Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels got rave reviews when they were released. It went on to win several awards and was praised heavily for its stylistic choices and inventive storytelling. Edgar Wright adapted them as a feature film called Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and it flopped at the box office. But over the years, it garnered quite a reputation for being one of the best comic book adaptations. Wright and his team were lauded for their visual storytelling, rip-roaring comedy, and the eccentric performances of their cast. However, as folks started to idolize the titular character, the graphic novels and the film drew criticism, largely on social media platforms, for being replete with every stereotype that’s synonymous with male fantasies. Since film criticism has become overly dependent on social media trends, it has led to several think pieces on how Scott Pilgrim is problematic, and everyone should hate it. Now, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off seems to be a show that’s in conversation with the franchise’s critics, and I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.
Developed and written by Bryan Lee O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski, with the episodes being directed by Abel Góngora, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off tells the story of the titular character, who lives in Toronto with his roommate, Wallace Wells. He is apparently in a relationship with high schooler Knives Chau. He is the singing bassist of a band called Sex Bob-Omb, along with Kim Pine (on the drums) and Stephen Stills (lead guitarist and vocals). Scott’s friend circle includes Young Neil and Julie Powers, and he has a sister named Stacey Pilgrim. One fine day, he falls in love with the girl of (or from) his dreams, Ramona Flowers, who has recently moved from New York to Toronto. Scott’s awkward charm impresses Ramona, but as they are about to start dating each other, Ramona’s seven evil exes descend on Scott. It’s a cult-like group organized by Gideon Graves that is supposed to kill anyone who tries to woo Ramona because if they can’t have Ramona, then nobody can have Ramona. Despite having a reputation for being an expert fighter, Scott loses to Ramona’s first ex, Matthew Patel, and dies. Ramona thinks it’s an elaborate ruse and starts searching for Scott.
Scott Pilgrim’s Takes Off can be seen as a sequel to the graphic novels as well as the feature film, which retcons their events while functioning like a whodunnit. Without giving away any details, you can see it as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare or The Matrix Resurrections of the Scott Pilgrim franchise. But here’s the issue: I don’t think Scott Pilgrim, as an IP, is as sprawling as the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise or as influential as the Matrix franchise. If you go to any corner of India and show them a picture of Freddy, they’ll say it’s from Mahakaal, i.e., a rip-off of Elm Street. If you show anyone Neo’s bullet-time sequence, they’ll say it’s from Main Hoon Na, i.e., a Bollywood movie that paid homage to it. What I mean to say is that North American popularity isn’t worldwide popularity. It’s only after you gain widespread recognition that you should sit down with your text, break it down, and rearrange it in the most meta way possible. If you are doing it because a bunch of people on the internet said that your characters and stories haven’t aged well, it seems like you’re arguing with just these invisible people while excluding all those who haven’t been bashing Scott Pilgrim since the 2010s.
I could be wrong, and maybe Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is what dedicated Scott Pilgrim fans and critics want, and they’ll be glad to see all the Easter eggs, jokes, and references. But even as a somewhat dedicated fan of the film and the comics, I don’t quite understand what the show is trying to do. If it’s for the fans, why is the titular character gone after the first episode? If it’s for the critics, are the creators really hoping that they’ll have a change of heart upon seeing a whodunnit starring Ramona Flowers? Masters of the Universe: Revelation actually pulled off this style of storytelling but then again, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t have the same footing in pop culture as He-Man. It just seems like the show is catering to a niche part of the audience that doesn’t like the original material and yet examines it in great detail on a daily basis and has been waiting to see a politically correct take on the world of Scott Pilgrim. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with political correctness. People and characters should evolve with time, but that evolution should feel organic, and that change should come from a place of honesty. The show’s commentary on stuff like nostalgia, romance, the interconnected nature of fiction and real life, and the pain of trying to “fix a narrative” seems like an obligation, thereby making for a very hollow viewing experience. By the way, the show is not even a very compelling thriller because Ramona’s investigation is devoid of suspense or thrill.
It’s a shame that the writing is so confusing because the animation in Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is genuinely jaw-dropping. From the first frame to the last, Abel and his army of animators employ every technique they have at their disposal to immerse the viewers in their video-game-esque and anime-inspired universe. There is a hand-drawn quality to the character designs. Hence, it seems like they’ve walked out of the graphic novel and straight onto our small screens. The way the image warps because of the angle of the virtual camera is refreshing because that’s something that is usually seen in live-action projects, as it is tough to mimic a fish-eye lens in animation and have the characters adjust according to that POV. The action sequences are brilliant, as Abel and his animators aren’t afraid to go into abstract art territories in order to sell the kinetic nature of the brawls and the chase scenes. The songs and the music are really cool. The voice-acting and the editing of the dialogue-heavy scenes are a bit of a letdown. The return of the cast of Scott Pilgrim is the biggest selling point of the show, but none of them are great voice actors. So, ironically enough, even though the show is critiquing nostalgia and the act of holding onto the past, it is sacrificing the opportunity to give us fresh takes on these characters because marketability is apparently more important than authenticity.
In the end, it gives me no pleasure to say that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is a bit of a disappointment. The writers are clearly suffering from a severe case of “identity crisis,” as they are too concerned about how the characters of this fictional universe have been treated by the audience over the last decade. That’s why the show is enjoyable as long as nobody is talking because it allows you to truly take in the depth and detailed nature of the animation. In addition to all that, the show is rarely funny, even though it claims to be a comedy. Yes, humor is subjective, and based on my subjective understanding of what’s hilarious, I didn’t find myself laughing at its “jokes” or visual gags. Hence, by the time the show moved to its unearned saccharine ending, I was left with that same old thought: “What was the point?” Well, I don’t have the answer. I am certain that the makers do, and if they are content with it, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off will find its audience. If that sounds way too convoluted, just stick to the graphic novels and the film, and maybe check out the rest of Edgar Wright’s filmography.