Movie Review: There’s No Place Like Comic-Con

Remember that scene in To Wong Foo, where the girls ponder whether or not to stop at a hotel in middle America in full drag? Noxeema says, “People are gonna be cruel. It could get violent.” That’s usually how I feel right before I read or watch any sort of Comic-Con coverage in the mainstream media. Are they going to make fun of us? Chuckle and wonder how we have “too much time on our hands?” Which of the usual phrases will they toss out: “Get a life?” “Mom’s basement?” “Virgin?” Even with all the exposure geek culture has received in recent years, the mainstream media persists in packaging Comic-Con as some sort of freak show, inhabited by people you would never meet. So, you can understand why I’m with Noxeema on this. Keep driving, Vida. 

Luckily, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) isn’t exactly mainstream himself, though he’s clearly attempting to open up the Comic-Con mystique to a mainstream audience. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is a lively and engaging look at those oh-so-crucial 4-5 days in July when the outsiders become the insiders. Just like there’s no way anyone could see and do everything that Comic-Con has to offer, Spurlock has to pick and choose who and what to focus on to create an overall picture of the event and the people who attend. He accomplishes this, for the most part, by selecting a handful of interesting and likable attendees to follow before, during and after the con.

Using obligatory comic book style graphics, Spurlock introduces each of his subjects according to his or her goals for the show: The Designer, The Geek, The Lovers, The Survivor, etc. His selection of subjects, ranging from a cosplay costume designer to aspiring artists to a veteran comic book retailer, do a good job of representing just how vast and diverse Comic-Con and its attendees are.

In addition to the attendees, Spurlock features solo confessionals by industry pros and celebrities, like Kevin Smith, Eli Roth, Seth Green and Stan Lee. Smith and Roth offer the most thoughtful insights into the culture and motivations of Comic-Con attendees, and I found myself wanting more time with each of them. Spurlock juggles the varying story lines pretty well, though there were times I lost the thread on one of the artists. When he appears again, he mentions getting 12 portfolio reviews, but at that point, we’ve only seen one. As he begins to process the rejection, I would have liked to have seen more of that journey. Then again, showing 12 professionals telling him his art needs more work is probably overkill.

What Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope does best is humanize the attendees and engage the viewer in their goals. How engaged will depend on the viewer, I think. For instance, there’s a brief sequence where Spurlock shows a toy collector’s quest to grab an exclusive Galactus figure from Hasbro. Having experienced that anxiety myself every year, my heart raced in a way I’m sure the average viewer’s won’t. Still, I can’t imagine anyone not cheering on the costume designer in the Masquerade or being touched by the young couple who gets engaged during one of Kevin Smith’s panels. You like these people and want them to succeed. That alone will go a long way towards changing the perception people have of the attendees of the convention.

Admirably, Spurlock even tackles the growing realization that comics are getting squeezed out of the convention. As Comic-Con has become more of a spectacle sponsored by movie studios and television networks, there is less focus and attention on the comics publishers and vendors. The documentary and its participants stop just short of placing blame, which is probably wise, since that alone could fill a documentary. However, it does drive home the point that the Comic-Con demographic is viewed as a valuable resource in the entertainment industry.

As a frequent con attendee who just went through the whole downtown San Diego hotel lottery routine, I wanted to see more about the con’s growth and overcrowding issues, the economic impact on San Diego, and the future plans for expansion. In other words, more details about the con itself. Also, as a gay Comic-Con attendee who spends most of his time at the Prism Comics booth or in gay-related panels, it would have been nice to see a mention of the strong LGBTQ community in comics. But, like I said before, this is really more of an Intro to Comic-Con than an in-depth look at the convention. Luckily, Spurlock has chosen his subjects well, and he treats them with the respect and common courtesy they deserve. Their individual hopes and dreams are more than enough to keep even this jaded con attendee engaged and entertained.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is playing in select theaters around the nation. It is also available on demand via various sources, like iTunes and Amazon. You can find out where/how to see the film on the official website.