Somewhere in Iowa, there lives a lonely geek deeply ashamed of his love for comicbooks, action figures and/or “Star Trek” re-runs. Morgan Spurlock’s “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” is designed to convince that poor misfit he’s not alone — that for four days every July, there exists a place where he belongs. Keeping himself off-camera while putting exec producers Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and Harry Knowles front-and-center alongside half a dozen extreme fans, Spurlock brings his usual good-humored approach to the subject, nicely balancing absurdity with genuine human interest. VOD and direct-sales seem the surest way to reach the Con-verted.
Before Spurlock, many have tried and failed to make a film that definitively captures the Hajj-to-Mecca-like experience of the 125,000-plus pop-culture aficionados who crowd the San Diego Convention Center each year for Comic-Con. Some come to meet their idols, others hope to be discovered, but most simply thrive in an environment where they can celebrate their favorite fictional characters. Remember, “fan” is short “fanatic”; these are not low-key personalities.
The logistical challenges alone make telling their collective story an undertaking even more complex than shooting a 3D Miley Cyrus concert movie, and one that required as many as 26 cameras rolling at any given time. To simplify things, Spurlock solicited potential subjects online and chose six whose personal narratives represented the range of experience the event delivers: a collector obsessed with buying a limited-edition toy, two aspiring illustrators, an amateur costume designer, a veteran comicbook dealer and a young man who met his soul-mate at Comic-Con one year earlier (their co-dependent relationship gives new meaning to the term “cling-on”).
In what could prove to be the “Canterbury Tales” of our generation, had Chaucer enlisted the cathedral’s most evangelical priests to underwrite a Catholic recruitment video, “Comic-Con” offers insight into the dreams and desperations of these six pilgrims. Will Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics, find a buyer for the Holy Grail of Marvel comics, a near-mint copy of Red Raven No. 1? Can Holly Conrad and her team of Mass Effect fans overcome wardrobe malfunctions to win the masquerade ball? How many Storm Troopers can you squeeze into one photo op? All these questions and more will be answered in what feels like an extended sizzle reel for the event (which bears little resemblance to the nerdy swap meet that began in 1970).
By the end of Day Two, with another half-hour to go, the excitement is already beginning to wear thin. Working with editors Tim K. Smith and Tova Goodman for nearly a year, Spurlock can’t quite decide how to organize all that footage, projected at a low enough resolution he must have intended the project for home viewing, where it’s easy enough to bundle the film with hours of bonus material.
In addition to making this doc, Spurlock also published a coffee-table book featuring photos (in full costumed regalia) of “cosplay” groupies and their idols snapped against a plain white backdrop. Video interviews from these same sessions make their way into the film, which strains between cramming in as many famous faces as possible and finding anything meaningful to say.
Spurlock is too busy hyping the film/TV/comicbook/vidgame industries’ single biggest hype platform to get philosophical, though psychologists could have a field day with these characters (like Eric, whose parents met at a Star Trek convention). For the casual film or TV admirer, the result has a vaguely unsettling feel that calls to mind the “Gooble gobble! One of us!” scene in Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” This isn’t a vicarious tour of Comic-Con so much as an indoctrination.