The most important thing for geek audiences to keep in mind when watching Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope is that it means well. Spurlock, a self-professed comics fan, has said, essentially he made the film as an excuse to go to Comic-Con.
The doc premiered at this past fall’s Toronto International Film Festival but its apparent purpose—to introduce the uninitiated to convention culture in particular but geek culture in general—feels a bit dated at this point, with Comic-Con now such a pop-cultural institution.
This isn’t the film’s fault; it was shot at the 2010 con in San Diego, at which time, if the post-production fairy could have waved her wand and had the movie ready for immediate release, it would have arrived at the exact right cultural moment. Now, it comes across as old news for geeks—the moribund “parents’ basement” cliché is even invoked—while still hinging on a few key moments whose emotional power may be lost on audiences without the frame of reference to process all the involved nuances. Still, it’s an engaging film that never intentionally condescends to its subject(s), with some genuinely lovely moments.
Spurlock alternates between two narrative threads. One consists of general meditations on comic books and geek culture from a wide array of celebrities, from filmmakers Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon to comics writers and artists Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, and Robert Kirkman, to random people who just happened to be there, like Tron: Legacy‘s Olivia Wilde. The other follows a number of “normal” con attendees (quotes not meant to be condescending; I mean this in the best possible way, y’all, none of us geeks, nerds, and so forth are normal) as they try to break into the comics business, get their costume/makeup/creature design noticed, buy and sell valuable collectibles, and even get married.
It’s that last pair whose story is the most compelling. They’re a couple for whom the term “adorkable” is actually appropriate, and the guy’s attempts to get the necessary couple minutes alone to go pick up the engagement ring he custom-ordered for the girl in time to propose to her at the Kevin Smith panel are genuinely suspenseful. In another mood I might have felt manipulated, but I’m a sucker for a good love story.
There is a bit of manipulation and deliberate foreshadowing in the way the attendees’ stories are presented. Of the two aspiring illustrators, it’s made pretty clear early on that one is going to be the one who doesn’t make it, and the other is the one who does. The movie makes a bit more of the production difficulties encountered by the Mass Effect cosplayers than is necessary, though one can always tune out the imposed cinematic artifice and focus on how awesome the lead designer/performer’s FemShep costume is, and the jawdropping animatronic Wrex headpiece she designs. Each of these narratives ends pretty much as you’d expect, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The one genuine surprise is the ultimate fate of the $500,000 copy of Red Raven #1 the pony-tailed comics dealer from Denver spends the movie reluctantly trying to sell. I won’t reveal what it is, but my reaction was a pleased smile and a satisfied nod.
While Spurlock sacrifices depth for narrative momentum, one thing he does quite well is portray geek culture in a realistically heterogeneous fashion. Rumors of the existence of such creatures as female geeks and geeks of color are confirmed, repeatedly. A wide range of ages and body types are on display. The best part is, the diversity doesn’t feel forced, more a scrupulous representation of the reality of geek culture, and its breadth. And while it does feature its celebrity guest stars prominently, the sincerity of the fandom of people like Joss Whedon comes across as unimpeachable.
But the focus on celebrity comics fans comes at the expense of fully exploring one theme that emerges over the course of several of the interviews: Comic-Con’s move away from being exclusively about comics toward being an event about pop culture in general. Enough people mention this tendency in the movie that one starts to wish Spurlock had interviewed some of the organizers of the con to ask why this is. It could be that they refused comment, but if that was the case, a title card to the effect of “the con’s organizers declined to be interviewed for this film” would have been welcome.
The biggest problem, though not necessarily a fatal one, with Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope is the question of who it’s for. It’s elementary enough to potentially try the patience of hardcore geeks who already know a lot of the expository stuff about geek culture, yet the rate at which it tosses names of comics luminaries at the audience may lead to the whole movie turning into a big, blurry express train ride through an alien landscape. Still, while it may not be any kind of definitive statement about Comic-Con or geek culture, it’s arguable whether that’s even its point. It’s an entertaining movie about interesting stuff, which is the most important thing, and its director has a genuine and sincere feel for the material.