For nearly the entirety of its first episode, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off plays a trick on the audience.

Most people tuning into the new Netflix anime series probably know in advance that it is a spin-off/remake of Edgar Wright’s 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, which bombed at the box office before becoming a cult hit. Similarly, most are likely aware that nearly the entire original cast of the movie—including some, like Chris Evans and Brie Larson, who have achieved stratospheric fame since then—returned to provide voices for the animated series.

With those assumptions about its audience baked in, Takes Off delivers exactly what seems to be promised: The first 25-ish minutes of the series are an almost exact reproduction of the first act of the film. A shot-for-shot, nearly word-for-word remake, simply rendered as animation instead of live action.

And then—with a suddenness so jarring I had to rewind and watch it again to make sure I understood what had happened—it becomes a very different story.

At the center of the original Scott Pilgrim movie (and the graphic novel upon which it is based, a series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who served as a co-writer on the movie and the new series) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the aloof and melancholy love interest. It is Flowers’ seven “evil exes” who serve as a series of video-gamey antagonists, each more threatening than the one before. Scott (Michael Cera) must defeat them in combat to get the girl, or so they tell him.

One way to look at Ramona’s character in Wright’s movie is as a deconstruction of the so-called “manic pixie dream girl (MPDG)” trope that had, by 2010, already become passe. Nathan Rabin, a film critic, coined the term in 2005 to describe a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

At first glance, Ramona seems to check all the boxes. She is cool and different, a transplant from New York City who has just moved to Scott’s drearily rendered Toronto, bringing with her a splash of colorful hair and a love of music. Most importantly, she is literally the girl who appears in Scott’s dreams—thanks to some light sci-fi elements that are delightfully never fully explained beyond the hint that popping into Scott’s dreams a side effect of Ramona’s seemingly supernatural ability to warp space and time (see also: the cartoonishly large hammer she can easily squeeze into a tiny satchel).

Scott appears at first to be the other half of that trope: a sad-sack 20-something who is perpetually crashing on his friend’s air mattress, playing bass in a crappy band, and half-assing a relationship with a high school girl because he lacks any motivation to be a better version of himself. Until, of course, he meets her, and his life changes.

As the movie progresses, however, it becomes obvious that Wright and O’Malley are playing at something more clever. It’s not Ramona’s admission of love that allows him to win the boss fight at the end of the movie, but “The Power of Self-Respect”—delivered, naturally, as an arcade-like power-up that comes with a sweet sword.

Indeed, if you set aside all the stylized violence and humor,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is about a guy learning that he can’t find the solutions to his problems in a relationship (which inevitably brings its own unexpected complications), but only by asserting control over his own life. Despite all the MPDG trappings, Ramona doesn’t exist to fix Scott—and he can only be with her once he’s come to terms with that fact. She’s also pretty clearly unhappy about the whole “being pursued by seven toxic ex-lovers” thing, and the lack of romantic autonomy that comes with it (a point driven home when the worst of her exes literally uses a mind-control device on her near the end).

But that was 2010, and this is 2023. Using a goofy action flick to wink at silly romantic-comedy tropes is no longer that clever. Audiences have evolved. We expect protagonists of both genders to have agency, and to reflect on how their actions have affected others. Now, even Neo goes to therapy. We expect remakes and spin-offs not only to entertain but to question the meaning (or even the existence) of the original.

And we know that sometimes it takes two to create a toxic past relationship.

All that goes into Takes Off, which spirals away from the first episode’s twist into a snappy little story full of meta-jokes and remixes of the original. Scott Pilgrim is still in the title, and still has things to do, but Takes Off brings Ramona to the center of the story without turning her into a pandering and under-developed female lead. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how the writers of Sony’s animated Spider-Verse movies transformed Gwen Stacy from a sidekick/love interest into a full-fledged co-protagonist in the second film of that series.

Here, it is Ramona who has to answer the big question in the wake of that jarring first episode ending: What happens if one of the evil exes succeeds in defeating Scott? (They think it means one of them will win her back because they ignore Ramona’s agency, which is what makes them the bad guys.)

But with greater agency comes greater responsibility for one’s choices, of course. The emotional center of this story is Ramona coming to terms with how her own faults and insecurities helped create the evil exes in the first place.

“Everybody needs closure. That’s why they call it closure,” the perpetually deadpan drummer/video-rental clerk Kim Pine (Allison Pill) reminds Ramona after her first showdown/hug-it-out session with an Evil Ex. “Now you’re one step closer to the dumb boy of your dreams, and you buried the hatchet with an ex. Multi-tasking.”

That thing about having to heal yourself before being ready for a fulfilling relationship? Turns out, that trope doesn’t only apply to guys.

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