A cynical look, yet sympathetic
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 13, 2012
Set during the 2010 Comic-Con International - an annual convention that has grown from a gathering of a hundred or so comic-book fanatics to a pop-culture mecca drawing 125,000 attendees - "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" holds enormous appeal for both the geek audience and the casual viewer.
Documentarian Morgan Spurlock knows a thing or two about obsessive behavior, having eaten nothing but McDonald's food for a month for his funny and incisive 2004 break-out, "Super Size Me."
For "Comic-Con," the filmmaker follows a handful of equally passionate participants in the convention, including two aspiring comic artists who hope to get their work noticed by publishers at portfolio review sessions; a designer entering the convention's annual costume contest, known as the Masquerade; a grizzled and gray-ponytailed comic-book dealer who has been coming to Comic-Con for 38 straight years (it was founded in 1970) and is trying to sell a rare, $500,000 comic book; and a young man who plans to propose marriage to his girlfriend at the event.
It would be easy to laugh at some of these people, but Spurlock's gaze is never mocking, cruel or gratuitously mean. Still, he maintains enough clinical detachment to satisfy viewers who will find the whole thing a little weird. It's hard not to. Superhero costumes everywhere you look? Grown men collecting action figures? Who are these freaks?
Spurlock, to his credit, tells us, by really listening to them. His observational stance feels halfway between the anthropologist's and the wry, smirking outsider's. Yet he's also affectionate enough toward - and genuinely curious enough about - his sometimes eccentric subjects to avoid needless offense.
Like the popular media that Comic-Con celebrates - movies, television, video games, etc. - the documentary itself has a little bit of everything: drama, suspense, spectacle, comedy and romance, provided mostly by the stories of its subjects, who are engaging enough to make you actually care about their fates.
But it offers a bit of sociological insight as well, in commentaries from some of the celebrities who are now regulars at Comic-Con, including writer/director/producer Joss Whedon, filmmaker Kevin Smith and others. There's more than a little regret expressed that the event has become so money driven, becoming, as one pundit puts it, "the world's largest focus group," a soulless marketing enterprise run by companies competing for our ever-more-precious entertainment dollars.
At the same time, Spurlock balances this cynical bigger picture by focusing on a group of little people whose reasons for coming to Comic-Con are still motivated not by lucre, but by love. At times those people sound a little nutty. But as the film suggests, for those who really care about something: Who doesn't?
"Comic-Con" doesn't shoot to kill anyone. Instead, it operates a catch-and-release policy. It's a funny, compassionate and honest look at fandom that captures its goofy, outsize heart.
Contains sex and drug references and mild, mostly bleeped obscenities.