A lot has been made of the video game elements in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Video games are an important influence on current screenwriting. But you won’t find it here. Sure, there’s lots of flash, and some of it’s amusing and inventive. But it’s really video game tactics, played out on the scene level. The story strategy of this film is actually quite old fashioned. Unfortunately in this area, the writers were missing a few of the basic craft elements like plot and genre.
Video game story structure has nothing to do with flashy fights or self-reflexive, cultural in-jokes. Video game story structure is all about exploring a highly detailed story world, moving through deeper and deeper levels and giving the viewer a number of alternative plot lines. None of that happens inScott Pilgrim. In fact, its structure borrows from the oldest form in storytelling, the myth journey.
Like Hercules with his twelve trials, Scott must defeat a succession of opponents, in this case the seven evil exes in order to win the hand of the damsel, who remains completely passive throughout the film. It’s similar to the structure you get in a tournament. But the problem with a tournament story structure – 7 fights in succession – is it creates the ultimate episodic story.
That’s the first reason this movie died at the box office: there is no plot. The fights with the 7 exes are all the same story beat. Making matters worse is there is no reason for the fights, other than the movie says Scott must fight each ex. But if each is an ex, why does Scott need to fight them? That’s the best part about an ex; he’s already lost.
Notice that instead of the fights being the height of drama, they are the ultimate dead zone. And because they are purposely so stylized, we don’t even get the pleasure of seeing the hero in physical jeopardy, along with the suspense of wondering if he will win or not. Obviously we’re supposed to know these are fantasy fights. But when there is clearly no chance the hero can lose, a fight is nothing but story padding.
Lack of plot is a serious flaw, but in a quirky film like this it’s not fatal. A far bigger disappointment is how this film missed the potential to do something special with its genre. Believe it or not, Scott Pilgrim is a romantic comedy. And it could have been the first truly original romantic comedy for the teen and 20s crowd. No doubt there is some original stuff here. But it’s in the dialogue, not the story.
Ironically, to write an original script at the story level, you have to first hit the story beats (events) that have determined the romantic comedy genre for hundreds of years. Those beats aren’t there by happenstance. They are the way the creation of love between two people is communicated to an audience. It’s part of the human brain. For the writer, hitting those beats gets you in the door; it makes the emotion of the story possible. Then you have to twist the beats to give the audience the delight of the new.
Maybe the writers thought the romantic part of their comedy wasn’t important. Or they were too busy thinking up hip lines. All I know is they forgot the 1st rule of the love story: there has to be an immediate attraction between the two leads, even if they start with a fight. In Scott Pilgrim, there is no reason for her to like him. Or for him to be awed by her. And we don’t get those reasons at any time during the course of the film.
I always tell romantic comedy and love story screenwriters that you can’t montage love. The power of film allows you to tell an audience intellectually that two people have fallen in love in a matter of seconds. But that’s not important. Even in a romantic comedy, everything rests on the emotion of love, the breathtaking, mind-blowing feeling the audience shares with the two characters that: WE’RE IN LOVE! That life-changing feeling between two complex human beings represents the stakes in a love story. If you don’t set that up, and make it believable, the audience will not care.