If you have a friend or family member who is baffled by con culture, show them the Morgan Spurlock-directed documentary Comic-Con IV: A Fan’s Hope. With sincerity and affection, it explains to the uninitiated and/or judgmental the world that our crowd knows so well. Alas, we live in a society that interprets wearing a giant, plastic cheese on your head as mere enthusiasm, but regards cosplay as weird. Go figure.
Amid all the geeking out, the movie — filmed at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010 — acknowledges the elephant in the room: Comics have been relegated to the background of a giant convention with “comic” in the name, and that is now largely about mass entertainment. It’s unreal to look at old photos of the first Comic-Con in 1970 and compare those images to the huge scene it is today.
But Spurlock goes intimate, focusing on people with the kind of specific, heartfelt passion that defines fandom. Whether or not you’ve been to a major con, you’ll likely see a bit of yourself in the central characters and relate to the comments from anonymous con-goers and well-known creators like Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith.
Comic-Con IV: A Fan’s Hope follows a set of interesting players: Aspiring comic book artists Skip Harvey and Eric Henson, Mile High Comics owner Chuck Rozanski, gamer and amateur costume designer Holly Conrad, action figure enthusiast Anthony Calderon, and lovebirds James Darling and Se Young Kang, who met at Comic-Con the previous year. They all represent different facets of the event, but they’re united in their devotion to the things they love. Tone is important, and Spurlock never mocks his subjects or their pursuits.
Harvey and Henson bring their lifelong dreams and their portfolios to the Comic-Con, and despite their talent, there are critiques and hard realities to endure. Depending on your perspective, it’s either funny or a tad troubling to see Kang refuse to let Darling leave her side so that he can pick up the “Lord of the Rings”-inspired rock for the proposal.
Rozanski, who has been to Comic-Con 38 years in a row, talks about trying to sell comics at a convention where he can’t even use the loading docks at the back of the building (LucasFilm owns them now). Making a decent profit would be nice, but he’d really like to sell an extremely rare, mint Red Raven comic with an asking price of $500,000 to alleviate his financial burdens. Rozanski also has the most memorable line of the documentary:
“When a woman tells you to grow up, that’s God’s way of telling you to get new woman, especially if she tells you to get rid of your comics. There’s three billion women on the planet and not a lot of great comics, so it’s an easy choice.”
What Comic Con IV: A Fan’s Hope does well is to tap into the child-like glee that fans get from temporarily living out their fantasies, meeting their favorite creators or acquiring something cool. Calderon has a sparkle in the eye as he talks about his quest for an 18-inch Galactus figure. When he says he’s not leaving without it, you believe him. Conrad wants to bring Mass Effect alive by re-enacting a scene from the game before a con audience. There are happy and hopeful endings, and some tears.
I do wish the documentary had devoted more time to Comic Con’s evolution from a comics-focused event to the wide-ranging juggernaut it is today. Rozanski hints at the conflict between the old-timers and the Hollywood machine that has overtaken the event, but it’s mostly glossed over. And while I certainly understand the fan mindset, some viewers might be left wondering why someone would spend countless hours preparing to do a five-minute skit based on a video game, or devote an entire room in their house (and a safe) to toys. But maybe Spurlock wanted to avoid pathologizing his fellow geeks by psychoanalyzing them. Is it really that big a deal if someone wants to be Deadpool for a few days out of the year?
Will con veterans learn anything new from this movie? Probably not. Still, as someone who has been in hotel lobbies full of Stormtroopers, Steampunkers and Snapes, I found it charming and full of satisfying human drama. If you’ve never been to a con, don’t be surprised if you have the urge to dig up a cape and get to one soon. Grade: B