“Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” is the first Morgan Spurlock movie not blatantly about Morgan Spurlock. Each of the documentarian’s previous efforts, from “Super Size Me” to last year’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” took cues from Spurlock’s wry on-camera presence. Removing himself from the picture, Spurlock reveals his documentary technique to have little distinguishable from the usual talking heads/verite approach. It’s a light, amusing collage of the titular event, but his absence makes it clear that the movie could have used a biting edge.
“Comic-Con” studies the annual San Diego convention without condescending to the subculture it represents. Much as an anthropological approach might offer greater insight into the intersecting behaviors and marketplace concerns driving this colossal gathering, Spurlock has crafted an inoffensive love letter sure to please the contingency it represents. However, no matter the cheerful vibe, this is one portrait screaming for a critical eye.
The opening credits announce the likes of Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and Ain’t It Cool News proprietor Harry Knowles as executive producers, a surefire way to establish the movie’s geek cred from the outset. The ensuing scattershot view of the 2010 Con pulls together various characters from the scene with diverse agendas that collectively represent the event’s status as the Mecca of the comic book industry. But the one development most prominent in the evolution of the 40-plus-year-old event is the one that gets mercilessly short-shifted: the onslaught of studios, networks and celebrities plugging their work and drowning out the scrappier sensibilities that made the Con so attractive in the first place.
Spurlock doesn’t ignore that shift, but the movie showcases a strange tension not unlike the experiences of many Con attendees: It’s both in favor of the event and illustrative of its diminishing returns. Early on, the director contrasts the event’s humble beginnings (“we’re hoping for about 500 people,” a founder says in a 1970 broadcast) and its modern-day status as a colossus several hundred thousand people strong. The resulting event is less fan’s paradise than a battlefield between what many people see as two extremes — what one veteran attendee described as “people who never read a comic book and people who never left their moms’ basements.” Spurlock exclusively deals with the subgroups of the former while downplaying the latter.
Still, the most of the film’s subjects offer enough diversity to provide an enthralling cross-section. A former soldier and the son of early Star Trek fans both journey to the Con in the hopes of impressing major comic book labels with their portfolios to mixed results. A talented designer spends hours prepping painstakingly detailed replicas of characters from the sci-fi video game “Mass Effect” for the annual costume show. Another young man wanders from panel to panel with his girlfriend in tow, hoping to pop the question at a massive Q&A session hosted by Kevin Smith. If “Comic-Con” were adapted as a reality show, each mini-arc could form a single enthralling installment.
While their light, charming endeavors never strain the movie’s exposition, they all look inconsequential alongside the plight of Chuck Rozanski, the baby boomer proprietor of Mile High Comics, a 38-year veteran of the event worried about selling enough goods to reach his quota. Pessimistic from the start, Rozanski is the only figure in “Comic-Con” without a reason to sing the praises of being there. The sorry state of his business could fill an entire movie; here, he’s relegated to a marginal role as the downside of the Con’s theme park-like expansion. Everyone else enjoys the ride (or hopes to exploit it).
An overarching critique of the event always lurks in the sidelines. Once a haven for the celebration of an illustrated medium and the industry sustaining it, the Con now relegates those interests to the sidelines, allowing marketplace forces to dominate and absorb the underlying aesthetic enthusiasm. While a few talking heads address that topic, nobody wants to bring it up without a refrain expressing their general love for the event at hand.
No matter how fun the proceedings, at times it feels like Spurlock has stumbled into a self-contained dictatorship in which no citizen dares to offend the unseen hand behind it all. They’re too happy to be there to stop playing along. Outside of the two feeble artists hoping to make it big, “Comic-Con” shows nothing remotely independent about the environment; virtually every moment contains a subservience to brand names and transparent corporate agendas under the guise of “fandom.”
The victims are entitled to play along with the scheme, of course, but the movie never rises to the challenge of calling them out. Its unwieldy title pays homage to the first “Star Wars,” but it actually has more in common with the ambiguity of “The Empire Strikes Back,” keeping the fate of the good guys still in question. Could the parasitic forces of capitalism eventually back off and allow the Con to regain its initial purity? A fan can hope.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Comic-Con” played to enthusiastic responses at both the massive Toronto International Film Festival and the supremely geek-friendly Fantastic Fest, ensuring its popularity with that core constituency. It opens in Los Angeles select cities on Thursday followed by a VOD release on Friday, where it stands a good chance of solid returns.
Watch the trailer for “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” below: