I’m no comic book expert — I’ve read and liked a few that others have recommended to me, but it is not my reading genre of choice. I do, however, tend to really enjoy films based on comic books and graphic novels. Not surprisingly, the films I love most are those that include interesting female characters. And they aren’t hard to find — from Persepolis to Ghost World to the X-Men franchise, dynamic roles for women are found throughout cinematic adaptations of comic books and graphic novels.
It was through that lens that I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series). I was not particularly impressed by the film’s trailer, but I did my best to watch the film with an open mind. There is much to appreciate about the film — most notably, the hyper-stylized cinematography and editing — but, ultimately, the gender politics soured the experience for me.
When we meet 23-year-old Scott Pilgrim, he is dating Knives Chau, a Chinese-Canadian Catholic high school student. Knives is clearly more invested in the relationship than Scott is — she believes she’s found true love, while he’s only seeking a rebound. Scott’s affections for Knives end as soon as he meets Ramona Flowers, the new girl in town. The audience learns very little about Ramona, other than the fact that she dyes her hair bright colors and she hails from New York City (the story is set in Toronto, Canada), but that appears to be enough to make her the coolest girl Scott has ever met, let alone dated. Ramona doesn’t seem all that interested in him, but before long, Scott is sent on a quest to defeat all seven of Ramona’s “evil exes,” a quest at which he must succeed in order to win her love. The battles themselves are represented as if they were scenes in video games — fun, elaborate, violent and lacking meaningful consequences. As one might expect, Scott does succeed in defeating all of Ramona’s exes and winning Ramona’s heart. In the process, he also gains self-respect, though we learn this through a video game sword he earns rather than through his actions.
I had trouble accepting Scott as the film’s hero, because he isn’t very likeable. He is downright cruel to Knives — paying attention to her only when it’s convenient, cheating on her with Ramona, leaving her when she expresses her love for him and halfheartedly apologizing for his behavior in the final act, before running off with Ramona. Moreover, he treats Ramona as a conquest rather than a girlfriend. The audience never learns why Scott is attracted to her, beyond her hair color and U.S. citizenship. He demands her attention when she otherwise appears disinterested, and the thought of her dating anyone else offends him on a deeply personal level. His professional ambitions and life goals are nebulous, he has no discernible interests other than indie rock music and girls, and he routinely disregards the feelings of others, even his supposedly close friends. The audience is meant to care about Scott. We are supposed to want him to succeed, to admire and root for him as he advances through his quest. But I didn’t care about Scott. He is disrespectful to the women around him, and he never performs any selfless acts customarily found in a hero’s journey.
There is also the issue of the extent to which women are allowed to stand up for themselves in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Ramona, for instance, is completely denied of personal agency. Rather than confronting her past directly and defeating those who have wronged her (and who she wronged) head-on, the story depends on her boyfriend fighting her battles on her behalf while she watches from the sidelines. I was also hopeful that Knives would stand up to Scott after learning that he cheated on her, but she is inexplicably forgiving and supportive of his feelings for Ramona. Throughout the film, her love for Scott is portrayed as desperate and pathetic, even stalker-like, so I found it difficult to believe that she would move on from him so quickly and accept his late apologies. It is particularly troubling that Ramona and Knives are both punched by men in the film, and though both instances are portrayed as negative, it is Scott, not the girls themselves, who steps up in defense. Perhaps Ramona and Knives would have benefited from the self-respect sword awarded to Scott — it may have allowed them to act just as heroically as their love interest.
What is most frustrating about the gender dynamics in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that they didn’t need to be problematic at all. I haven’t read the Scott Pilgrim series, but it is my understanding that the female characters are far more developed — and take part in much more action — in the comics than in the movie. Mike Barthel elaborates at The Awl:
The problem with the movie is… well, in the simplest terms, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. For a movie based on an art comic, this is weird, to say the least. And it’s absolutely not true about the comic. One of the best things about it is that Scott often seems like a minor character in the context of his friends, all of whom are living much richer and fuller lives than he is. Female characters form friendships, male characters come out of the closet off-screen, and ex-girlfriends move on. The comic makes a joke about this: Scott’s self-centeredness causes him to assume, as fiction readers do, that nothing important happens without him around. But, of course, things do all the time.
They don’t, though, in the movie. Again, part of this is certainly structural. Movies just have less space available to them than do comics, and clearly they had to get through all seven exes. But that necessity spins out into other necessities: the main character has to be male, there has to be a clear romantic tension and resolution, there can’t be distractions from side characters. And though a lot of the great things about the comic are preserved, that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes.
Had the source material contained one-dimensional caricatures of women, I might have understood why the film followed suit. But it appears that is far from the case. The Scott Pilgrim novels feature fully developed female characters, meaning that Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall specifically chose to minimize those characters. This isn’t the first time an adaptation of a graphic novel has completely watered down a crucial female character (here’s looking at you, Watchmen), and it isn’t surprising that the filmmakers made the choices that they did, but the results are still unfortunate and leave much to be desired.
I don’t expect every film I see to be feminist or female-centric. I certainly don’t think that women’s stories are the only stories worth telling. But I do think that when a film has an opportunity to feature interesting, strong female characters — even supporting ones — it’s a shame for the film to let that opportunity pass by. There is no reason why Knives and Ramona could not have been developed stronger Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There is no reason why Scott Pilgrim — arguably the film’s least interesting character — could not have shared more of the spotlight (and fighting scenes) with his female counterparts. If my critique sounds harsh, it is only because I expect more from adaptations of comic books. Comics are home to so many wonderful female characters, and many film adaptations are able to translate those characters to the screen effectively. So what was the challenge in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? I can’t say for certain. All I know is that the film I hoped to see is not the film I saw at the multiplex several nights ago.