A Fan's Hope
- Rated PG-13
All photos © Wreckin Hill Entertainment
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ull disclosure: I've been going to Comic-Con for so long that I spent decades taking it for granted that I could just wander in 15 minutes late to most events. Hah. I'm so old I actually know that Comic-Con was once an event called the San Diego Comic-Con which played second fiddle to the New York Comic-Con and was small enough to be housed in a funky old hotel. It's true that other media – movies, television and genre literature – have always been an element of the convention, but I'm also so old I remember when Comic-Con was mostly about comics.
Morgan Spurlock is a little bit younger than myself and only attended his first con in 2009, one year before most of "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" was shot. Nevertheless, I'm pleasantly surprised at how much he's gotten right in this very entertaining, almost excessively breezy look at modern day media geekitude.
After a very concise primer on the history of Comic-Con and its founding by the late Shel Dorf, Spurlock plunges right in by introducing us to an assortment of attendees, each with their own urgent agenda. Skip Harvey and Eric Hensen are, respectively, a bartender and second-generation super geek and a devoted family man and Air Force member; both are reasonably skilled aspiring comic book illustrators and both are ready to show their artwork to the pros at the con's infamous portfolio reviews. Holly Conrad is an even more skilled, highly focused aspiring costumer/creature designer devoting her energies to a "suicide mission" to wow the audience at Comic-Con's annual costume competition.
There's more. Ardent swain James Darling is determined to become one-half of the world's most adorkable married couple with a public wedding proposal, overseen by none other than Kevin Smith… but will girlfriend/prospective bride Se Young Kang let him out of her sight long enough to obtain his precious Tolkien-esque engagement ring of power? Meanwhile, Chuck Rozanski is at least double the age of the other subjects and is the head honcho of Denver's Mile High Comics. The highly respected retailer's fortunes are being put increasingly at risk by the ever-more marginal status of comics at Comic-Con.
To Spurlock's everlasting credit, the Rozanski storyline garners as much screen time, and earns at least as much dramatic tension, as the film's other threads. Indeed, by far the worst thing about the documentary is its confusing and kind of annoying full title, which I refuse to repeat a second time. Yes, we do get a fair amount of Kevin Smith making jokes about guys in Imperial Stormtrooper costumes, amongst many other obsessions. And, indeed, there are plenty of people on view in "Star Wars" gear. Praise be to the midi-chlorians, however, there is a lot more to Spurlock's film than that.
It is true, however, that the "Super Size Me" director glosses over or ignores most of the less cheerful elements of Comic-Con and its backstory. There is certainly another film that could be made about how the once modest labor of love became a mammoth commercial enterprise and got away from its cartoonist founder. A filmmaker less upbeat than Spurlock might have also been tempted to delve into some of the controversies regarding figures like Stan Lee and his treatment of such crucial collaborators as the late Jack Kirby. Since the venerable Lee is both an executive producer and one of the more amusing on-camera subjects, that might have been awkward. It also might have been awkward for Stan Lee superfan and "Buffy"/"Firefly" creator Joss Whedon, who “co-presents" and also appears in the film, and is, of course, directing "The Avengers," featuring several of Lee's co-creations. Also, it's not exactly fair to ask one film to be another film.
Let's face it, Morgan Spurlock is not a grade-A muckraker like Alex Gibney or a cinematic stylist like Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb") or, er, Werner Herzog, who should immediately make his own Comic-Con film. (I'd call it "Geeky Man"). Instead, "Comic-Con" very much reflects Spurlock's own affable, humanistic nature. For all of his reliance on such witty celebs as two of nerdom's most famous Seths – Green and Rogen – and snazzy but pointless time-lapse photography, Spurlock's film doesn't really investigate its subject, but neither does it lie.
Spurlock shows us the very hard, nerve-wracking work that goes into creating a really effective costume presentation as Holly Conrad struggles to make sure her elaborate "Mass Effect" inspired presentation comes off. The arbitrary nature of the comics business – not so different from any other creative effort – becomes clear as one aspiring comics illustrator (not necessarily the better of the two) receives a very different reception than the other. The apparent decline of print and its effect on the medium and business of comics becomes clear through the story of veteran comic book vender Chuck Rozanski. Even the course of true geek love runs far from 100% smooth.
If Spurlock's movie really does fall short, it's that, while participants keep telling us about the sense of community they feel going to Comic-Con, it never really shows us what that community might look or feel like; everyone's talking at the camera more often than they're speaking to each other. In any case, a Frederick Wiseman-style cinema verité Comic-Con documentary probably isn't any more likely than my Werner Herzog idea, though I'd love to see either film.
Yeah, so it's got a lousy title and it's not earth-shattering cinema, but Morgan Spurlock's entirely watchable and entertaining little Comic-Con movie accomplishes the task it sets for itself. In 88 minutes, we get a very decent gloss on the Comic-Con experience and just what it can mean for some people, minus the aching feet, sleep deprivation and $8.00 hot dogs.