Like most of the coolest things in the universe, San Diego Comic Con is now kind of lame. The mission statement of the convention, to promote and share a sub-stratum of pop culture amongst its hardcore fans, eventually devolved into an engorged hub of industry promotion, in which studio giants take up more and more of the convention space, shoving “smaller” creators further and further into the corners, to the extent where comic book enthusiasts sometimes feel shunned by the very event designed to embrace them. And then of course there’s the massive overcrowding, the cramped scheduling, and the often-shoddy internet access that makes covering the event – as we journalists must – an occasional nightmare. I think it’s safe to say that I had grown to hate Comic Con over the last few years. And I think it’s the biggest compliment of all to say that Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, made me fall in love with Comic Con all over again.
First, a word about Morgan Spurlock. After taking the documentary community by storm with 2004’s Supersize Me, which dared to suggest that eating nothing but McDonald’s for weeks would be unhealthy, he settled into a career of investigative docs that examined and actively challenged accepted public beliefs. Was Osama Bin Laden really that hard to find? Watch Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, and so on. I expected Spurlock’s Comic Con documentary to assume the same investigative reporting vibe, perhaps uncovering the seedy underbelly behind the event’s gradual corporate takeover. It would have been a perfectly viable take on the material. But instead, Spurlock has taken such a conventional route that, for Spurlock at any rate, it feels almost revolutionary. He can make a “real” documentary, all right, staying out of the camera’s field of vision entirely and simply focusing on a microcosm of a greater community, with well-selected subjects with tangible goals to focus on.
Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope follows the exploits of a half dozen individuals trekking to San Diego in pursuit of their dreams. Not all dreams are created equal: one guy just wants an exclusive Galactus figure, dashes across the convention floor on the opening day, and buys it. His story is, amusingly, already over, leaving Spurlock to focus on characters like Holly Conrad, an overachieving amateur costume designer who hopes to parlay her animatronic Mass Effect costumes into a career, and Skip Harvey, a wide-eyed geek with a portfolio of pencilings looking to be discovered by a major publisher. The heart and soul of Comic Con Episode IV are James Darling and his girlfriend Se Young Kang, who has no idea that he’s brought her to the convention – where they first met – to propose to her in Hall H. The problem is that she wants to spend all her time with James, who desperately needs a few minutes to himself in order to pick up the engagement ring. It plays like a real-life Danny Kaye routine, and ends in such a spectacularly dramatic and satisfying fashion that it couldn’t possibly have been scripted.
The common thread amongst the characters Spurlock has discovered for Comic Con Episode IV is, at the horrible risk of being trite, love. These wonderful people are trying to fulfill their occasionally meager dreams for no particular reason beyond their own desperate passions, and I’ve seen strains of herpes that were less infectious. Comic Con Episode IV is that rare documentary that plays to the converted and uninitiated alike. For those who’ve never been, or simply can’t get tickets now that the event has turned into a genuine phenomenon, it’s an earnest examination of what makes Comic Con so special. For those who have lost their love for the event, for one reason or another, it’s a heartfelt reminder of just how meaningful Comic Con can be. And if you just plain love it and go every year, it’s a real life Where’s Waldo, encouraging you to scour the film for your likeness in the crowds. (You can find me on the escalator in front of “The Collector,” incidentally.)