With so much of American life centered on celebrity worship and aspirational window shopping, it is nice to be reminded of the merits of the not-beautiful, the marginal, and, frankly, the geeky.
Morgan Spurlock's new documentary Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope is a salute to the underdogs in life's lotto, the kids who didn't get all the lucky breaks and the good looks. But, based on this documentary, they at least wring their fair share of fun from it nevertheless. Their nirvana is the annual comic book convention in San Diego, Comic-Con. Inaugurated in 1970, the event has since grown into an enormous, celebrity-packed merchandise-shilling geek fest of 120,000 fanboys and girls that nerds across the country pine to attend all year long. In a tongue-in-cheek opening bit mimicking an old-school filmstrip, Spurlock shows the crude beginnings of Comic-Con in black-and-white stills of fuzzy-haired post-hippies sorting through cardboard boxes of comics. Cut to today, and the endless fans, many of them dressed as their favorite characters, flow like a fleshy Nile into the San Diego Convention Center.
An array of high-profile geeks are interviewed about the Comic-Con phenomenon, including Eli Roth, Joss Whedon, Seth Rogen, Seth Green, and the lord geek of them all, Kevin Smith,who is far funnier here than in his films. It's nice to see the roots of their professional arc in their unabashed enthusiasm for all things geeky, proof that lurking within each slick success story is a gooey fanboy center. But the heart of Spurlock's film is its geeks-on-the-ground: the ordinary people scattered across the country who nurture devotions to action figures or comics or video games and engage in giddy preparation for this annual event.
Comic-Con looks at geekdom from several vantages. Spurlock interviews two enthusiastic, gung-ho aspiring cartoonists: the sweetly hopeful twentysomething Skip Harvey, who dreams of launching his comic career at the annual convention, and Air Force dad and husband Eric Henson. Harvey still has comic character sheets on his bed, and his parents are longtime nerds who fell in love at a Star Trek convention. Both men hope to get their big cartooning break at Comic-Con, but only one will. Meanwhile, describing her California town as a meth-haven and pit stop on the way to the ski slopes, pretty nerd-girl Holly Conrad is clearly interested in escape, both literal and metaphorical. Her more immediate form of escape is the video game Mass Effect. Her actual escape comes when she travels to San Diego with a group of like-minded friends who have just spent months building elaborate — and incredibly sophisticated — Mass Effect costumes. They plan to unleash their outfits on the masquerade contest. Meanwhile, in Denver, a grizzled comic book dealer Chuck Rozanski has watched Comic-Con morph from a comic convention into a focus group for the next Hollywood blockbuster; he laments the passing of the geek baton. He's traveling to Comic-Con with his pierced female apprentice and a $500,000 rare 1940 comic book, Red Raven No. 1, that he hopes to unload (with mixed emotions) at the convention.
A documentary by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) that's all the better for not having Spurlock in it, Comic-Com is a welcome departure from the brand of navel-gazing, high-concept work that has defined the director's career. Like Spurlock's other films, however, Comic-Com does touch upon the crass commercialization that dominates contemporary life. The film tackles an issue near and dear to most nerd's hearts: how what was once fringe and unique can become contaminated by consumerism and huge corporations like Lucasfilm and Mattel. That message can feel slightly contradictory within the context of Spurlock's film. For every old-timer like Rozanski lamenting the decline of comics, there are 10 geeks jazzed on the corporate video games, movies, and action figures who have overtaken the convention.
The best takeaway from this surprisingly heartwarming and all-embracing film is that there is something — and someone — for everyone on this planet.