Acclaimed documentarian Morgan Spurlock has made a career out of dissecting aspects of popular culture in the zeitgeist, and his newest effort is no different. This time, he sets his sights on San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest pop culture gatherings in the country. What started out as a small way for fans to meet comic book artists and writers back in 1975 has exploded into a huge event that features first looks at some of the most highly anticipated comics, television, and movies of the year, regularly playing host to over 100,000 attendees. Spurlock has a behind-the-scenes team that knows a thing or two about this world: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” creator and The Avengers director Joss Whedon “presents” the film along with comic book legend Stan Lee, while Legendary Pictures’ Thomas Tull and Ain’t It Cool News creator Harry Knowles are two of the film’s producers.
The movie feature interviews from everyone you’d expect in something like this: Kevin Smith, Frank Miller, Eli Roth, Whedon, Knowles, Stan Lee, etc. But most of what these heavy hitters have to offer is simply setting the stage, painting the basic picture of what Comic-Con is and what it means to geeks everywhere for audience members who may not be aware of its significance. (I realize that if you’re reading this, you probably have a decent idea about Comic-Con’s influence on pop culture since the American media landscape has been feeling those effects for the past decade. But this is a documentary and it’s conceivable that some people who watch it might not have a lot of prior knowledge of this particular subculture and may be looking for a brief education.)
The best part about the doc isn’t the big name guys and their talking head segments, though they’re very entertaining; the best part is the people Spurlock has chosen to profile. He picks five subjects and details their reasons for attending, documenting the journeys of two prospective comic illustrators, an old school comics dealer, a video game costume designer preparing for a big Masquerade event on the Saturday night of the convention, and a young man hoping to propose to his girlfriend at that year’s Kevin Smith panel. It’s a fascinating look at the variation within a community, proof that being a geek just means being passionate about something. For an event that is often presented in the media as tens of thousands of fans descending on a city for a few days, Spurlock’s subjects put human faces to the movement and allow a rare glimpse into their passions that I hope comes off as more endearing than embarrassing.
More than anything, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope shows both the soaring highs of success and the devastating lows of failure among its subjects. (I wouldn’t dare spoil the fates of the specific people, since most of the film’s fun rides on their journeys.) It pays equal time to each, giving a fair look at the often grim reality of the competitive nature of the industry in addition to the amazing catharsis of the titular hope that only the luckiest (and hardest working) fans experience. It also details the fall of comic books from prominence within the convention, relaying the rise of other media to the forefront of the convention. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in bitterness over that aspect, or bother with exhaustive histories about the founding of Comic-Con or the early days – it’s mostly concerned with its characters, and that’s to the film’s benefit. There are some truly hilarious comments from the subjects, including my favorite: “There are three billion women on the planet and not a lot of great comics.”
Stylistically, everything is pretty expected. Transitions occur in comic book style panels, and each subject is profiled and rotoscoped with a moniker next to his or her name. It’s a good style that fits well with the direction of the film, but it might have been nice to see an occasional flourish here and there that was a bit more unexpected. (Credit where credit is due, though: there’s a great homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark during a scene in which the comic book dealer is walking a cart through a massive warehouse.)
I was at Comic-Con 2010 when they were filming this, so on a personal note it was cool to see that experience replayed on the big screen. While there’s nothing quite like being there in person, this documentary comes about as close as you can get. For landlocked comic book geeks who don’t have the means to travel to the convention, watch this in a double feature with Greg Mottola’s Paul and you’ll be set. Until next time…