REVIEW: Geeks Take the Day in Pleasant-Enough Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope
Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope plants a sloppy, moist kiss on the sweaty brow of geek culture's premiere event. Where it stops short from also getting on its knees and offering a different sort of sloppy, moist service to the four-day San Diego affair is in the sight of one of the film's subjects weeping in the audience of a panel entitled "Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way." Comic-Con Episode IV is indulgent to a fault about everything that happens on the convention floor, but Spurlock makes the smart decision to shape the film primarily around subjects who have an economic stake in the goings-on.
The doc makes sure to peek into the many different corners of the con, from the studio previews in massive Hall H to the cosplayers' Masquerade to the toy collector sales to the portfolio reviews of would-be artists to the comic book dealers fretting over their fading profile, but the tangible goals being pursued by the main characters add a needed sense of urgency. Comic-Con may be heaven on Earth for fanboys and fangirls ("I want to die and go to Comic-Con," insists one man), but that doesn't mean everyone's going to be able to make a living there.
The concept of fandom gets a tough workout in Comic-Con Episode IV, which breaks up its exploration of the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con with interviews against a white backdrop with attendees both famous and not. Some of those interviewees were also involved in the making of the movie — the always charming Joss Whedon co-wrote the film, and also produced it alongside Stan Lee and Ain't It Cool News's Harry Knowles, ensuring its geek bona fides. While the love of all things convention-related gets directly addressed, with Seth Rogen confessing to toy collecting and Eli Roth addressing how it's become acceptable to continue to treasure your favorite childhood franchises into adulthood, the time the film spends with subjects who are there solely as fans — James Darling, who intends to propose to his girlfriend Se Young Hang during the Q&A at the Kevin Smith panel — is actually its most grating. The codependent couple spend their entire days in Hall H, as the guy tries unsuccessfully to get a few minutes to himself to surreptitiously go pick up the ring he had made by a jeweler who's also in attendance. (The proposal, when it does happen, is admittedly sweet.)
It's through Chuck Rozanski, the owner of Mile High Comics, that Comic-Con Episode IV gets at one of the major changes to the event, which is that its shifted away from its comic book foundations to a become a major marketing tent-pole for blockbusters and video games. Chuck's been coming for 38 years (the comic book panel-inspired interstitial graphics designate him "The Survivor") and has watched the crowds slowly drift away from his booth. This year, he's brought along his prized copy of "Red Raven #1," an incredibly rare comic that he hopes (and may need) to sell for $500,000. ("There's three billion women on the planet and not a lot of good comics," he explains to his protege about how romance should never come between a man and his collection.) The quiet distress with which Chuck acknowledges his initial low sales is palpable — there are downsides to having your business and your passion been one and the same. The same goes for Skip Harvey and Eric Henson, who tote portfolios of their art to different publishers hoping to be contracted for work — the two have very different expectations of what will happen, and one is pleasantly surprised while the other is heartbroken.
Spurlock knows his way around a pop doc, and Comic-Con Episode IV moves limberly between subjects and areas of the convention and its history, an entertaining watch even as it feels a little unnecessary in documenting one of the year's most photographed, liveblogged, tweeted about and videotaped cultural gatherings. It's the urge to create that ends up proving more interesting than the one to collect or to observe — seen not just in Skip and Eric's stories, but in the work of Holly Conrad, who with her friends has designed insanely intricate costumes based on Mass Effect 2, hoping that the attention they'll get will lead to paid work. They've constructed in their basement an animatronic head for the person dressed as the alien Urdnot Wrex that could be professional quality, and the crowd is adoringly appreciative of their efforts.
It's not until the credits are rolling that Comic-Con Episode IV touches on any real negatives of the convention, and even that's done in the most genial way ("It's real, the stink is real!"). While the film deserves credit for not taking the fond freak-show route of many docs about subcultures — though can Comic-Con really be seen as such anymore? — it's really a slow softball pitch. There's little delving into the rise of the Twilight fandom and none into the hostility they've faced, or into the other competitive and regressive aspects that are part of the dark side of geek culture. No, Comic-Con Episode IV is a valentine to an event and a group of people so in ascension they don't really need it, but it's still a pleasant thing to watch.