Scott Pilgrim, the slacker hero of the new action-comedy “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” has just discovered that in order to win the love of the beautiful Ramona Flowers, he must defeat her seven evil exes in single combat. Clearly, it’s time for him to step up and be a man.
But what does that mean, exactly? Scott’s no macho, martini-swilling muscleman in the mode of James Bond. He’s a lazy, unemployed and charmingly naive video-gamer and incompetent bass player in a semi-competent rock trio, whose ability to charm women is equalled by his ability to screw up his relationships with them. Before he meets Ramona, the 23-year-old Scott is dating a high-school student while nursing the wounds of a previous breakup. In short, Scott’s kind of a loser, and definitely a geek.
Luckily, in the world of Scott Pilgrim, having great video-game combat skills also means you’ve got Bruce Lee-level skill at kung fu, all the better to defend yourself when Ramona’s exes start throwing kicks and punches. But still, Pilgrim’s path toward victory is made more difficult by his own naivete; he’s got to find out for himself what it means for a guy like him to grow up.
It’s hard to imagine a better choice to play Pilgrim than Michael Cera, who has perfected a knack for playing dorky guys to a point dangerously close to stereotype. Cera made his name as the sweetly neurotic George-Michael Bluth in the cult sitcom “Arrested Development,” where the young unknown held his own against what’s probably the best comedic ensemble cast of TV’s last decade.
He parlayed that into a movie career with two huge 2007 hits, “Superbad” and “Juno,” playing variations on the George-Michael theme of the introverted, decent young man whose vulnerability makes viewers root for him.
His next major roles, in the indie romances “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” and “Paper Heart,” highlighted another side of Cera’s persona: He’s great at playing the kind of geek who makes a good boyfriend, sort of a modern take on the romantic hero typified by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” or Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” The Cera-style character is likeable but foolish, smart but not necessarily wise, shy but possessed of a quietly lacerating wit, and more likely to win over the heart of the heroine by kindness and humor than good looks or feats of strength.
From Holden Caulfield to Spider-Man
To be sure, there’s always been a place for geeks and outsiders as main characters: Holden Caulfield of “Catcher in the Rye” lurks somewhere in Scott Pilgrim’s distant ancestry. And the mystery genre would be nowhere without its army of detail-obsessed, smart and socially awkward sleuths, starting with Sherlock Holmes. And there’s nearly the entire 1960s Marvel Comics superhero roster, particularly Spider-Man, nebbishy science student by day and wall-crawling webslinger at night.
That kind of dorky vulnerability was relatively rare in the movies, though. Putting aside cult hits like “Buckaroo Banzai” and “Real Genius,” the comic heroes of the 1980s put a different kind of spin on earlier macho cool. The frat boys of “Animal House,” Chevy Chase’s wiseass detective in “Fletch” and Bill Murray’s equally wiseass paranormal investigator in “Ghostbusters” were all outsiders — but coolly unflappable ones, not the vulnerable schmoes played today by guys like Cera, Seth Rogen and Simon Pegg.
But in recent years, movies and TV are increasingly populated with slacker heroes whose geekiness is worn on their sleeves.
Some directors have based their entire careers exploring this type of guy — like Joss Whedon, Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, and of course “Pilgrim” director Edgar Wright, who earlier teamed with Pegg for “Shaun of the Dead.” Once largely stuck as hapless sidekicks or hopeless comic relief, Scott Pilgrim and his spiritual cousins in movies now form a new tribe of leading men: the unlikely loser who’s not on the sidelines, but at the center of the story.
The rise of the geek as action hero, of course, doesn’t come out of nowhere, but reflects wider shifts in our culture. When Bill Gates became the world’s richest man, suddenly the kid who got shoved into the lockers in high school became the man who rules the world.
It also goes hand in hand with a change in what audiences expect out of more conventional leading men. James Bond’s evolution is the perfect example: Sean Connery made the British super-spy an icon for an entire generation of males by personifying an old-school macho style — hard-drinking, hard-boiled and unafraid to slap a woman who didn’t show sufficient respect.
That kind of repellent behavior has no place in the modern, post-feminist action hero, and current Bond Daniel Craig instead plays him as a kinder, gentler tough guy, traits he shares with the other defining super-spy of the last few years, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.
Pilgrim’s quirks don’t disqualify him as a romantic hero, but that hasn’t always been the case in Hollywood movies. Just ask Jon Cryer, who played Molly Ringwald’s dorky but doggedly loyal friend Duckie Dale in the 1984 teen romance “Pretty in Pink.” The original script called for Duckie to win Ringwald’s heart at the end of the movie, but test audiences supposedly found the idea so unconvincing that it had to be changed.
Scott Pilgrim, meanwhile, has plenty of girlfriend troubles, but attracting women isn’t his problem, it’s keeping them. When he can find the time between fighting off Ramona’s exes, Scott also needs to get closure on the wreckage of his own previous relationships, and the pain he and his own exes inflicted on each other, however inadvertently. Geek though he is, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t need to get a life — he just needs to figure out what to do with the one he’s got.
Christopher Bahn is a writer in Minneapolis.