By Christopher Campbell | Spout November 9, 2010 at 6:05AM
While "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" was playing to a disappointingly small audience upon its release this past summer, many movie geeks predicted that when the film hit home video and mainstream audiences "discovered" it there/then that these people would admit they wish they'd seen it in theaters. I disagreed at the time partly because I don't think a lot of those viewers care what format they see most films in. But now I'm also wondering if the mainstream audience will even "discover" and embrace the comic book adaptation the way a lot of bloggers hopefully and scornfully presume. It could be a while before we see just how big a hit "Scott Pilgrim" is on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD/etc. and just how may new fans it acquires (the first week of sales/rentals will likely consist predominantly of those devout followers who've already seen it, once or multiple times). But it doesn't matter. I don't imagine "Scott Pilgrim" becoming a widely accepted classic anymore than I see any of the other recent gushing-geek favorites ("Watchmen," for instance) doing so.
And here's why: it doesn't relate to their world. I thought about this after seeing the "Sucker Punch" trailer and doubting it's potential for having any greater mainstream success than "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," of which it very much reminds me. Though "Scott Pilgrim" doesn't completely enter into a computer-generated world the way these other films do, it doesn't exactly look like it's set in the real world, either. That's not a shot at the Toronto setting, though had the movie been made in a more familiar city like New York it might have been more identified with. I'm thinking more of the stylish and sometimes silly comic- and video game-inspired effects that indicate we're looking at a fantastical universe which just so happens to be modeled after the Canadian metropolis it was filmed in. "Scott Pilgrim" at times looks like it involves fantasy situations imposing upon real life, but it doesn't. Pilgrim and his enemies do not exist as fantastical creatures or employ magical powers; their universe does.
I have a theory -- and it's just a theory, so please do argue against it -- that mainstream viewers don't want to see unrecognizable universes. They want sci-fi and fantasy, sure, but they're more inclined to watch something in which the unknown enters the known world. Robots and aliens among us, not humans on other worlds and in strange and distant futures. Even with "The Matrix," to which "Scott Pilgrim" has been likened, the fantasy world was in context the world we're familiar with, and Neo was an outsider who'd come to it/us from the unfamiliar "real" space. Surely most of the fans of that film prefer the scenes in which a super-powered Keanu Reeves is doing magical things in "our" universe, even if it's a false one, rather than the scenes outside the Matrix in that dark, dystopic "reality."
The same can be argued for why "Inception" was more popular. One of my main issues with that movie is that it isn't surreal enough, but for the majority of moviegoers this was likely a popular factor. The dream worlds in "Inception" looked like our real world for the most part, and fantasy occurred in this "realistic" space instead of there being "realistic" people in a fantasy space. Had "Inception" really been like the comparable anime film "Paprika," with its spectacularly bizarre dreamscapes, I don't think it would have fared so well. It relates to why Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have also been so successful: they seem to bring the world of the superhero into our own relatable world and integrate the viewers' identifiable problems and concerns. Same goes for "Iron Man" and many other recent successful comic book movies.
So you may now wonder why movies like "Alice in Wonderland" and "Prince of Persia" did so much better at the box office, if my theory is worth anything. Well, they are more familiar properties, which also would explain even bigger green-screen-dependent films like the "Star Wars" prequels as well as relatively fantastical franchises like "Lord of the Rings" -- though I would argue that enough of "LOTR" exists in a "real," relatable space in which fantasy has been introduced and is merely an additional element.
On the other token, how do I explain the fairly disappointing box office of "Kick-Ass," which means precisely to do as "The Dark Knight" has by attempting to show us what our world would be like if people started trying to be "super" heroes? Aside from somewhat considering its lack of either proven characters or more fantastical/magical characters (the heroes don't have special powers like Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men), I actually believe "Kick-Ass" will eventually gain a larger fanbase on video than "Scott Pilgrim" will.
I don't mean any of this to be critical against "Scott Pilgrim," which I like A LOT more than I expected to (as do others -- part of the reason the geek bloggers think mainstream audiences will similarly be pleasantly surprised by it), nor do I mean to criticize the large audiences who will not in fact ever warm up to a movie like this, or other unfamiliar properties set in fantasy worlds. It just may be how it is. Or it may not be. Presently I'm just hypothesizing it to be such.