SCOTT PILGRIM vs. Himself

Sometimes you're your own worst evil ex.

Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World pits its titular protagonist against many foes, chiefly the seven evil exes of (literal and figurative) dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but no enemy is greater than the one lurking within. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is one of the greatest modern comic book films, and one of the most underrated. It's a film that creates a hero by asking him not to save the world, or even to save a girl, but to save himself by defeating the ultimate villain: himself.

With every new relationship comes infatuation, that hormonal and uncontrollable concoction of simmering feelings and impulses that drive us to be our best and our worst. When Scott (Michael Cera) meets Ramona, he's already at a low point: still reeling from an ego-crushing break-up, the 22 year-old aspiring musician is dramatically compensating for his low self-esteem and crippling neuroses by dating an Asian high school girl, using the naive Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) to put a little extra pep in his step -- much to the chagrin of his bandmate and ex-girlfriend Kim Pine (Alison Pill).

Scott takes the cowardly, long and drawn out approach to breaking up with Knives, still seeing her in secret while Ramona's seven ex-boyfriends (and one girlfriend -- she had a phase), intent on controlling the future of her love life, challenge Scott to a series of fights -- if he can defeat all seven of them, including the ultimate evil ex, arrogant record exec Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), then Scott will prove he deserves to date Ramona free and clear of further reprisal. Ramona's exes are symbolic of the way our past relationships continue to haunt us long after we've left them behind, and the way they imprint themselves on our lives. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing: we can choose to take what we've learned from these experiences and incorporate them, our past selves, and who we were with these people into who we are now, while accepting that we are an evolution of what once was -- or we can let that past continue to hound us, trapping us in a state of arrested development.

While Ramona has mostly moved on, her exes clearly haven't, but it's Scott's past that's the real problem. He's oblivious to the hurt he's caused others, so narrowly and selfishly focused on the instant gratification he derives from his infatuation -- infatuation that drives him to act like a total jackass. Whether it's treating Knives like an accessory to boost his confidence, blowing her off and taking the long way around to ending the relationship after he's met someone new (or "new-new"), or going along with whatever Ramona says she likes or dislikes just to get her to like him more the first time they hang out, Scott is a coward... and he's always been one, but he's blind to it. No matter how many times his friends point it out to him, he can't seem to grasp that he's been a participant in his own misery.

We are by nature so self-involved, refracting every situation through a slight lens colored only by ourselves and our own feelings and desires. Undermining Scott at every turn is himself: he doesn't think he's good enough for Ramona because he's intimidated by how great she is; he's placed her on a pedestal in his mind, as we so often do in the early infatuation stages of a relationship with people we hardly know. But the more we discover their flaws, the more the pedestal crumbles. That's not a reflection of their problems; it's a reflection of our own. With Scott's self-esteem making him second-guess every little thing he says and does around Ramona, seven exes aren't helping matters much. His delicate ego is rattled by jealousy, and the prospect that there might have been so many more people who came and conquered before him, who pleased and mattered and inspired feelings that his broken heart so desperately wants to feel and make someone feel again.

Beating Ramona's exes on the surface is a macho exercise, for the unemployed and underachieving young Scott to prove his worth as a man both physically and romantically. But Ramona never asks or demands for him to embark on this journey -- ultimately, it's an exercise in futility. No matter how many exes he pulverizes, Scott is just exploiting and massaging the petty jealousies and neuroses within himself. As long as he remains preoccupied with her past instead of focusing on himself and his own issues, he's just another evil ex in the making. And that's one of the biggest villains we face in relationships: turning our attention to the past of our loved ones instead of remaining in the here and now and staying focused on ourselves and where we come from. All that should matter of Ramona's past is the way it's shaped who she has become. If we let jealousy balloon up into a giant monster in our minds, it will always, always win, defeating not only us, but those we love in the process.

In the end, Scott realizes -- almost too late -- that he shouldn't be fighting for Ramona or the dishonored Knives (who has learned to take care of herself), but for himself. Scott earns the power of self-respect and becomes his own man, recognizing his flaws and the harm he's done others, defeating Gideon and earning the respect of his friends and peers in the process. All of the negative qualities within himself -- the self-doubt and neuroses and jealousy and cowardice -- are embodied in one final villain, but rather than destroy this Nega-Scott, Scott embraces his flaws. In order to become a hero, to become the kind of person capable of love and respect, we have to embrace our past and reconcile the good and bad within ourselves. Sometimes the person worth fighting for is us.

This was originally published in the February edition of Birth.Movies.Death. See the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Quote-Along at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.

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