[Spoiler warning for: A Fistful of Fingers, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The World’s End.)
Edgar Wright is a fascinating figure in modern Hollywood. Primarily known for his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, his films are genre pastiches that don’t quite rise to the level of parody or satire, but are great genre films in their own right while carrying a darkly absurdist sense of humor through the lens of late-blooming, coming-of-age stories. So what exactly makes an Edgar Wright film tick? Let’s break down his five films one by one to see just what this talented filmmaker has to teach us and why his films have become icons of modern popular culture.
Most Wright fans are familiar with his 2004 film Shaun of the Dead, but there is actually a rarely seen first installment to Wright’s filmography, made nine years earlier in 1995. It’s called A Fistful of Fingers, and the only place that I was able to find it was on a website called TwistedAnger.com, a shop that specializes in cataloguing and distributing films that have been abandoned by their publisher. Despite the current prestige of Wright as a filmmaker, it’s easy to see why A Fistful of Fingers has failed to find a conventional distributor; it was made on a shoestring budget with amateur actors and subpar recording equipment. However, as a peek into the mind of a future auteur, it’s fascinating.
The protagonist of this film—known simply as The Man With No Name—doesn’t quite have the coming-of-age arc that would become a staple of Wright’s later films, but what this film has plenty of are the seeds of Wright’s trademark self-aware comedy. He makes the low budget of the production a recurring joke with his clearly fake horse props and a constant acknowledgment that the film’s events exist within a movie narrative; cameras record each other, a take marker resets a failed introduction scene, and a pan is met with a sign that reads “Edge of Frame.” There’s a consistent cartoon logic to the film that makes up for the fact that the characters are paper-thin caricatures and the plot is a simple hunt-the-bad-guy Western pastiche. A Fistful of Fingers is clearly a novelty, meant more to show off Wright’s talents as a director and producer than as a writer.
This auspicious start would land him directing gigs on a multitude of British television shows, most notably Spaced, where he met the comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It was from there that the first of the Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead, was conceived, co-written by Pegg and starring both Pegg and Frost. Here, Wright refined his cartoon slapstick approach to cinema into a smarter, less direct form of pastiche comedy. Set at the dawn of a zombie apocalypse, protagonist Shaun (Simon Pegg) wanders through the mundanities of his daily life as hints of the outbreak litter the set dressing and are blatant to the audience through the movements of background extras. Shots are duplicated with the passage of time throughout the film to show the relative degradation of Shaun’s world, and much of the early comedy is based equally on Shaun’s obliviousness to it all as it to how the behavior of zombies really doesn’t differ all that much from how our autopilot society functions.
I could go on about how the film’s musical cues are inspired or how the reverence for the popular culture of Wright’s and Pegg’s childhoods makes for fantastically cheeky references, but the heart of Shaun of the Dead lies in its protagonist, an unlikely hero who figures out how to grow up amidst the chaos of these bizarre circumstances. The film opens with Shaun’s girlfriend asking him for a simple gesture of romance that only requires a bit of responsibility. However, distractions from his dead-end job and his loathsome stepfather keep him from following through on his promises, leading to a devastating break-up. His stunted adulthood is represented by his chronically lazy best friend Ed, who constantly drags Pegg back into focusing on partying and video games. What’s remarkable, though, is that as Shaun realizes his inner responsible hero and comes to realize that his mom, stepfather, and girlfriend only wanted what was best for him, he never leaves Ed behind. Though Ed’s ultimate sacrifice to protect Shaun and his girlfriend is the climactic resolution to Shaun’s arc of winning back his girlfriend and ascending into adulthood, the movie’s final scene shows Shaun and a zombified Ed playing video games together once again, telling us that you can still be an adult and appreciate the silly childish escapism that things like games and zombie films provide.
