Toward the end of the almost unbearably long wait for Edgar Wright's movie adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, one of the decade's most endearing indie comics, one of those bite-size television trailers came on and an impression became impossible to shake: If I didn't know that this was likely to be one of the summer's most uniquely crowd-pleasing films, it would look completely lame. From the cutesy effects and unflattering cuts in the plot to that line about being "bi-furious," everything was off. Universal Pictures's marketing department seems to be under the impression that everybody would have totally adored Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist if it just had more magical realism and kung fu.
Whether its bewildered ad campaign will affect Scott Pilgrim's box-office reception remains to be seen, but the misguided promotion can at least be taken as a compliment to what Wright has accomplished. His streamlined version of Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume graphic novel is a hard sell as a comic-book movie, thanks to the series' indie-sized profile and general lack of superhero costumes. But its definitiveness as a comic-book movie makes it silly to sell it as anything else. Combining his pop-culture-crazed slice-of-life BBC series Spaced with the polished flash of 2007's Hot Fuzz, Wright captures the books' goofy hyperactivity as no other working director could. (O'Malley's manga-sized installments, the last of which was released in late July, generally take about half an hour to read.) The film becomes a comic book, just as the book itself plays, self-consciously, like a video game. Wright isn't the first director to fuse all these elements, but he's the first to do it so well.
Even casual audiences, there for what also happens to be a terrific date movie, will feel it. Scott Pilgrim's first act runs at a cartoony pace, introducing the 22-year-old semi-hero Pilgrim (Michael Cera, not straying too far from his usual shtick), his band Sex Bob-Omb, and Pilgrim's teenage girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) through a series of sly captions, sight gags, and smash cuts that also establish an alternate Toronto where social, musical, and romantic conflicts carry apocalyptic weight. The film and its actors are very funny—it's almost unfair the way Kieran Culkin, as Scott's gay roommate Wallace, steals scenes—but much of the comic's real appeal comes from its casually meta tone, and Wright brings it across onscreen with style. Scott Pilgrim brims with energy, and maintains it for twice as long as expected without ever tiring the audience out.
The visual wit remains when things finally do slow down, but the exposition gives way to bigger matters. Purple-haired mystery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has arrived on the scene, and Scott is smitten; after striking out with her at a party with a practiced bit of Pac-Man trivia, he finds out she works for Amazon and promptly sits waiting at his door for a frivolous order to arrive. The two begin a tenuous courtship, and before long Scott is skimming an e-mail informing him that Ramona's League of Seven Evil Exes will soon descend on Toronto to hand him his ass in her honor.
As these battles break out, often quite suddenly, the momentum picks back up, bringing the book's video-game pastiches to brilliant life. Top-notch action choreography informs the Ex fights, but so does cleverness; from a bass-off with a powerful vegan (Brandon Routh) to Scott's showdown with club magnate/final boss Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), Wright makes room for each fight to distinguish itself, and tweaks O'Malley's surrounding narrative to make sure they push the story where it needs to go.
The trade-off is that much of the books' characterization and narrative asides, along with one or two of the better adventure sequences, don't make it into the film. But there's not much onscreen to suggest anything's missing; even paring down the story's emotional core pays off—Scott and Ramona's relationship problems run deep in every direction in the books, but finding simpler ways to cover the same territory makes the movie more digestible. Perhaps the film's most winning deviation, in fact, is how it all wraps up. Though screenwriters Wright and Michael Bacall were obviously in close contact with O'Malley throughout production, the film was written prior to the release of the final two volumes, and working from O'Malley's ideas rather than his text helps them find an ending that's less poignant but arguably more effective than the books'.
Above all, Scott Pilgrim is sweet, exciting, and more pure fun than any other film this summer, and it's destined, like so many poorly marketed movies before it, to catch up with you eventually.