Netflix’s Scott Pilgrim Takes Off isn’t an adaptation — it’s a remix

- Published: 20 November 2023
A still photo of Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers in the animated Netflix series Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.
Image: Netflix

When the news came that Netflix was making an animated version of Scott Pilgrim, one that brought back all of the original film actors (along with the director and series creator), it raised some interesting questions. Mostly, I was curious just how much would change as the story shifted mediums. While the original comics and the live-action film adaptation had their differences, they both still largely told the same story about a 20-something slacker from Toronto fighting his way through his girlfriend’s dating history. But for the new series, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, the story isn’t just a departure — it completely blows up the timeline.

Note: This article includes some spoilers for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.

At first, it doesn’t really feel that way. For most of the first episode (of eight), Takes Off plays out like, well, an animated version of Scott Pilgrim. There are some superficial differences — Ramona now delivers DVDs for Netflix instead of packages for Amazon, since the show is on Netflix — but otherwise things are basically the same. That means it’s a story about Scott (Michael Cera), who is nerdy, lazy, and oblivious to the feelings of everyone around him. He meets the (literal) girl of his dreams in Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and they go out, despite the fact that he’s already dating a high-school girl named Knives (Ellen Wong).

And then things get pretty weird. Ramona, it turns out, has seven evil exes, and in order to date her, Scott has to defeat them all. It’s basically a love story with the structure of a video game, using Street Fighter violence to explore a whole lot of emotional baggage. Takes Off follows that story up until the very first fight between Scott and the initial evil ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha). Then it, ahem, takes off in another direction.

Okay, seriously: if you want to avoid spoilers, now is the time to leave.

Takes Off is a series designed around the idea of what if? In this case, creator Bryan Lee O’Malley and co-writer BenDavid Grabinski ask what would happen if Scott actually lost that fight against Matthew? And not only lost but was pulled into a mysterious vegan portal so that no one had any idea where he was? That’s exactly what happens, and it has all kinds of ripple effects. Matthew gets so much confidence from winning that he takes over the League of Evil Exes and the multimillion-dollar empire of its leader, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). Knives channels the loss of Scott into a songwriting career alongside Scott’s bandmate Stephen (Mark Webber). And Ramona becomes a detective of sorts, searching for the kidnapper by investigating every potential suspect.

It’s a huge shift, and as a longtime fan of the Scott Pilgrim mythos, it was a lot of fun watching these characters in new situations. But the change is actually much more significant than that. By removing Scott from the equation for a large part of the series, Takes Off shifts the focus to everyone else. Ramona, in particular, is now front and center, spending each episode looking into her exes (and others) as the possible culprits for Scott’s disappearance.

The result is that we get a much deeper look at characters who previously got short shrift, particularly in the rapid-paced movie. You get to see Ramona come to terms with, and apologize for, how shitty she was to Roxie (Mae Whitman) when they dated, and how Romana breaking up with Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) is what inspired him to become the world’s most famous skater / actor in the first place. Even the Katayanagi twins (Shôta and Keita Saitô), who barely do anything in the movie aside from summon a giant holographic dragon, have a compelling arc. Things have changed so much that Gideon — Gideon! — becomes a sympathetic figure at certain points.

Ramona Flowers fighting Roxie in the Scott Pilgrim Takes Off animated series on Netflix.Image: Netflix

The story eventually gets pretty meta. Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) writes a screenplay in his sleep, which bears a striking resemblance to the original Scott Pilgrim movie and eventually it gets turned into a film. There are characters cosplaying as other characters and all kinds of other weirdness that, I promise, will make sense by the end. I won’t spoil the big twists from later, but Takes Off’s meta-ness gets cranked up to 11, with all kinds of shenanigans involving time travel and, at one point, a musical. Again, it’s not just an opportunity to see beloved characters in weird new situations but also a chance to analyze their decisions — both in this show and in past versions of Scott Pilgrim — in a deeper way.

Inversely, the thing that makes Takes Off so fascinating to longtime fans also means it’s not necessarily the best entry point for the series. So much of the delight I got from the show came from the way it subverted my expectations, taking a story I thought I knew so well and twisting it into something full of surprises, while opening up space for characters who aren’t named Scott. It does still ultimately follow some of the same beats and touches on the same themes of self-awareness and acceptance. And like the movie, it also looks cool as hell. As one character says toward the end: “the game has changed, but the players are the same.”

I’m not sure if it’ll have the same impact if you have no history with the franchise. But either way, Takes Off does something very smart for those who do have that history: remixing a familiar tale instead of retelling it.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is streaming on Netflix now.

Source: theverge.com