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Will the Real ‘Scott Pilgrim’ Please Stand Up?

Netflix’s new anime adaptation keeps the cult movie’s cast but otherwise drastically reimagines the original story and characters. Does it still have the magic of the original graphic novels?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Were we to outline the millennial canon—a collection of works that illuminate the generation’s character—then surely Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim would rank rather prominently. Scott Pilgrim is the story of a dweeby Canadian bassist who meet-cutes his mysterious American dream girl, Ramona Flowers, only to discover that in order to date Ramona, he must first defeat her “seven evil exes” in a series of boss fights across the mean streets and concert halls of Toronto.

These graphic novels, serialized in six volumes, released from 2004 through 2010, were a new sort of coming-of-age saga—a cute but also quite moody comic about love and video games and rock music. While O’Malley was still writing Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright directed a largely faithful live-action film adaptation, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Scott and Ramona, respectively, alongside a weirdly stacked cast of once and future stars: Chris Evans, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Kieran Culkin. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World was a box office flop in its opening weekend but then a weirdly resilient cultural object in the following decade, spawning so many GIFs on Peak Tumblr as the movie matured into a nerdy cult classic. Now, the acclaimed anime studio Science Saru, in conjunction with Netflix, has reimagined the comic as an eight-episode series, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. O’Malley wrote this new series with BenDavid Grabinski, and he also made a point to recruit all of the actors from Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World for the voice cast of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off; Edgar Wright also returns as an executive producer.

But Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, rather unlike Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, is a smorgasbord of creative liberties. O’Malley was still writing the comic while Wright’s live-action adaptation was in postproduction, and he’s recently talked about how the performances in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World gave him a new perspective and new ideas for several characters—possibilities he now gets to pursue in the anime.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was billed as an adaptation but turns out to be a meta sort-of sequel or reboot. This is the story of Scott Pilgrim in fact losing that first fight with Ramona’s first boyfriend, Matthew Patel, at Club Rockit. In this version, Scott seemingly dies in battle before Ramona discovers that Scott hasn’t been killed, but rather kidnapped. Now, Ramona must confront her own exes and solve the mystery of Scott’s disappearance.

Accordingly, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off features a lot less Scott and a lot more Ramona, especially, but also everyone else in revised capacities. The League of Ramona’s Evil Exes is in disarray, as early on Matthew leads a coup against the group’s founder and the final boss of the original series, Gideon Graves. The other exes, absent any reason or opportunity to battle Scott, instead spend much of the series catching up with Ramona. Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb, is suddenly without a bassist, until drummer Kim Pine recruits Scott’s first girlfriend and Sex Bob-Omb’s no. 1 fan, Knives Chau. (Knives is surely the most improved characterization in Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, compared to her role in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, as Ellen Wong really leans into the new format and voices the character with yandere gusto.) As a reboot, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off gets to preserve these characters in adolescence but otherwise give them new glimpses and alternative arcs. The original premise is certainly more compelling for Scott’s intense and singular determination—beat the exes, win the girl—but Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is a refreshingly loose and playful take on these character dynamics.

The very fact of Scott Pilgrim enjoying a 2020s revival isn’t so surprising, given the unkillable nature of IP these days. And that the revival comes in the form of a somewhat subversive reboot also isn’t so surprising, given the meta humor of the original comic. But why anime? And why would O’Malley and Grabinski go through the trouble of reuniting the actors from the live-action adaptation for the voice cast? The answer, in both cases, is nostalgia. Scott Pilgrim and O’Malley’s other works are chock-full of homages to video games, anime, and manga; in fact, Scott Pilgrim is in large part distinguished in balancing its more novelistic aspects with good ol’ fashioned superhero action.

Anime, if anything, ends up feeling like an inevitable format for Scott Pilgrim, even if the production is something of a fluke: This sort of crossover is pretty rare, and if Netflix didn’t have this particular relationship with Science Saru, then I can’t imagine this particular anime would’ve been made some other way. Which is doubly fortunate, really, as these days I can’t imagine many other studios tackling Scott Pilgrim as capably as Science Saru, a studio renowned for its saucy and surreal depictions of young adulthood.

Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a nostalgic tour of its author’s formative influences, e.g., Scott wears an Astro Boy tee, and he’s constantly talking about Sonic the Hedgehog. This explains the conspicuous effort to hire the old cast for the new series. Wright’s cast may not have been a part of O’Malley’s original vision for Scott Pilgrim, but the cast has, with the passage of time, added a new layer of nostalgia—not for Wright’s live-action adaptation per se, but for the whole cultural peak of Scott Pilgrim in 2010. O’Malley says he was prepared to produce a version of this anime with an original voice cast, in the event that he couldn’t get each and every one of the notable actors from Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World to return for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. I’m sure his backup plan would’ve worked out well enough, but the returning cast really does bolster the series and create the illusion that not much has changed since the release of O’Malley’s final volume and Wright’s adaptation of the comic.

As I was watching an advance screener of the anime, I encountered some online speculation that its release might mark the beginning of a whole new era of Scott Pilgrim content from O’Malley—a Scott Pilgrim Cinematic Universe, even. It was an interesting thought, but also one that, if anything, underscored the limitations of these characters. Scott Pilgrim is such a distinctly adolescent saga, and it’s hard to imagine Scott and Ramona maturing into their 20s, out of their bombastic courtship and into a real relationship or, alternatively, to imagine Scott moving on from Ramona Flowers and wooing some other girl in some later phase of his life. Scott Pilgrim is these characters in this particular time in their lives.

Indeed, in Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, Scott and Ramona both confront much older versions of themselves. Older Scott is still rocking out in a ridiculous band, Older Ramona is still turning her hair purple and pink, but they’re both clearly the worse for wear, and they’re both still reeling from the later, harder work of trying—and for a period, failing—to build a life together. But O’Malley will only go so far in subverting the canonical love story of Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers. It all ends with a kiss, and while O’Malley’s comic and Wright’s movie are both invaluable artifacts of the Tumblr Era, the anime makes for a fantastic epilogue.