This is a rewrite of an article I wrote for UNC’s Games4Learning Blog a few years back. Evidently, I was the last person to update that blog, in 2011. I oughtta see if I can help them out. Anyhow, in that Scott Pilgrim’s life imitates video games, that wasn’t a bad home for this piece. This is a better one.
I’m very interested in heroes and their opposite numbers. Especially in the cape-and-tights set, a good hero is often defined by his villains. What would Batman be without The Joker? The Fantastic Four without Doctor Doom? Captain Sunshine without Boggles the Clue Clown? Their relationships can be simple or complex, allegorical or abstract, literal or symbolic. I could be reductive and say it’s all about the struggle between good and evil and… I wouldn’t be wrong? I also wouldn’t be illuminating anything new. At the very least, the types of good and evil heroes and villains represent are important. Which brings us to to Scott Pilgrim and the Seven Evil Exes.
Scott Pilgrim is a successful graphic novel series from Oni Press, written and drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley, detailing the adventures of Canadian 20-something congenitally awesome slacker Scott Pilgrim. Scott is given an unexpected mission in life when his new girlfriend announces that he must fight/defeat her Seven Evil Exes if he wants to date her. What follows is a series of video game style battles, full of super powers and sometimes robots, as Scott tries to move towards both having a real life and winning not just cartoon fights but also self respect and Ramona’s heart.
It’s good stuff. The comic series ran from 2004 to 2010; the movie was released in 2010 and is similarly good. Not as weird and nuanced as the comic series, certainly, but it did a nice job translating the story, characters, and weird Anime video game atmosphere to the screen. Plus it’s funny, which always wins points in my world. Humor is that spoonful of sugar that lets us savor complex ideas instead of pulling out a shotgun and shooting them down the moment they appear on the horizon. Literally? Yes probably. Humans are a superstitious, cowardly lot but– to our credit– we love to laugh.
Except for his unexplained super powers, Scott is a pretty regular guy. An affable underachiever, he’s clearly scared of growing up; wearing out his friends’ generosity. A good guy, to be sure, but also a guy who’s learning that being a good guy is not enough in life. In short, he’s a post-teenage Everyman, architect of his own wasteland. Ramona Flowers is the person that finally fires Scott’s ambition and drags him, somewhat reluctantly, towards becoming his own person. Of course, he has some obstacles to overcome along the way.
What do Scott’s villains, the Seven Evil Exes, reveal about him? Well, the early Christian hermits known as the Desert Fathers came up with something known as the Seven Deadly Sins; when Captain Marvel approaches the Rock of Eternity they’re the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Either way, they are ready-made for allegories, inner forces for ordinary people to face down or succumb to.
When Saul Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, he didn’t quite talk about the Seven Deadlies by name. Instead of Lust, his character is named Wanton, instead of Pride he lists Pride-of-Life and early contender for worst-named supervillain, Mr. Self-Will. Instead of a girl named Envy, Bunyan writes about a character named… Envy. So yeah, you get the idea.
Scott’s villains are parts of himself. Using the black and white morality of old-school console games as an allegory, O’Malley is giving his readers a post-modern story that resists simple answers. And yet, here we are. For the record, I know Scott’s name comes from a song by Plumtree, but in a story all about self knowledge and self growth, the parallels between the Evil Exes and the Deadly Sins– intended or not– are too good to ignore. Some of the bad guys– Envy Adams, Todd Ingram, Gideon Graves– even have allegorical or semi-allegorical names. This time, though, the hero isn’t trying to be a good Christian. He’s trying to be an adult, a good guy, and finding that morality you learn from fight games (don’t show initiative, just fight the bad guys in the order they’re handed to you) is not exactly getting the job done. Before long he’s winning all the fights and losing Ramona (and his friends’ respect) at the same time.
The Seven Evil Exes. From Matthew Patel to Gideon Gordon Graves, a few of them are characters in their own right, but mostly they represent parts of Scott, just like the even more obvious Nega-Scott (no, really!) that Scott grapples with in an effort to keep himself from learning anything from his past. Scott doesn’t like learning– learning HURTS! He still plugs away, though; as the story advances, the Exes become harder to defeat as they force Scott to confront distasteful parts of himself. The Evil Exes are a part of Scott. And Ramona. And especially that sarcastibastard Gideon.
Here’s the breakdown as I see it. Since this is “original research” (also known as opinion) feel free to tell me how wrong I am.
