Edgar Wright: A Retrospective


Editor’s NotesThe World’s End is now open in wide release. Read Jordan’s review of the film here; for David’s perspective on it, check out his review here.

The career of Edgar Wright is a bit of a study in contradictions. He’s a writer and director who seems in many ways slavishly devoted to what has come before, churning out genre homages and reference-heavy pop culture explorations, yet he is also shockingly innovative, with films that are incredibly unique and surprisingly personal. He manages to be both simultaneously because his focus remains on the story at hand, his loyalties with the characters he’s created and the journey they are on more than with the genre they happen to exist within. That means that each of his films manages to work as homage, as parody, and on its own two feet without either of these things to rely on. This is most clear in his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (which we’ll discuss in a moment), but it resonates throughout his work, whether or not he’s behind the camera.


Perhaps the weakest film in his oeuvre is the only one yet on which he served as screenwriter but not director: Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. Where Wright revels in genre-riffing, he feels a bit constrained by the rigors of adapting this classic character. There is too much overlap between the journey Tintin (Jamie Bell) takes and his predetermined character arc for Wright to really come into his own in the script, and though he colors around the edges, the film never feels wholly unique. It’s hard to make an homage when you’re staring the real article right in the face, and without the ability to craft his own character arc, Wright’s particular talents are underdeveloped.

Yet it is exactly those talents that make his other adaptation to date, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which he wrote and directed, such a resounding success. An adaptation of Pilgrim was actually a more difficult proposition than it initially sounds: the series of graphic novels on which the film is based do for comics and video games what Wright’s Cornetto trilogy does for films, riffing on the tropes of those media while telling a story grounded in one character’s fitful journey toward maturity. The graphic novels are so tied to their medium, a movie threatened to lose their particular magic. Wright managed to translate it beautifully, creating a fleet, funny, endlessly innovative coming of age film that is wise about the nature of first love, and the sort of juvenile jealousies that can threaten to derail a relationship.

While both of those films create a window into the world of Edgar Wright, his crowning achievement and magnum opus is The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, three films that take on three different genres while exploring the challenges of adulthood, the pressures of conformity, and the complex contours of friendship. Each film manages to fit snugly within the genre it apes, while also cleverly commenting on its conventions, and ultimately becoming its own deeply compelling emotional journey. The films are both of the genre, akin to parodies that lack a mean-spirited bone in their structure, and able to stand on their own two feet outside any genre trappings.

Shaun of the Dead follows the titular slacker (Simon Pegg) as he navigates the zombie apocalypse, but also as he learns to accept responsibility for his actions and to grow beyond his childish friendship with Ed (Nick Frost) without leaving him behind. The movie is replete with clever jokes about how we all live our lives as zombies, shuffling monotonously from one task to the next, engrossed in our phones, our music, or ourselves so much we miss the world around us, but it doesn’t rely on its own cleverness to get by. Instead, it is an arrestingly emotional film, especially in a third act that finds Shaun facing the devastating consequences of his own short-sightedness and the inevitable tragedies that come along with living in a zombie-infested London. Shaun of the Dead avoids the mistakes of a film like Zombieland (which has its own merits, to be sure) by taking the threat of the undead seriously. That the film manages to be hysterical, actually scary, and truly moving all at once is an incredible thing to behold.


Similarly, Hot Fuzz works as a buddy cop film because of its focus on the buddy. Though the story of Nicholas Angel (Pegg again) and his new partner Danny (Frost) fits into the conventional structure of the buddy cop film (including an explosive finale with an absurdly low body count), it gains most of its emotional mileage from watching the detached Angel slowly learn to connect with another person. The chemistry between Pegg and Frost carries the film, though Wright manages to stuff a variety of funny characters, visual gags, and clever jabs in throughout. Hot Fuzz is fun both as a comedy and an action movie, but the reason it resonates is the relationship at its core and the way it changes both characters for the better.

Finally, The World’s End (which I reviewed here) is the story of old friends coming back together, driven by the selfish Gary (Pegg) and his quest to relive the greatest night of his life. The film is a perfect thematic capper to the trilogy, driven by nostalgia yet all too aware of its potential pitfalls. It’s a comedy about the comforts, and the subtly nefarious problems, of conformity that is equally wise about the dangers of individuality. The film boldly stands behind freedom and uniqueness, even as it recognizes that those two things often lead to boorishness, obnoxiousness, and selfishness. The flaws may make us human, but they don’t excuse themselves for that fact, and its this exploration that underlies the film’s drunken hilarity and sci-fi trappings with a sturdy emotional girder.

Wright walks a fine line in all of his best work, juggling tones and agendas as deftly as anyone working in film today. The man is a master tightrope walker who can turn on a dime between comedy and drama, between artifice and emotional truth. All of his films are densely constructed with adroitly deployed foreshadowing and double meanings, yet he never lets cleverness get in the way of sentiment. His works have weight that sinks in and lasts long after the laughs have dissipated. This makes his films endlessly watchable and uniquely rewarding on each visit. They work on multiple levels simultaneously, and will provide you whatever you seek on each viewing. The way his central characters struggle, in the face of everything, to better themselves is inspiring. That they can do so in ways that are incredibly resonant, surprisingly hilarious, and shockingly well-considered just means they are fighting for betterment within the weird, wild, wonderful world of Edgar Wright.

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Jordan Ferguson

Staff Film Critic
Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “studying the law” at the University of Michigan, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to writing for Next Projection, he is the Editor-in-Chief of Review To Be Named, a homemade haven for pop-culture obsessives. Check out more of his work at Reviewtobenamed.com , follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.

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