Wright would continue with this line of thinking in his and Pegg’s next entry to the Cornetto Trilogy, 2007’s Hot Fuzz. Framed as a slow-burning mystery thriller, Pegg stars as Nick Angel, a cop so good at his job that he is “promoted” out of his London department and shipped off to the rural village of Sandford so as to keep the rest of the police force from looking bad by comparison. When he arrives, he becomes acclimated to the local community, where he is constantly derided for not adhering to the more laid-back attitude of the townsfolk toward minor offenses. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is more going on in the town than meets the eye, as a series of “accidents”—clearly suspicious deaths that the townspeople refuse to acknowledge as such—begin to plague the town, and prominent village elders start to dissuade Nick from investigating further.
The writing and gags aren’t quite as tight as in Shaun, but the film retains a lighthearted, witty charm that has come to characterize Wright’s and Pegg’s films. What makes the film truly interesting, though, is the role reversal that Pegg affects in going from Shaun to Nick, and that Frost maintains a similar character in the form of a bumbling police sidekick named Danny. Nick’s biggest problem is that he buys so heavily into the realities of adult working life that he doesn’t have any room for hobbies or relaxation; as he so eloquently puts it, he can’t “switch off.” Danny seems like he is nothing but switched off, thinking that serious police work primarily consists of gunfights and explosions as seen in Hollywood action flicks. The turning point of the film is when Nick decides that the right thing to do is reject procedure and take care of the town’s corruption with guns blazing, so that Nick not only embraces an escapist mentality that is willing to buy into the conceits of popcorn violence, but so does the film. In an abrupt transition from mystery thriller to balls-out action flick, Hot Fuzz emblemizes the necessity to indulge oneself in silly distractions, and it’s protagonist learns that being a grown-up doesn’t have to be all seriousness and work.
Nowhere is that point more apparent than in Wright’s 2010 film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Based on a graphic novel series by the same name and co-written by Michael Bacall, Wright immediately feeds into the world of video games and anime—hobbies historically seen in popular culture as kids’ stuff that should be grown out of—through lovingly referential visual cues and sound effects. Right from the opening titles, the Universal logo is rendered in 8-bit graphics while a chip-tune version of the studio’s anthem plays, and sounds from The Legend of Zelda and other games litter the soundtrack. Speed lines and sound effects were drawn over the frame to emphasize action, while split-screen and text graphics emphasize the feeling that this is a comic book as acted out by real actors. Hell, the actors even blink noticeably less than what is normal or presumably even comfortable, all to replicate the anime/manga aesthetic. What’s perhaps most remarkable about this is that it never slips into the kind of cartoon unreality that Wright previously visited in A Fistful of Fingers; rather, the film relies on its own idiosyncrasies to establish a world where all the insane stunts and action on screen make sense in a blend of fantasy and reality that is astoundingly seamless.
Scott (Michael Cera), meanwhile, is a character that fits right in with Wright’s previous Pegg protagonists as a young adult caught in arrested development. Our introduction to Scott is that he, a 23-year-old, has started dating a high schooler, an Asian Catholic schoolgirl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), whom he fetishizes more than he adores. Scott isn’t mature enough to really know the difference though, so even though he is a creep and an asshole, he’s an empathetic one in that we want to see him grow and mature. The catalyst for that is the (literal) girl of his dreams, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman shrouded in mystery even as she and Scott start to develop a relationship. Scott’s cowardice prevents him from leaving Knives right away, but things become more complicated as Scott must do battle with Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes to retain the right to keep dating her. In a remarkable condensation of seven volumes worth of comic story—due in no small part to Wright’s penchant for quick cuts that divulge lots of information—Scott eventually does battle with Ramona’s last Evil Ex while making amends with both Knives and Ramona for having been such an inconsiderate cheating ass to them both. As the film not-so-subtly puts it, Scott gains the power of self-respect, which ultimately translates into the realization that romantic feelings aren’t the only thing that make a relationship work, but also the respect for the one you choose to give your love to. As far as Wright’s coming-of-age arcs go, Scott’s may be the least nuanced, but the complex plotting, the insane action and musical beats, and Ramona’s dimensions as a fully fleshed-out protagonist in her own right—complete with deep-seated issues of her own—make Scott Pilgrim one of Wright’s best films.