1) Matthew Patel=Wrath. Matthew comes busting through the wall at Club Rockit, summoning hipster demon ladies, throwing fireballs and wanting nothing more than to incinerate Scott. He’s a pure engine of rage, and for all of his magic powers, can’t do much against Scott. Why? Scott just doesn’t have a lot of anger in him to exploit. Not this early in the story, anyway…
2) Lucas Lee=Pride. The full-of-himself Hollywood actor and pro-skater is almost too much for Scott to handle. However, he’s easily manipulated into his suicidal run down the Casa Loma stair rails on his skateboard. Why does Scott have so much trouble fighting him head on, when Scott has so little to be proud about? Maybe there are some sins we can’t challenge head on without falling victim to them. That seems to fit Pride’s bill.
3) Todd Ingram=Envy. Since Todd is Scott’s ex’s boyfriend, and said ex is named Envy, this one is kind of a gimme. Todd has everything Scott thinks he wants. He’s a bass player in a successful band. He has actual musical skills, and a beautiful rock star girlfriend who also happens to have broken Scott’s heart. Incredible psychic powers somehow based in Veganism. And of course Todd also envies us carnivores our gelato… which is Gluttony? Greed?
Hmm. Yeah, even though this is a post-modern non-allegory I’m analyzing and I don’t have to make everything fit together perfectly, I still think this works out. See Evil Ex #7 for details.
4) Roxy Richter=Lust. Yes, even her name kind of makes me think of sex, the kind that makes the earth shake. Roxy is Ramona’s only female ex, which Scott thinks of as her “sexy phase.” In his immaturity, Scott has the same fascination with lesbians that a lot of young dudes have. Need I go on? I’d rather not. However, considering Scott’s infamous confusion of the L-Word “love” with the L-Word “lesbians,” I don’t think this is a bankrupt point.
5) and 6) Kyle and Ken Katayanagi=Gluttony and Sloth. Maybe? The Katayanagi twins are complicated.
They’re arrogant, conjuring up images of Pride. They’ve dedicated themselves to a kind of cooperative revenge on Ramona, which is Wrathful but also kinda… admirable? One is dark, the other light, representing a Yin and Yang motif. And they build punchbots, which is just cool and a good use of their time. Except in the movie they’re musicians with no dialog who summon some kinda ice dragon to fight Sex Bob-omb. Post-modernism again? Bah.
Gluttony and Sloth themselves do make good twins. One is ebb the other flow, consumption followed by laziness, gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving then falling comatose on the couch. Interestingly, the twins won’t even fight Scott themselves for most of the story, throwing egregious robot after robot at him to do their work for him while they attend self-indulgent party after party. It’s an interesting combination of the two sins in one.
Since Scott has a fair portion of these sins, not to mention the other sins they overflow into, no wonder they’re so hard for him to beat. Of course, he’s made significant progress defeating his tendency towards Sloth at this point, starting with when he abandons his lazy kind-sorta relationship with Knives Chao and starts pursuing Ramona. But then he kinda tried to have his new girlfriend while not breaking up with his old one and he’s still a huge food mooch. Gluttonous.
At the end of the day, maybe the twins are just tough to defeat because there’s two of them and they cheat a lot. Hard to say.
7) Gideon Graves=Greed. Yeah, no way around this one. If it exists, Gideon wants to own it. Not just Ramona, not just Ramona and Envy (whom he enjoys showing off his ownership of by dressing her up like a doll). He puts his logo on everything he can, even Scott (via t-shirt). He wants to own music, he wants to own the world… oh yeah, and he has all of those frozen Future Girlfriends in storage. He really does want to have it all!
And so does Scott. Or at the very least, he wants all of Ramona, and wants her for himself. Scott wants to keep his past and still have a future. He still exerts a kind of ownership over his friend Kim Pine, long after he should have let her go. Gideon’s the king of self-loathing, the self-defeating thing inside us that we hate, and he has a way of infiltrating everyone– even the other Exes. He made them greedy for the revenge he offered them, got inside them, committed them to his corrupt agenda. No wonder so few of them represent just one sin– Greed/Self-Loathing’s at the heart of it all, and it won’t even let sins stay pure.
For Scott, his resentment of Ramona keeping any part of herself hidden from him almost sends her away forever, to a place not even Gideon knew about or could follow (until, being Gideon, he could). Self-hate is Scott’s ultimate evil. Highlighting Gideon’s status as a final boss, his “GGG” logo is a modified “666″ that he marks everyone with. Self-loathing is Scott and Ramona’s devil, their judgement, their Beast. They have to become less selfish together, less stuck in their own heads, to defeat Gideon.
Wait… doesn’t Gideon=Greed? Maybe they hate themselves because they see themselves as greedy? Or… wait. I know this one.