'Scott Pilgrim' Returns to a "Cool Cartoon Version of Toronto" That Maybe Never Existed

In the new Netflix show, creator Bryan Lee O'Malley takes off into "the 'Amélie' version of Toronto, because it was cleaned up and made a little bit more magical"

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 23, 2023

Bryan Lee O'Malley, creator of the wildly popular and acclaimed Scott Pilgrim comic book series, arrived in Toronto the day before his press duties at the Shangri-La Hotel. Having not been in the city for some time, he found himself needing to pause and reorient more often than he would've liked. 

Coming to the crossroads of Queen and John, he tried to explain to his wife that the quiet building with the blacked out windows was "the hub of everything in the late '90s." Along with MuchMusic's famed headquarters, many of the city's landmarks shown in Scott Pilgrim are long gone, now distant artifacts of yesterday.

"It was set in this moment [in Toronto] that's kind of gone," O'Malley tells Exclaim! "Or maybe it never even existed?"

O'Malley recalls a conversation he had with Edgar Wright, director of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the 2010 film adaptation of O'Malley's comic book series, where Wright likened the Toronto of Scott Pilgrim to "the Amélie version of Toronto, because it was cleaned up and made a little bit more magical."

He is now returning to this "cool cartoon version of Toronto" as the writer and co-producer of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, the new Netflix series and third adaptation (the second being a video game) of his books — or "the nerd hat trick" as he puts it. 

It's a testament to the enduring quality of Scott Pilgrim that so much blood has been drawn from this solitary stone. In an age where audiences are growing weary of remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, somehow Scott Pilgrim stands as a world fans never tire of revisiting. The story O'Malley crafted in his mid-20s — about a wannabe musician who plays in a band, dates a high school student and must defeat the evil exes of the American delivery girl he falls in love with — touched the nerve of a particular generation, particularly here in Toronto.

"It's been all over the world; everywhere I go, people relate to it. Something about it has resonated with people," O'Malley says, citing the youthful quality of the series' characters and the griminess of the time as possible reasons fans continue to be drawn in. "I used to be in bands and play in venues over here, and I just wanted to capture a bit of that — the energy of being in your 20s. Having friends that you love and hate at the same time, everyone's dating everyone and it's just kind of gross. And then, especially when it comes back to Toronto, they love it in a whole different way."

O'Malley was 25 years old when the comic book was released and 31 when the film came out. Now, at almost 45, the filmmaker contends he has "a lot more perspective on my 20s." This time around, the aspect of Scott Pilgrim he was most excited to revisit this time around was the evil exes.

"When I was young, I was just like, they're evil — I didn't really care about their inner lives and stuff. It's a comedy and they're throwaway characters," says O'Malley. "But the older I get, I care more about what's going on with everyone."

Working on the film expanded O'Malley's artistic considerations greatly, particularly this interest in character-building and what actors could bring to their personalities. "I remember sitting down with Jason Schwartzman, he asked me about his character, because the comic with Gideon hadn't come out yet," O'Malley shares. "And I just had no idea. I had no idea what to feed this actor to create this character. You can't be a one-dimensional character if you're trying to act, I've learned. How do I see these guys and have empathy for them?"

In addition to the fans who continue to return, it says something about O'Malley and Scott Pilgrim that the cast members from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, including Schwartzman, Michael Cera, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Kieran Culkin and Anna Kendrick, have returned to voice their characters in the series (with Edgar Wright serving as executive producer). The legacy of Scott Pilgrim, and what that world and those characters represent, feels like a once-in-a-generation happening for those involved in bringing the story to life, and for those of us who enjoy it on the other side. 

To talk to O'Malley about his slightly awkward, nerdy, 20-something Toronto kid's pop culture footprint, it's clear he understands the weight of Scott but also wades through these last couple decades with a clear-eyed steadiness, describing the way the film came together in particular as a bit of a fluke: "It just magically was this guy who was a huge fan [of the books] and worked on this thing. It could have gone any other way."

Now that Scott Pilgrim has received another refresh, it's likely a younger generation will discover Scott Pilgrim, Ramona Flowers, Knives Chau, Envy Adams, Matthew Patel, Julie Power, Gideon Graves and Lucas Lee for the first time. As is natural from one generation to the next, the lens with which stories are seen is very different, but O'Malley hopes that the core message he imparted into these characters and story echoes all the same. 

"Everyone is more than the sum of their actions and choices. People are not black and white; there are so many grey areas. There's no such thing as a bad person..." O'Malley pauses and reflects with a laugh. "Maybe that's going too far."

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