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From Cult to Common: Edgar Wright’s Journey to the Mainstream

After the wild success of ‘Baby Driver,’ ‘Last Night in Soho’ marks the director’s most high-profile movie release. But one can’t help but notice the way pleasing the masses can change a creator.

Focus Features/Walt Disney/Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Being a fan of a cult filmmaker is not unlike being a fan of a cult film. There’s the desire to share their work among like-minded individuals, and the fostering of a community through enthusiastic word of mouth. But as with cult movies, there is always the potential of a once-niche interest going mainstream. Suddenly, it seems like everyone is in on the secret.

For better or for worse, this type of breakthrough has defined the latest stage of Edgar Wright’s career. After cutting his teeth with quirky sitcoms and genre comedies in his native England, Wright has transformed into a can’t-miss director whose original projects, while often filled with affectionate pop culture homages, are a breath of fresh air in a theatrical landscape dominated by IP-driven blockbusters. From rambunctious, referential comedies like Hot Fuzz to the bold rom-com-cum-action-movie graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright has been hailed as the “patron saint of fanboy culture.” His latest movie, Last Night in Soho, pays deference to both London’s swinging ’60s and classic giallo films. But it is also tinged with horror, telling a macabre story of a modern-day fashion student who becomes embroiled in a decades-old mystery concerning a nightclub singer who was gruesomely killed.

Because of its subject matter, Last Night in Soho would appear to mark a major tonal departure for Wright, whose work is often suffused with a dry (and unmistakably British) sense of humor. But the fact that Last Night in Soho challenges the idea of what an Edgar Wright film can be is a point unto itself. Like Adam McKay, Wright is continuing to step out of his comfort zone in a bid toward being viewed more as a Serious Filmmaker—and though there have been some speed bumps during this career pivot, it’s been a fascinating journey all the same.

While Wright’s feature film debut was the 1995 Western parody A Fistful of Fingers, its scant budget (just $15,000), lack of a DVD release, and unavailability on a streaming service means that the movie is essentially omitted from the director’s record. (Wright, for his part, has expressed disappointment that A Fistful of Fingers isn’t as refined as the filmmaking debuts of cinematic peers like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and Robert Rodriguez, which might explain its ongoing inaccessibility.) Instead, after directing stints on British sitcoms in the ’90s and early aughts—including Spaced, which marked the beginning of many fruitful collaborations between Wright and Simon Pegg—his real arrival on the big screen was the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. The film follows Shaun (played by Pegg), a downbeat slacker completely oblivious to the apocalypse unfolding around him.

With a title riffing on George Romero, the godfather of the zombie subgenre, Shaun of the Dead leans into established tropes and spins them for comedic effect, like the undead walking so slowly that they’re extremely easy to sidestep. But what really makes Shaun of the Dead resonate is its pointed comparison between zombification and the mindless routines of everyday life. The thrill of the movie’s climax isn’t so much the zombie apocalypse being averted, but Shaun breaking free from a self-perpetuating cycle of mundanity.

For Wright’s follow-up, Hot Fuzz, such mundanity is intended to be a punishment. In it, Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a straight-laced London constable so efficient at his job that he makes the rest of the police department look bad. He’s thereby reassigned to Sandford, Gloucestershire, a sleepy hamlet that routinely wins a “Village of the Year” award. There, Angel meets Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), whose unbridled love of buddy cop action flicks also makes him an awkward fit in a village where nothing happens. Of course, Angel soon discovers that there’s a sinister conspiracy at play in Sandford, and that all the gruesome “accidents” around the village are really the work of a shadowy cabal (the neighborhood watch) setting themselves up to win Village of the Year.

It’s an absurd premise for any movie, let alone an action-movie parody that gleefully riffs on Point Break and Michael Bay’s filmography. But Hot Fuzz works as well as it does because Wright understands the key to making a great parody: the film isn’t a mockery of action movies, but a love letter to the genre’s ridiculous excesses. It’s especially amusing that Wright employs the same kinetic filmmaking techniques of these movies to something as unremarkable as kicking underage kids out of a pub and processing paperwork. But when the fireworks do come in Hot Fuzz’s explosive climax, Wright proves he’s just as capable of spectacle as the filmmakers to whom he’s paying homage.

With Hot Fuzz grossing an encouraging $80 million at the box office, the filmmaker was able to level up for his next project in every sense of the term. Wright’s first—and to date, only—adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, follows its titular bassist (Michael Cera) as he battles the seven evil exes of his newest crush Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). While Scott Pilgrim has an absurdly stacked cast of actors on the cusp of stardom—Winstead, Aubrey Plaza, Brie Larson, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick—the film’s most defining legacy is how it uniquely adopts the structure and iconography of a video game.

