Director/critic Jean-Luc Godard had a good maxim: the best way to critique a movie is to make a better movie. As a critic, whenever I criticize something, I like to point to an example of that thing done better elsewhere—so I can say, look, here’s what’s possible! Neither artists nor audiences should settle for less.
I was left at loose ends when I panned the movie Green Lantern a few weeks ago. It’s clear what that movie wants to do: to take its protagonist’s psychological struggle and portray it in metaphorical comic book action. But it fails: it’s just a hot, boring mess.
Then, as luck had it, last weekend I made a very wise last-minute decision to join friends at a midnight screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (above), a movie that just came out last year and is already a cult favorite. I left thinking, there. There! That’s a movie that succeeds at doing exactly what Green Lantern fails to do. Several things, actually. The similarities between the two are so strong, but the contrasts so striking, that a point-for-point comparison might help shed light on what makes some movies great and others lousy.
I’ll split the comparisons into six rounds, like the rounds that Scott Pilgrim fights to defeat his girlfriend’s exes.
Round One: Interesting Character vs. Stock Archetype
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a compelling mix of cockiness and nerves, unafraid to press his luck with a girl but unsure of what to do when he succeeds. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), the man who becomes Green Lantern, is a justifiably confident test pilot whose only Achilles’s heel is his vague daddy issue. We want to get to know Scott, to understand what makes him tick. In the first five minutes of Green Lantern we’re told precisely what makes Hal tick, so what are we still doing in the theater after two hours? Score 1,000 points for Scott Pilgrim.
Round Two: Fun vs. Stuffy
Everyone in Scott Pilgrim looks like they’re having a hell of a good time. Everyone in Green Lantern looks like they’re getting paid. 2,000 points for Pilgrim.
Round Three: Real vs. Unreal
Scott Pilgrim is set in Toronto—a Toronto that’s very attractively photographed, yes, but still a city with character and texture. Its characters live in wood-paneled basements and wear fun vintage clothes. Green Lantern takes place in a glossy California setting that never feels like a place that’s actually there; the distant planet Hal must visit to learn the ways of the Lantern guild is so generically stylized that it makes the Land of Oz feel like Detroit. Scott Pilgrim is full of fun throwaway details that you catch in the corners of the screen, while Green Lantern wants you to look straight ahead at the $300 million CGI. 3,000 points for Scott.
Round Four: Homage vs. Theft
Scott Pilgrim, based on a graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, is a loving tribute to comic books and video games. Its references feel knowing but affectionate, and it says something about how the world of our fantasies resonates with our real lives. Green Lantern acts like it’s the first superhero movie ever made, like there’s never been a cocky fighter pilot before Hal Jordan (see the much better Rocketeer), like there’s never been a motley collection of aliens assembled on one screen (see the much, much better Star Wars), like there’s never been an onscreen kiss before (see almost every other movie ever made). Scott Pilgrim lets you know, humbly and endearingly, that it knows it’s walking in the footsteps of giants. Green Lantern just sets its sad little feet in those big footsteps and shakes its fist at you. 4,000 points for Pilgrim.
Round Five (twins): Two Smart Love Interests vs. One Dumb One
The first thing you learn about 22-year-old Scott Pilgrim is that he’s dating a 17-year-old. That’s awkward, and it only gets more awkward when he falls for someone who’s beautiful and mysterious and who it’s not a felony to get to second base with. The teenager, though, is no throwaway caricature; she stays in the picture and develops into a major character in ways that are unexpected and charming. That’s a one-two K.O. against Green Lantern, whose love interest is played by Blake Lively as someone who seems way too smart and talented to wait for Hal to finish sleeping around and figure his shit out. And yet she does…because, and only because, the plot requires it. That’s 10,000 more points for Scott Pilgrim.
Round Six: Moving vs. Boring
On paper, the leaps of maturity that Scott Pilgrim and Hal Jordan go through at the climaxes of their respective films are about the same. On screen, though, Scott’s character development is affecting, while Hal’s is ho-hum. That’s 20,000 points—and the win—for director Edgar Wright and his creative team, who made a film full of lessons that Green Lantern director Martin Campbell somehow failed to learn.