“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is the best kind of franchise sequel

The new Netflix anime, overseen by original creator Bryan Lee O'Malley, remixes and redefines these characters in the most exciting way.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX 'Scott Pilgrim Takes Off'

It feels funny and fitting that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off hits Netflix just days after the new Madame Web trailer had people tweeting Dakota Johnson’s goofiest line of exposition over and over. With similar movies like Morbius and Kraven the Hunter, Sony has been building a cinematic franchise that we might call “Spider-Man Without Spider-Man” — delving into supporting characters and antagonists from the wall-crawling superhero’s canon in the absence of those stories’ center of gravity.

This has weirdly become a common strategy with venerable pop culture franchises, even though it’s usually ineffective. Universal released two movies this year based on characters and/or events from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula that tried to minimize the role of the vampiric count as much as possible, and yet the only thing anyone remembers from Renfield is Nicolas Cage’s scenes. Not too long ago, Gotham ran for five seasons on Fox — and despite the initial “Gotham City without Batman” premise, quickly realized it had to keep young Bruce Wayne as a major character if any of the other elements were to make any sense.

All this exposition is to make the point that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off tries something similar, but with much better results. This anime follow-up to a franchise that peaked more than a decade ago often eschews the titular character (Michael Cera) in order to show viewers more about his friends, enemies, and lovers. But instead of coming off like a cheap ploy, it demonstrates a wise maturity. There’s more to someone else’s life than being your girlfriend’s “evil ex,” after all; maybe you aren't the center of the universe. These are important life lessons delivered in an extremely entertaining way.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX 'Scott Pilgrim Takes Off'
COURTESY OF NETFLIX 'Scott Pilgrim Takes Off'

Scott Pilgrim was originally a series of comics by Canadian writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley that riffed on the tropes of nerd genres (fighting games, superhero stories, indie rock) to highlight the ups and downs of life as a young urban hipster. In 2010, director Edgar Wright adapted these comics into Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a movie that made very little money at the box office but grew into a cult favorite over time, not least thanks to a cast that included many future stars (such as Chris Evans, Brie Larson, and Kieran Culkin) who would go on to dominate 2010s pop culture.

That entire cast reprised their roles in voiceover form for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, thus providing an important sense of continuity to the new series even as the animation style (overseen by Japanese studio Science Saru) gives it a unique flavor. The familiar voices lead viewers to expect that events will unfold in much the same way as Wright’s 2010 film, and for most of the first episode, they do: Cera’s Scott falls for Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s dream girl Ramona Flowers, their first date gets cozy during a snowstorm, and then the first of Ramona’s “Evil Exes” challenges Scott to a duel. But then one thing goes very differently, and the whole show suddenly spins off in a new direction.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX 'Scott Pilgrim Takes Off'
COURTESY OF NETFLIX 'Scott Pilgrim Takes Off'

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is therefore the best kind of franchise extension. Though it requires some familiarity with the original stories, fans who love Scott Pilgrim vs. the World have watched it over and over again and should be delighted to spend more time with characters like Matthew Patel (Satya Babha), who only got a few minutes of screen time in the original film. And while a two-hour movie feels like way too much time to spend with Kraven the Hunter or Madame Web in the absence of Spider-Man, a 30-minute episode is just the right amount to hang out with Evans’ skateboarding movie star Lucas Lee.

The fact that the series was co-written by O’Malley himself, along with BenDavid Grabinski, also gives it the feeling of looking back on youthful ideas/escapades years later with 20/20 hindsight and realizing that maybe you aren’t the center of the universe after all. But lest that make you think that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is all thoughtful meditations on aging, be assured that it’s an absolute blast to watch. Each episode has a distinct energy, and the theme song sequence is one of those you won’t want to skip.

Yes, bread still makes you fat, but on the plus side, Scott Pilgrim will still exhilarate you with all the possibilities of pop culture. Grade: A-

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