After dabbling with adaptation, Wright decided to reunite with Simon Pegg one more time to write 2013’s The World’s End, the final installment in the Cornetto Trilogy. Here Wright and Pegg took on their most obtuse genre pastiche yet: the Twilight Zone-esque science fiction mystery thriller. However, for the film’s first act, you might not think there was anything strange going on at all—much like a good Twilight Zone episode. Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-something alcoholic who pines for the good old days of high school when he and his four best friends attempted the Golden Mile, a drunken trek through their hometown’s 12 pubs that Gary remembers as the best night of his life. Seemingly as part of some sort of midlife crisis, Gary decides he needs to recapture the magic of that night and gets the gang back together, all of whom have stable jobs or family lives that bring with them a sense of decorum and responsibility that Gary never quite grew into. They return to their hometown to complete the Golden Mile, and it’s just as the night seems to come to a sourly premature end due to Gary’s manipulative antics that things get a bit weird.
The guys discover that nearly the entire town has been replaced by an inhuman, potentially robotic presence, and in order to keep from arousing suspicion they decide to keep to their plan of drinking at each of the 12 pubs along the Golden Mile. What they eventually uncover is an assimilationist alien plot to “civilize” the human race through biological replacements as necessary. It’s shortly prior to this reveal that we find out that Gary had attempted suicide because he was alone in his perpetual adolescence; alcohol had only served as a stop-gap from the enclosing depression that came with leaving the self-declared peak of his life. Meeting him halfway is his best friend Andy (once again, Nick Frost), who sheds his self-superior attitude in order to come to Gary’s aid by telling the aliens that they don’t need saving, and the Earth can get by just fine with its obnoxiously uncivilized free will. Gary’s ultimate salvation comes as the alien presence leaves Earth, wiping out technology in their stead and leaving behind an apocalyptic global wasteland in their wake. Gary gives up alcohol and finds purpose in life as a defender of the left-behind human replacements, who now exist as a suppressed underclass. Gary’s journey is the translation of Wright’s usual immature man-child protagonists into the realm of the midlife crisis, where not only Gary learns to embrace a new beginning, but the world at large learns to embrace the simpler things and not be so caught up in in the trappings of professionalism and social inferiority complexes.
It’s worth noting here that Edgar Wright was slated to direct Marvel’s 2015 film Ant-Man, but while he retains a writing credit on the project, he left the film due to creative differences with Marvel’s producers. Though I hesitate to play “Spot the Auteur” when it comes to a troubled production such as this, there are likely influences in how the wisecracking hero learns lessons of responsibility, as well as some musically and visually creative flourishes that I wouldn’t doubt originated from Wright’s mind. A full analysis would likely amount to nothing more than speculation, but watch the film for yourself and speculate away if you’re so inclined.
So what’s next for Edgar Wright? Well, his next film is next year’s Baby Driver, which Wright describes as “kind of like a musical.” Considering how aesthetically oriented Wright’s style has increasingly become over the years, it will be very interesting to see what exactly he wants to do with a new genre at his fingertips. What interests me more though is what sort of journey his protagonist will take in realizing adulthood, or if he will even continue that motif and instead opt to tell a new kind of story. Regardless, what Edgar Wright has taught me is that we all have to grow up sometime, but growing up doesn’t mean that we have to leave behind what we loved as children—or as adults—and that we don’t have to give up on having fun with the responsibilities we need to take on. In work and play, in love and friendship, Edgar Wright’s films are all about facing the strange unknowns of our world while embracing the wide-eyed wonder that we had as kids. If there’s one lyric that sums up Mr. Wright’s philosophy, it’s as Freddie Mercury sang in that iconic scene from Shaun of the Dead: “Don’t stop me now. I’m having such a good time. I’m having a ball.”