as Zack Snyder's Watchmen was to his (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' brooding comic-hero deconstruction). Both treat the comic book panels as storyboards, and the dialogue as road maps from which they seldom stray (though both filmmakers make enough alterations to claim co-authorship, at least). The devoted fanboy could sing along with each upon first viewing, but there is, ultimately, but one significant difference: Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall's comic book movie has soul.
For all of Scott Pilgrim's strict adherence to the comic — the silly pop-art pows and thwacks seemingly lifted from the old Batman series, the stylized video-game imagery, the rock & roll references, the self-conscious merging of chop-socky action and puppy dog–sweet sentiment — it goes even deeper, conveying the ache pulsating between the lines in O'Malley's original, which was so simply drawn that it looks like the work of a child not even trying very hard.
For all its dopey pop culture clutter (the comic even took its name from an obscure Canadian band's vinyl-only song), Scott Pilgrim is still essentially The Oldest Story in the Book: Boy meets girl and has to fight to keep her. The boy is Scott Pilgrim — played by Michael Cera, because it was either him or Jesse Eisenberg. A stunted mess stranded in deep-freeze Canada, he's got himself a high school girlfriend named Knives (Ellen Wong), plays bass in a decent-but-never-gonna-make-it pop-punk trio called Sex Bob-Omb (whose drummer is a bitter ex-girlfriend, played by Alison Pill), and shares an apartment and mattress with gay roomie Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who thinks nothing of bringing a boy toy to bed.
At first, Scott's but another in a lo-o-o-o-ong line of mopey, tousled kidults played by Cera, who, as evidenced by Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Youth in Revolt most recently, seems to have a range from A to A. Arrested development indeed. But as soon as Scott meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who played John McClane's daughter in the last Die Hard sequel), the kid seems to sprout some fuzz on his peaches — out goes the whine, down goes a straight shot of big-boy bourbon.
Ramona is damaged goods and proud of it — a New York girl who's moved to the Great White North to escape something and someone, a mysterious Gideon. She's looking for a fresh start and keeps her distance; when she first meets Scott at a party, she celebrates his offer to disappear forever. But beneath the frozen exterior and haphazardly dyed hair lurks a girl just ashamed of her baggage — all the mistakes she's dated along the way, starting with her seventh-grade love affair with the only other outsider at her school, who hated the jocks as much as she. Best she keep that luggage locked, lest it all come spilling out, ready to kick the ass of any comer who offers Ramona, like, True Love.
Which is, of course, what happens, and then the movie really comes alive — right around the time when, during a Sex Bob-Omb big break, out of nowhere a kid named Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) comes flying foot-first into Scott's pointy face, itching for a fight. Wright stages the brawl as he does the others to come — like a video-game-gone-wide-screen, in this case Street Fighter scented with Bollywood. (Yes, it's a musical number within a fight sequence within a musical number. Wright fits in more ideas per frame than most filmmakers do per feature.)
Ramona reveals to Scott that if he really wants to date her, he'll have to contend with her evil exes — not just beat them up but destroy them, till they crumble into a puddle of coins and power-ups. And then comes the lost-love parade: the cocksure actor (played by Chris Evans) with his army of stunt-double minions; the bass-playing vegan (Brandon Routh), who can be done in with a sip of half-and-half; the “bi-furious” Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman) from Ramona's experimental days; and so forth, till we meet Gideon (Jason Schwartzman as End-Level Boss stud). The exes are more than just punching bags: They're inside jokes, too, references piled upon references piled upon references. Evans, after all, is his own comic book franchise — the Human Torch about to suit up as Captain America; Routh was once a Superman; and Whitman had a long-running stint on Arrested Development as Cera's God-fearing girlfriend, Ann Veal.
Which only serves to underscore the myriad joys contained within, because the little jokes only brighten up the bigger picture: Scott and Ramona, like any other couple, have to slog through the shit if they're truly meant to be together. Wright, as he did in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and the series Spaced, immerses his heroes in pop culture's detritus and diversions but doesn't drown them in it. You don't have to be dazzled or tickled by the movie, or get every joke, to be touched by it, too. So you've never played Virtual Fighter or Super Mario Bros. or heard of Plumtree, and you don't dig on anime? No big. If Michael Cera can take down Superman, he'll have no problem with you.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD | Directed by EDGAR WRIGHT | Written by EDGAR WRIGHT and MICHAEL BACALL | Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley | Universal Studios | Citywide