So there's still the usual buzz 'n' talk of comics movies -- what will Joss Whedon's take
on The Avengers be like? Will Thor sort of fizzle at the box office, like the Hulk
attempts, next summer? And is Riddler really in the next Chris Nolan Batman installment? .
But this summer was supposed to end with comics movies going in another direction, away
from the sometimes interesting, yet increasingly "play it safe" caped fare being offered
by the studios -- which, if anything, are always interested in releasing safe fare.
That other direction was to be Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, from the series of graphic
novels that many readers here -- along with yer two humble correspondents -- have enjoyed
since their initial release, a handful of years back. (See sidebar for review
of the Pilgrim finale).
And yet, for all the billboard adverts, the big splash at Comic-Con, and all other
promotion Universal did, the movie has (as of this writing) only made back about half
its costs -- $30 million at the U.S. box office, against a tab of $60 million. Another $11
million was raked in internationally (according to the fine folks at Box Office Mojo), for
a total of $41 million, and therefore an actual loss of a mere $20 mil. Of course, that's
exclusive of advertising costs.
So, speaking of fizzles, why did the Scott Pilgrim flick have such a big one? Why
didn't it pull an end-of-summer surprise like last year's District 9 or
Inglourious Basterds? (the former being made for much less that Pilgrim,
admittedly, but both late summer "genre"-themed successes).
Well, it's hard to say what the "official" reasons might be, if there are any, but
probably Scott Pilgrim should've been made for a lot less, given its potential
audience -- which was always bound to be smaller than one for Batman.
Batman/Iron Man/Spiderman flicks -- when done well, and enjoying good word of
mouth -- can draw in "casual" viewers (i.e., those who don't read comics), since
those "franchises" (pardon me) have been around for multiple generations, and
everyone knows the characters.
The thing with Scott Pilgrim is that no one knew what or who it was. And
by "everyone" I don't mean you or me, but the types of people you need to turn a tidy
profit on a $60 million film. Which of course, isn't as costly as a $100 or $200 million
dollar superhero or 3-D off-world movie, but still.
My 16 year-old son loved Scott Pilgrim and considers it, I think, a touchstone
for his generation. A narrative in a "traditional" medium (in this case films, but of
course, comics before that) that takes its cues -- its own internal logic, scene
transitions, etc. -- from the newer "logic" of video games.
And of course the comics, at least, are structured on "levels" -- if that's what
we're still calling the various "stages" of a videogame's narrative progress (though
my son informs me that's somewhat passé) -- where each of the "evil exes" that
Scott has to fight, to win the love of inter-dimensional messenger girl Ramona
Flowers (I'm condensing here, and assuming a certain reader familiarity with the
story), while contending with his twenty-something issues of low-wage jobs, near
homelessness, and romantic and sexual ennui.
(On the other hand, it's been a couple of decades since I've been a twenty-something,
and it occurs to me that I contend with many of those same issues as a middle-aged
divorced single dad!)
But the producers made a mistake when envisioning the film, I think, because of that
videogame logic -- the defeated enemies turning into piles of coins, with boons
like "extra lives" and health points, and of course the "wire-work"-like martial
arts moves, and the swordplay. Ah, the swords -- emerging out of nowhere (or
sometimes chest cavities), to slash and parry with (and even, in the high stakes
finale, to get stabbed with and spill actual blood over. Good thing about those
extra lives, eh?).
The producers saw all the moves, and suddenly, Scott Pilgrim becomes a movie about
a mild-mannered guy (played, natch, by Michael Cera), who has a secret identity
(practically) as an on-call ninja sword fighter.
It smacked of superhero, after all.
Instead, they should have conceived the film more along the lines of Ghost World
or American Splendor (RIP, Harvey!) -- a character study. And more of an art
house or indie film, in terms of budgeting, advertising -- and release strategies.
And I think that's what I missed in the film adaptation, busy shoehorning all the
graphic novels into a single tale -- more of a look at the supporting players (Scott's
roommate Wallace, to use but one example) than the film could really afford.
Not that I didn't like the film -- I did. It was fun, and enough of the book's quirkiness
was intact, but somehow the wistfulness of the books, the ruminations between the
swordplay, all was given short shrift. Not that movies do "rumination" well, of course,
at least, not anymore.
So the film never had much of a chance to build word-of-mouth to "non-initiates." It's
not like hearing "hey, this is a really great Batman flick!," even if you haven't looked
at one of the comics in years.
Instead, a description of Pilgrim -- to any of my fellow middle-agers, say -- would
run along the lines of "well, it's about a kind of feckless kid who has videogame powers,
and mysterious sword fighting skills, and has to fight his girlfriend's ex-lovers."
Hmm. Well, maybe that would be intriguing, I don't know. But I think the sword fighting
should have been more of a secondary element, whereas by the end, the fight moves take
over the whole story.
Still, I was going to see the movie anyway, since I already knew my Pilgrim (thanks to
this reviewing gig and original word of mouth from partner-in-crime Mr. Klaw). And the
film has at least helped the sale of the books.
But has it helped other quirky graphic novel properties get to the screen, or will
they be deemed too "risky" now?
We'll have to see how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does in its afterlife on DVDs,
and in streams and downloads. Still, one of those extra lives -- of the sort that save Scott
in both film and graphic novel -- could be really handy for the producers, in terms of
re-conceiving what should have been, or could have been, a transformative project, in
terms of Hollywood's relationship to what it finds in sequential panels, and what it sees as "cinematic."
Or thought-provoking, or even mind-blowing.
Alas, it seems that the only things "blowing" in summer comic movies to come will be capes, and explosions.