Essay: Summer Movies in the Context of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

In my neck of the woods, kids are already going back to school, although I daresay no child should even have to think the word “school” until after Labor Day. But the summer wanes, and I realize I’ve been to the theater more often in the summer of 2010 than during the last six or seven years combined – mostly due to the fact that I’ve started reviewing new theatrical releases for DVD Talk. Although home media continues to offer increasingly enjoyable and technically thrilling viewing experiences, moviegoers themselves become more crass, loud, and generally unpleasant. Therefore, I have avoided theaters perhaps more actively than any self-respecting cinephile. But access to press screenings has afforded me the opportunity to once again enjoy movies on giant screens with the volume jacked all the way up – the way they are meant to be experienced.
Despite the fact that 2010 has been a poor year for films in general, there have been a few gems, including the just-released Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which, as I pointed out in my review, brings back a sense of unpredictable, lightweight fun to the summer movie. It’s a cannon-blast of sheer invention and off-the-cuff cinematic wizardry that brought me back to my youth – when summer films meant a certain tone, a certain escapist flourish that was both creative and commercial. Over the last decade or so, summer releases have become franchise-driven cash grabs primarily aimed at young children and families. The 1980s had Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and certainly Lucas and Spielberg are directly responsible for what we are seeing now – an unending onslaught of summer releases that attempt to capitalize upon whatever pre-existing property studios can get their hands on, from children’s books and costumed heroes, to Oprah’s latest book selection and remakes of movies that have just barely been released on Blu-ray.
Indeed, Scott Pilgrim is a franchise waiting to happen – even though something tells me this won’t exactly occur in a traditional way, with spin-offs and shitloads of merch and a sequel every so often. For one thing, the film compresses most of the story material from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series into one feature. For another, it’s looking doubtful that box office returns will merit an immediate sequel – although it’s worth noting that box office has become less and less significant in terms of corporate decision-making, with the longer-lasting home video and subsidiary rights income playing a larger part. Scott Pilgrim, with its cultish following and huge staying power among young international geekdom, could perform admirably over time, possibly generating sequels and who knows what else. As far as the theatrical release is concerned, Universal was entirely correct to bet on the great Edgar Wright, but probably made a mistake depending on the built-in audience who already know and love the Scott Pilgrim comics – they are not big enough to launch a franchise.
But the question of whether or not Scott Pilgrim is franchise-friendly is beside my point. The real significance of the movie is the fact that it recalls an older tradition around summertime releases – the kind of hugely entertaining sense of weightlessness we remember from the years of Back to the Future, Gremlins, Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the pre-Brosnan James Bond films, and all of those Spielberg and Lucas behemoths. Let’s not forget that the reason so many of those summer films went on to become franchises in their own right is because the originals were so unique, so oddly expressive of that near-anarchic summertime spirit that you ingest and celebrate as a kid and too often forget about as you get older. 
The last decade or so has seen some imaginative franchise work, particularly the Harry Potter film series and Christopher Nolan’s deep, dark Batman films. Less inspired are the Iron Man, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spider-Man films. While the former group, despite heavy studio investment, seem to have hewed closer to their creators’ vision, the latter and more dominant group are immersed in the unavoidable stench of corporate strategy – tuned ever-so carefully toward pre-packaged safety, their plots and characters arranged just so, in a way that guarantees mediocrity free of surprise or risk.

The same can easily be said of most big-budget productions, but the legacy and cultural memory associated with summer releases is something special – and it has mostly been handed a raw deal by Hollywood of late. Whereas summertime releases once grabbed our attention with a certain amount of invention, wit, daring, big ideas, and originality (and, of course, marketing assaults), those assaults are now even more aggressive and are backed by built-in audiences for pre-existing characters, stories, and media. It’s that immediate identifiability that matters most. As long as you hire Johnny Depp or Michael Bay, you can safely pour $300 million into America’s top-selling washing machine and turn it into a ten-year film franchise complete with sex-toy merch and a ride at Disneyland called The Spin Cycle.
Director Edgar Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall have wisely hewn to the unique humor and whimsy of O’Malley’s comics – rather than “expanding” Scott Pilgrim’s story into something gargantuan and inappropriate, which would have killed the characters. Special effects and other visual touches abound in the film, but everything from the situations to the conflicts to the sight gags stem from Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers and Gideon Graves, et al – not from a desire to wow audiences or ensure that every last dollar of the film’s production budget shows up on screen.
What it boils down to really is the same old goddamn argument that is made time and again, over and over, by people who get it – and is routinely ignored by those who don’t: stick with your characters. Abandon them, and you endanger continuity of plot and the long-term shelf-life of a film.
If the summer movie-going season is to have a future – and let’s face it, most big summer releases from the past decade are beyond forgettable – filmmakers and, most importantly, executives should look at how the spirit and craft of Scott Pilgrim relates to the sleeper blockbusters (Jaws, Star Wars, Die Hard) of the past. Bold, unwavering risk and a commitment to character have always been the key elements in the best summer thrill-rides – and the seeds of every major film franchise.

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