Tag Archives: Scott Pilgrim vs The World

But What About The Men???

I write a lot about women in fiction on this blog, to the point where I’ve had friends term it a feminist blog. But if you’ve ever wondered “jeez, Josh, you keep talking about women this and feminism that, what about the men!?”, well, this rant essay is for you.

One of the many things I like about (500) Days of Summer, is Tom. Not that he’s a particularly great guy or anything like that, but that with Tom we have a male protagonist who is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. Misguided as he is, he’s afforded the latitude to be ecstatic and heartbroken with everything in the middle bearing shades of another. Put colloquially, Tom gets to feel the feels, and the movie doesn’t punish him for it.

See, fiction typically doesn’t give male characters emotional breadth. Think of just about any other romcom; sure, Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey get sad and have their epiphanies, but do the films explore those feelings to the extent that (500) Days of Summer does?

There’s a tendency in fiction (and it’s a tendency reflected from reality) for being emotional to be seen as feminine, and thus unsightly in a male character. There’s a a reason “man-up” is said to guys who are scared or weepy, and not when someone’s winning. After all, we all know real men don’t cry. There are of course the occasions for manly tears: sacrifice, like the titular soldier crying over what others sacrificed for him at the end of Saving Private Ryan; brotherhood, like Channing Tatum crying at his partner’s funeral in End of Watch; or good old dead loved ones, like Maximus’ breakdown in Gladiator. These are the moments when manly men, pushed over by grief and patriotic duty, cry manly tears. But heartbreak over a breakup? That usually gets us a scene like in That 70s Show, with Eric Foreman lying in bed after breaking up with Donna, his sorrow played for laughs. It’s funny because Eric’s not the manliest of men and here he is trying to enact a form of masculine sadness but is really just pathetic.

Compare that portrayal to (500) Days of Summer when we’re allowed to wallow with Tom while he deals with his breakup. We see the repeated dullness of Tom’s life and how life seems to have lost meaning. There are still some great gags, but we’re laughing with Tom out of commiseration, rather than laughing at him as we do Eric. The film’s commitment to exploring Tom’s feelings, oft accentuated by its stylized editing and use of voice over, means that we are firmly with him here. It’s not ‘manly’ – and it doesn’t have to be – but he’s far from pathetic.

It’s important here to clarify that unmanly tears do not mean emotional breadth. Cooper in Interstellar breaks down and weeps while going through the archived messages from his daughter, but it doesn’t affect him as a character. Cooper’s still gonna do what Cooper is gonna do: space stuff. Interstellar never explores his emotional state, he remains a stalwart explorer.

I cite as many examples as I can because it’s so prevalent else-wise. This is one of those things where the exception proves the rule.  Scott Pilgrim is such an offbeat romantic lead, what without his conviction and confidence and all that. Instead Scott Pilgrim vs The World devotes much of its runtime to dealing with Scott’s issues and baggage, affirming that those are important things, even if you’re a guy. But Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a deconstruction, as is (500) Days of Summer. These movies take the romantic comedy and play with it, in the process giving us male characters who are allowed to feel the feels. Starting to see how atypical this is?

Men, of course, feel (Duh). But it goes against typical societal norms to explore or display those feelings, especially if they’re really feel-y. Why? Cuz gender roles and the patriarchy cut both ways. The same force that prescribes women to be passive supporters also insists that men be unfeeling bastions. Aaaand yep, here’s my twist: this is actually another rant essay on feminism. The same criticism that asks “Hey, why can’t we let a woman be the everyman?” is the same one that says “Hey, why do men always have to be unfeeling?”. So yeah, let’s see more Tom Hansens in fiction, though preferably ones who are less awful humans. And that’s what’s about the men.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Same Story, But Different

Pacific Rim is predictable; you’re not gonna win any prizes for pointing that out. It’s not like The Last of Us or District 9, which subvert the expectations of the audience. When you watch Pacific Rim you know what’s gonna happen; Raleigh and Mako will team up, something will happen that lets them prove themselves, and there has to be some last minute complication.

Yet it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and one of my own favorites. No, it’s not narratively groundbreaking, but it’s nonetheless great. Why?

Because when you dig beneath the foundations of how to tell a good story — y’know, plot, character, conflict, structure; all that good stuff — you get to what a good story is about. Namely, why is this story being told? What makes it important?