In Scott Pilgrim, defeating an evil ex basically becomes a level in a fighting game, heightened by moments like the bad guys exploding into coins when Scott defeats them. The lurid experience is pure sensory overload, a perfect match between source material (Bryan Lee O’Malley’s bold, stylistic graphic novels) and Wright’s own pop sensibilities. By wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, Scott Pilgrim might be the most authentic re-creation of a video game ever adapted for the big screen, a feat that’s particularly impressive considering it isn’t based on an actual video game. The go-for-broke weirdness of Wright’s film drew plenty of admirers, but also limited its mainstream appeal—all told, Scott Pilgrim went down as a box office bomb for Universal.

But Wright’s geeky enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed: Scott Pilgrim was enshrined as a cult classic about as quickly as it bombed, at which point the increasingly buzzy filmmaker landed on the radar of the powers behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (When Marvel comes calling, you’ve definitely graduated from being a cult director.) But before dipping his toes in the MCU, Wright returned to the fruitful well of genre comedies, rounding out the so-called Cornetto trilogy that began with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. (The title refers to, yes, different flavors of Cornetto ice cream cones.) The trilogy-ender, The World’s End, concerns five childhood friends—led, once again, by Pegg and Frost—going on a pub crawl in their hometown. Naturally, that’s where the genre hook comes in: the group soon finds out that the town’s inhabitants have been replaced by aliens. (As far as influences go, the vibe is very Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

With The World’s End, Wright delivers some of his strongest physical comedy to date, highlighted by a (genuinely well-choreographed) bathroom brawl that descends into a gooey mess when the aliens start spewing blue ink out of their bodies. But the movie has a more bittersweet undercurrent than Wright’s previous efforts: The emotional crux of the group’s drunken pilgrimage is that Pegg’s Gary King is an alcoholic desperate to relive the glory days, all while the rest of his friends have moved on with their lives. Wright had made a career out of mining nostalgia up to this point, but The World’s End showcased the drawbacks of always wanting to live in the past.

With the Cornetto trilogy in the rearview, Wright could turn his focus back to Ant-Man. But instead of this being a moment in which Wright cashed in his chips to join the monoculture, it became a turning point in which he backed himself and invested even more into his instincts as a filmmaker. After pursuing an Ant-Man movie for nearly a decade, Wright ultimately exited the project over “creative differences.” “I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie,” Wright explained on Variety’s Playback podcast in 2017.

Whether or not that message is reflected subliminally in the next stage of Wright’s career is open to interpretation, but the Ant-Man fallout allowed the director to focus on a wholly original passion project. The result was Baby Driver, a movie in which the rhythms of the soundtrack match the action unfolding on the screen, a fascinating effect that had some critics likening it to a musical. Whatever you want to call Baby Driver, there’s no denying the power of its opening car chase, set to—and intentionally built around—the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion track “Bellbottoms.”

The built-in explanation for the musical rhythms is that Baby (Ansel Elgort) is constantly listening to songs to drown out his tinnitus, putting the audience in his headspace. But while Baby Driver is an interesting pitch for a movie, at times it struggles to be anything more than a gimmick—one that lacks much of Wright’s signature humor and which peaks early. Baby isn’t a character so much as a cipher for a killer soundtrack, easily overshadowed by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm’s two-bit crooks. This critique, to be fair, isn’t consensus: Baby Driver earned rave reviews and, having grossed over $225 million, catapulted Wright into the mainstream. But the tradeoff of the film’s success is that it lacked some of the trademarks of the director’s early work that earned him a cult following to begin with. (Another development out of the norm: Baby Driver could be the first time that Wright pursues a sequel.)

That Baby Driver felt like a bit of a letdown was indicative of the high bar Wright set for himself—besides, the film’s commercial appeal gave him the freedom to pursue more original projects, including his first documentary, 2021’s The Sparks Brothers. But if the hope was that more creative leeway would prevent a downward trajectory, Last Night in Soho doesn’t do anything to confirm that.

Compared with his comedies riffing on zombies, action-movie tropes, and science-fiction, there’s a sense that Wright is trying to make his influences in Last Night in Soho seem more sophisticated. But while the director’s fastidious re-creation of the past conjures up some indelible images—none better than a giant advertisement for the Bond entry Thunderball in the heart of Soho—Wright commits the cardinal sin of taking himself too seriously. The movie lacks humor, despite the ludicrous theatrics of the fashion industry practically setting up punch lines on a silver platter. And while that wouldn’t be irredeemable if Last Night in Soho nailed the horror elements of the story, it also fails to land effective scares or pile on the gore. Rather than capture the spirit of giallos, Wright makes a lifeless imitation of one; pretty in moments, but ultimately empty.

If there’s an encouraging takeaway from Last Night in Soho and Baby Driver not living up to their full potential, it’s that Wright keeps aiming for something outside of his usual wheelhouse. Clearly, the director isn’t interested in repeating himself—a bold move in its own right, seeing as the Cornetto trilogy is so beloved. Still, it would be great if the Edgar Wright who’s become part of the mainstream could find his way back to what made him a cult filmmaker in the first place. Unlike the message in some of his films, looking for inspiration in the past doesn’t have to be a bad omen.

An earlier version of this piece misstated when Wright exited the Ant-Man project.