Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
Toronto’s got a bad case of kid brother syndrome—we never feel on par with other cities like New York, L.A., Chicago, London, and, on rough days, even Duluth. When these burgs tuck away between periods to sneak cigarettes in the high school parking lot, Toronto tags along bashfully, all “Hey wait up, guys! Me too!”
It’s a pathology that we’ve come to see reinforced in cinema, where American productions set up shop, shoot around Toronto’s tell-tale landmarks, and then pass the city off as New York or Chicago or St. Paul. Save for films by Hogtown loyalists like Atom Egoyan or Reg Harkema, Toronto was deemed tacitly unworthy of cinematic representation. This despite our world-class film festival, energized rep cinema culture, and industry tax incentives.
This summer’s would-be blockbuster Scott Pilgrim vs. The World may not have changed this forever, but damned if it didn’t try. Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of comic digests, Pilgrim gave Toronto its on-screen due. From its establishing title card (“Not so long ago…In the mysterious land…Of Toronto, Canada…”) to its waist-high prop snow drifts to cameos by Casa Loma, Sonic Boom, and that all-too-familiar freestanding structure that pops in unabashedly like a skyscraping Polkaroo, Pilgrim regarded our fair metropolis with the same kind of geeky reverence it also reserved for The Legend of Zelda and two-chord garage rock jams.
It’s not just the film’s framing of Toronto qua Toronto that made Pilgrim so charming. It was the connective tissue binding it all together. Unlike the phantasmagorical, compartmentalized geography of Egoyan’s recent Chloe—in which Liam Neeson will wake up in Forest Hill, tuck down to Little Italy for a coffee, and then steal away to Allan Gardens for a handjob—Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto seems lived in: a space demarcated by the distance its dorky hipsters can cover on foot or, if they can scrounge up the fare, red-and-white TTC bus. Pilgrim’s Toronto is alive, organic, multi-dimensional: a Puzz 3D with a pulse.
This sense of realism was abetted by the weird pleasure we all took in tracking the film’s production. (This is especially true here at Torontoist, where we trailed Pilgrim from the early days of shooting on Queen West all the way to its red carpet premiere, then meticulously documented where most of its scenes were set.) While in town filming and promoting Pilgrim, director Edgar Wright hosted packed-house screenings at The Bloor and The Underground, stimulating Toronto’s film scene beyond offering work for local gaffers and Urban Outfitters–attired background performers.
And then there’s Scott Pilgrim himself. The film’s plucky but reluctant hero (played by Brampton-born Michael Cera) seems to stand in for Toronto as a whole. He’s likeable, but pretty oblivious, and sometimes he can be kind of a dick. But self-centred though he may be, he’s trying to do the right thing, purging himself of his adolescent impulses as he crusades for the heart of the woman he loves. Watching him, it’s hard not to feel twitches of civic pride, especially when he routs Jason Schwartzman’s smirking paragon of New York cool.
The film may have floundered at the box office—opening up as it did against a Julia Roberts vehicle and the biggest action movie of the decade—but Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has given Toronto an opportunity for us to see our city framed, lit, and committed to celluloid for outsiders. More than that, the film gave Toronto something which may help us compete with the other Gothams and Metropolises of the world: our very own superhero.