These are one reason why Edgar Wright’s movies are so great. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim VS The World may seem at first blush like simple comedies, there’s actually a lot more going on beneath the surface. Scott Pilgrim isn’t just a pulpy story about winning a girl’s heart in a world where the rules of video games apply; it’s actually a fascinating meditation on the nature of relationships. Sean of the Dead is about being willing to deviate from the routine. The World’s End is so remarkable because beneath its fun veneer of getting the old band back together and preventing (or, er, causing) the apocalypse via a pub crawl is a story about sobriety and growing up. Without preachifying, the movie looks at friendship and escaping from problems. Now, it’s not the whole point of World’s End — a particularly profane phrase containing Legoland remains a highlight — but the more ‘serious’ themes give it great staying power.

Not that the theme has to be ‘serious.’ Star Wars explicitly follows the Hero’s Journey, and makes no attempt to do anything really new. It’s mythological, plain and simple. But when you ask what Star Wars is about, sure, there are the lasers and spaceships and Wookies, but it’s also about a farmboy stopping the Empire. Star Wars resonated with my dad in the seventies and resonates with me when I watch it today because of its simple enduring theme: anyone can be a hero. It tells an old idea so exceptionally well and with great imagination. One of the reasons The Phantom Menace fails is, arguably, that though it’s cool and shiny and has all the trappings of a Star Wars movie, its theme is, well, murky at best and nonexistent at worst.

So Pacific Rim. The movie proudly wears its themes on its sleeve, if you’re willing to look. Amidst the giant mecha fighting giant monsters is an undercurrent of hope against imposing doom. When Pentecost says they’re canceling the apocalypse, he’s not just issuing a rallying cry for Jaeger pilots. Pacific Rim is expertly crafted, nothing lags and the twists are all in the right, albeit predictable places and it fully commits to its outlandish premise of mecha vs kaiju. It’s with its defiantly youthful tone that Pacific Rim really becomes a great movie.


There are only so many stories to be told; there’s a reason the site TVTropes exists, it’s why Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Thing is, there’s always gonna be a new meaning to stories. The whole prince-and-pauper story has been retold over and over again in different contexts with different connotations. The story can have been told before, but it’s what it’s about that makes it special.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Playing With Expectations

In celebration of the wonder of Netflix, I decided to watch Drinking Buddies the other night. The premise is nothing new, Luke and Kate are coworkers with incredible chemistry who are, unfortunately, in relationships with other people.

What makes the movie such a joy is how the film plays with this idea. All the building blocks are in place, but the plot dances around them and subverts them. The scene where the Luke and Kate would/should kiss and fall in love is there. However, well, they don’t. Not then, and though the sexual tension is brimming between them, it never happens throughout the plot. Instead, the film looks at Luke’s relationship with his fiancée and Kate with her boyfriend while exploring the nature of Luke and Kate’s relationship. It’s been classified as a romantic comedy of sorts, but it disregards elements of the genre at will. Drinking Buddies teases the idea of a romance, but ultimately tells a story about, well, drinking buddies.

For someone who consumes as much media as I do it’s always fun to see a story that does something different (in a meaningful way, as opposed to just adding lesbians). Pacific Rim hit every beat the usual blockbuster does, but did so while running its own commentary on the world as it is. But I’ve written extensively on that movie (and will continue to do so), let’s look at another movie.

Like (500) Days of Summer (so much for something new). Like Drinking Buddies, it’s been billed as a rom-com and it, for all intents and purposes, at first seems to shape up to be one. One of the earliest scenes is of Tom and Summer sitting on a bench holding hands, a ring on her finger. We’re told this takes place on day 488, so we know it’s near the end. As an audience, we expect Tom and her to end up together, even as we see their relationship fall apart.

Many of the tropes of the romantic comedy are in full effect, yet they’re used almost ironically. Tom’s happy walk after getting together with Summer concludes with a flash-forward to his dejection after they break up. The whole idea of Meeting The One is taken brutally apart. But then, the narrator did say it was a story of boy meets girl, but not a love story. It plays with what we’d expect from the sort of movie it is, ultimately giving us something very different. And y’know what? It works.

Similarly, one would expect Scott Pilgrim vs The World would be a relatively straightforward movie: Scott fights Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to be with her. Basically an action movie’s formula mixed with a romantic comedy. Easy.

