For his latest documentary, Morgan Spurlock puts the typical stunts and narrating style he employed in Super Size Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? and even The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special on hiatus and stays behind the camera, letting the interviewees speak for themselves, which they do with just as much humor and clarity.
As a result, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is a lighthearted collection of fans talking about what they love about the yearly event in San Diego that gets all the geek juices flowing. It plays more like a reunion video than a documentary mainly because it has no drive to it. It follows a handful of subjects from their hometown to the Con, but never draws a thematic line between them other than the shared general notion of succeeding in what they hope to get out of it as fans (that's how the film got its dumb and long-winded sub-title).
The draw of the documentary is its roping of familiar faces, from comic pros like Frank Miller and Matt Fraction to geek personalities like Kevin Smith and Harry Knowles; actors like Seth Rogen and Thomas Jane to filmmakers like Eli Roth and Kenneth Branagh; not to mention living legends like Matt Groening, Joss Whedon and Stan Lee—all of them professing their love of Star Wars, superheroes and the convention. This is fun to see, but it does seem more like an attempt to sell the event, by showing all these endorsements from celebrities who insist that comic books and geek culture are cool and hip.
It's somewhat ironic because that’s the very thing being bemoaned by many as the erosion of comic book culture at Comic-Con. Spurlock even opens with it: what began 30 years ago as a small gathering for comic books fans to meet comic book people is now an insane mainstream gathering of multimedia consumers, flooded with billion dollar companies, A-list Hollywood celebrities and media blitz. Despite this fact being mentioned several times throughout the movie, though, it doesn’t go any deeper than those mentions.
We see the effect on Chuck Rozanski, one of the film’s primary subjects. As the founder of Mile High Comics, the largest comic retailer in America that has a large booth on the convention floor every year, what used to be a profitable weekend has not been the case in recent years. His wife, the glass half-empty of the pair, tells him that maybe setting up at Comic-Con is not worth it, given the continued pushback from movie studios and game companies that draw a lot more attention, but Chuck refuses to give up and holds on to the belief that there’s still a culture at Con that supports the comic book side of it. Again, though, the diminishing comics presence isn’t treated as the lead story, and more of a background to Chuck’s troubles.
To be fair, perhaps to talk about that would require a larger examination of geek culture and its impact on society in the 21st century, which is beyond this documentary’s ambition as a showcase of 4 days in Comic-Con. In Spurlock’s true “everyman documentarian” fashion, he’s less interested in the wider context than he is at whether or not Mile High Comics can stay in the black for another year.
The people Spurlock features are all defined by that sort of personal goal. People like Holly, a passionate cosplayer whose troupe is performing a Mass Effect skit in the annual Masquerade. Then there’s Skip, a young bartender who goes to the Con to get an art portfolio review from comic book companies, and Eric, a military family man who seeks the same. They represent their chosen past time; not just as a hobby, but also a career move.
Seeking a different kind of life goal is James, who plans on proposing to his girlfriend Se Young during a Kevin Smith panel, because she's a huge fan who refers to him as "basically the reason that independent cinema exists as we know it today" (one of the funniest jokes in the movie). All of these stories are potentially interesting, and the subjects are all in their own ways charming—the novelty of seeing a couple of geeks get engaged in front of Kevin Smith's foul mouthed egging alone is pretty fun, no?—but there's not really any particular substance to them because, like the other subjects, they're stuck in a will-they-or-won’t-they narrative that doesn't allow for any surprises, nor is there time in the film’s reasonably short running time to show different sides to these people’s personalities, making them fairly one-dimensional subjects to watch.
For anyone who's ever been to San Diego Comic-Con—and I've been going every year for the past decade, including the 2010 one where this documentary was filmed—it's a nice, breezy 88 minutes to jump start your memories or to get you pumped for the next Con. For everyone else, I guess the function is to be some sort of travelogue, but that's where Spurlock's appearance would have been beneficial, acting as a tour guide and showing off the various elements Comic-Con has to offer. As it is, it's unclear what the film's agenda is, or what it's even supposed to be illuminating upon.
Maybe the trick is to not see it as a documentary at all, but as a video companion to the coffee table book with the same name that was published last year, featuring an assortment of fans and their San Diego Comic-Con memories. Despite the shallow outlook on the culture, it does capture the aura of excitement pretty well, and shares the enthusiasm of the fans that go year after year. If nothing else, I can see myself playing this movie for like-minded others, just for us to sit around nodding, “Yep, we’re preettty cool, all right.”
"Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" opens April 6, 2012 and is rated PG13. Documentary. Directed by Morgan Spurlock. Written by Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick.