Oddities as Commodities
Full disclosure: Until a couple years ago, I was a bona fide comics fan. I fell out of love with the medium mostly due to budget and time constraints (it got to the point where I was spending forty bucks a week on books I never got around to reading--thanks in part to a renewed obsession with movies). I've also attended Comic-Con five times in the last twelve years, though I haven't been back since The Thomas Jane Affair.
Morgan Spurlock is not the person to make the ultimate documentary about Comic-Con. A serial promoter whose obsession with making himself the story instead of his alleged subject matter, he makes Michael Moore look like the investigator from Citizen Kane. Even the fact that Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope is the first of his films in which he doesn't appear on camera feels like a gimmick to get people writing about the fact that it's the first of his films in which he doesn't appear on camera. His movie wears the skin of die-hard fandom, but the central event's geek roots are so draped in celebrity and gaudiness that they're unrecognizable.
On second thought, maybe he's the perfect person to document Comic-Con.
Any lifelong comics fan who's made the annual pilgrimage to San Diego for the world's largest comic book convention will tell you that the four-day-long, pop-culture blow-out has very little to do with paper-and-staple comics anymore; it's mostly a tribute to the movies, video games, and role-playing games that either spun off from the medium's most famous properties, or which share their spirit of escapism. People don't wait on-line for twelve hours outside Hall H to see George Perez talk about the complexities of drawing crowd scenes, but I did once see a semi-organized mob wrap around the top floor of the San Diego Convention Center two-and-a-half times for a chance to see Angelina Jolie promote her Tomb Raider sequel.
Spurlock captures some of that grousing in his film, mostly by Mile High Comics owner, Chuck Rozanski, whose big arc involves trying to make enough profit at the con that he can avoid selling a mint copy of the first Marvel comic (a payday that could net him half a million dollars and a debt-free company). Rozanski laments the change in Comic-Con's focus, but we never get into why things shifted, or when. From Spurlock and co-writers Jeremy Chilnick and Joss Whedon's point of view, the event just stopped being about comics, and the details are unimportant--I suspect their glossing over this point has something to do with being filmmakers who rely on young, cash-rich movie geeks to pay the bills; why rock the boat?
Rozanski isn't Spurlock's only pseudo-subject. In fact, Comic-Con is part celebrity-talking-head testimonial,* part documentary (in that real people appear on screen), and part reality TV show. Yes, I recall Ain't It Cool News' announcement a few years ago that Spurlock was looking for the ultimate comics geeks to follow in his next film (the fan site's proprietor, Harry Knowles, is a co-producer). We meet two aspiring comics artists, a toy collector, a nerdy Kevin Smith fan who plans to pop the question to his girlfriend during a Q&A, and a team of aspiring costume designers who dream of parading their elaborate Mass Effect outfits at the con's Masquerade Ball.
The talent search angle (which is never mentioned in the film) is highly problematic. Knowing about it, I couldn't view any of these people's journeys as anything but The Real World: Comic-Con. The heavily-focused grouped, interesting-looking-but-not-overtly-unattractive subjects come from diverse parts of the country, and Spurlock makes a big deal of small-town dreams possibly coming true. But it's never clear that any of these people struggled to go to Comic-Con (which is an expensive trip, to be sure), or that any of the good fortune and exposure they enjoy at the event is a result of anything but the conspicuous camera crew and filming clearances. In short, Comic-Con, like Comic-Con, is so overly produced that absolutely nothing seems real.
There's also the sticky question of what Spurlock actually thinks of his subjects. We get a lot of costumed fans standing in front of white backdrops, gushing over the fact that they can come to Comic-Con and be accepted for the socially awkward, developmentally arrested freaks that they are (my phrasing might seem harsh, but many fans wear this description as a badge, rather than a scarlet letter). But if you've never picked up a graphic novel in your life, how are you supposed to react to a morbidly obese man in full body paint, pretending to be a buff video game character? The poor guy laments the fact that he'll never have six-pack abs--which is true, as long as he keeps chugging six-packs of Mountain Dew.
I hate violence, and even I wanted to give this clueless dope a swirly.
My biggest problem with the film (and to a lesser extent the gold-standard of geekdom documentaries, Trekkies) is a lack of both context and moderate personalities. Not everyone who attends Comic-Con dresses in Slave Leia costumes or looks like supporting nerds from Saved by the Bell. But you wouldn't know that from watching Spurlock's movie. The only well-adjusted people on screen appear to be the ones making truckloads of money off the hordes who think their fictitious franchises are real.
And I know it's not acceptable to criticize people for their fandom (to each his/her own, or whatever), but there's a pervasive attitude--bordering on snobbery--that suggests this behavior is not just okay, but perfectly normal. Maybe it would have been a buzz-kill to follow some fans from the lives they feel they have to escape all the way to Comic-Con and back, but that at least carries the promise of substance. As it stands, Comic-Con is merely an eight-six-minute commercial for a product that its target audience is already planning to buy--and a warning to the squares to stay far, far away.
Much like this review, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope is a mess of half-baked commentary and unrealized potential. Strangely, it pretends that geeks are some closeted faction of society who can only acknowledge their quirks on this strange, little island in the middle of summer--when the reality is that geek culture is the driving force behind all of the money being generated in popular media. But I guess since Comic-Con has become a focus group for content developers, it has to lure the faithful somehow, and painting the San Diego Convention Center as the one place on the planet where one can escape being burned at the stake for liking Star Trek is as good a ploy as any.
Personally, this fan's hope is to see a real documentary about Comic-Con, one not produced by a showboat with an agenda.
*Thank you, Corey Feldman, Eli Roth, Kevin Smith, Seth Rogen, Olivia Wilde, etc., etc., for explaining that Comic-Con offers escapism for people who don't fit in anywhere else.