Only, this is Edgar Wright; it’s never that simple. As I said a couple weeks ago, the movie offers an interesting look at what’s vital in relationships. This isn’t what you, heck, this wasn’t what I expected at all when I first saw the movie. The movie seemed simple enough going in, but proved itself able to supersede both genres to create something new. Edgar Wright gave us an honest look at relationships through a comedic, video game-y, action-y lens. It did something different.

Back to Drinking Buddies, a movie unlike much else you’ll see; it’s slow, the dialogue is improvised, and not much happens. It’s a slice of life. I saw it based on a poster I’d seen a few months ago outside an independent cinema (and hey, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) and while watching expected it to go the rom-com route. But it didn’t, and it didn’t in a way that made for an interesting story. And for that, it succeeds.

 

Writer’s note: The discrepancy that I harbor an intense dislike for Blue Is the Warmest Color yet really liked Drinking Buddies is not lost on me. Especially given the critical/audience dissonance on the former (that is, audiences didn’t like Drinking Buddies as much as critics did). Chalk this one up to personal taste.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Relationship Advice from Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim vs The World is one of my favorite movies. There’s the video game-y nature of it; a world that’s realistically unrealistic where fights look like Street Fighter and people explode into coins. With that, Edgar Wright and team put a great deal of love into making it; sound effects are borrowed everywhere from Legend of Zelda to Seinfeld. It’s a great movie.

For those of you who haven’t seen it (or fall outside its fairly narrow demographics), here’s a rundown of the plot: Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona Flowers, but in order to be with her he has to fight her Seven Evil Exes. Mixed in with that is his struggling band, dealing with baggage from an old relationship, and breaking up with Knives Chau. Again, it’d be easy for this to be pure pulp and just a fun, silly story, but Wright and team give it its due. Though their world may not be strictly realistic, the characters and their relationships are. We see the effect ‘meeting’ Ramona’s exes has on Scott and we watch tension build between them (especially when Knives is involved).

So where’s this relationship advice, you ask? In the climax, we find out that love isn’t enough for a relationship.

Let’s back up. What’s the biggest in most romances? It’s, usually, the moment where the guy decides to throw it all away and go after the girl. Harry runs through New York to find Sally. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet. Lloyd Dobler holds the boombox over his head (although, wonderfully, this isn’t the climax, but you get the idea). It’s that Big Moment of Love.

Scott Pilgrim, being at its heart a romance, plays this trope straight. Having lost Ramona to Gideon, Scott decides to set out to the Chaos Theatre to win her back by fighting Gideon. He arrives, fights his way in, and tells Gideon he wants to fight him for Ramona. When asked why, Scott responds that he’s in love with her. Scott thus earns The Power of Love and is awarded a flaming sword (from his chest!) with which he duels Gideon.

Great! That’s our Big Moment of Love! If there’s anything years of movie-watching should have taught us, know that Scott knows he’s in love with Ramona, he’ll beat Gideon and live happily ever after.

Only that’s not what happens here. Instead Scott gets himself killed.

Fortunately, however, Scott got a 1-Up earlier in the film and, after some brief soul-searching, uses said 1-Up to confront Gideon again. Again, Gideon asks him if he’s fighting him for her. Scott’s reply is different: “No, I wanna fight you for me.” And this time Scott earns the Power of Self Respect, gets a purple flaming sword, duels Gideon, settles things with Knives and Ramona, and fights Gideon again. With the Power of Self Respect.

Herein Scott Pilgrim vs The World suddenly does something that most romances don’t. Love isn’t enough. Thus far Scott has been fighting the exes simply because he has to if he wants to be with Ramona. It was Gideon who orchestrated the whole thing and, the first go round, Scott fights him like any other of Ramona’s exes, so he can be with her.

Only that didn’t work out.

The second time round, Scott fights Gideon for himself. This guy’s been screwing him over all along, yanking Scott’s chain. So Scott fights him not to win over Ramona, but to get his own back. Scott isn’t playing Gideon’s game anymore at that point, this time he’s engaging him on his own terms. The idea implicit is that in order for a relationship to work, you have to be able to be a person in your own right.

Sure, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is hardly the only place you’ll see this. (500) Days Of Summer did something similar: Tom gets his crap together after Summer, dragging himself out of the routine and finally into doing something he loves, no longer looking for love to solve all his problems. What makes Scott Pilgrim special is that in a movie with bass battles and subspace highways we have an interestingly important commentary on relationships.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized