Scott Pilgrim, the eponymous protagonist of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, gets a second chance at the end of his film. (If like myself, you were reared in the videogame era, I suppose this notion of respawning is taken for granted.) As a twist this second time around, Pilgrim discovers his goal is not to rescue the girl but to save himself. Not the most noble moral, perhaps. In fact, the movie has no shame wearing its message on its sleeve: Scott Pilgrim just needs some self-respect.
I've seen this movie before. A year ago, when it was called 500 Days of Summer. Both films, mildly delighting in their on screen execution, share a similarly flawed storyline: hipster boy, gripping onto his adolescence unusually late into life, falls in love with a contemptuous, undeserving girl, sacrifices too much to win her love, and ultimately discovers that she was never worth his adoration in the first place. Sadly, the audience came to that conclusion hours earlier. And thus both films require indulging a feature-length love story you never root for -- as though the filmmakers thought merely by announcing the two were in love, it meant the Gods had ordained it, and the audience would follow in tow.
I could regard these films as somewhat marred trifles, and chalk up my dislike to personal taste. But the storyline's reoccurrence in our culture makes me ponder: is simple self-respect a lesson that our society needs to learn?
It seems cosmic that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was released 65 years to the day of the end of WWII. I, an acolyte of Tom Brokaw's writing on the period, always find it hard not to compare that Greatest Generation to ours. And hard not to compare their monumental struggle against Germany and the Great Depression to the slow-simmering crises we face, of a mired war in Afghanistan, a recession of our own debt-blind creation, and a political culture that has devolved into incessant bickering. It seems in our forbearers' era -- before respawning was a word -- men became men. True evils emerged, and though our boys longed for the crèche's warmth, they rose to the challenge. I know I'm partially blinded by a nostalgic patina, historical warts slowly coated over by time. Not every mid-century love story was as pure as Casablanca or war story as selfless as Saving Private Ryan. But one quality at least is broadly true: a man was raised to focus on the world around him. For better or worse, there was no bookstore aisle bloated with tomes on self-help.
Today's culture is largely something different. From the X generation's slacker identity to the Y generation's mantra "each person is special," we seem myopically attentive to our own desires and peccadilloes. We no longer confront the existential threat of great armies, but trudge through challenges in pursuit of the easiest exit. (i.e. Afghan pullout, renewing the Bush-era tax cuts, our personal mountains of credit card debt.) It's as though, just like Pilgrim's love story, too much of our attention is squandered on deluded obsessions.
I believe Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, 500 Days of Summer, and the spate of other odes to delayed-adulthood are a call for help. A repressed longing in society to turn away from the culture-of-me. Of course not all of society struggles with this. There is a certain rich man's burden to this desire for challenge, a luxury unique to those who haven't been asked to sacrifice. But if this is the new calling many of us seek, are we actually prepared for the demands it will ask of us? Not accomplishment bought on borrowed debt, but a forthright and lasting campaign for change.
Pick your crisis: the Middle East, global warming, our economic meltdown. Their solutions will not be had in one election cycle or without our blood in the game. Conquering them will not be carefree like a teenage romance. And unlike Scott Pilgrim, our story won't end with a second chance. But it is a commitment I am sure we all believe is important.
These are the stories -- in life and on screen -- we seemingly hope to see unfold. And if I am correct, if these movies are touching on something true, and if the desire and cultural thread continue to take hold, I suspect self-respect will no longer be a lesson that Hollywood has to teach us.