When word spread that Morgan Spurlock was making a documentary about Comic-Con International there was a reflexive shudder in the fanboy nation — Spurlock’s keen camera already had zoomed in on overeating (“Super Size Me”), subtle social shunning (“Freakonomics”) and well-known cave-dwellers (“Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden”) and, well, you can see where that line of thought leads.
It turns out they had nothing to worry about. “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” which opens Thursday in limited release, sets its phasers on sentimental. Spurlock has made an 88-minute movie that is, by his own admission, sweet, earnest and respectful of the pop culture tribes who gather every year at Comic-Con, the annual pop culture expo in San Diego that attracts 130,000 people with its celebration of toys, sci-fi, fantasy, spectacle films and comics.
For Spurlock, a 41-year-old West Virginia native, this was a movie saluting the flag of subculture and irony-free passion, not taping a “kick me” sign to the back of its collective Spider-Man T-shirt.
“I didn’t want to make ‘Trekkies,’” Spurlock said, referring to Roger Nygard’s 1997 documentary on obsessive “Star Trek” fans. “I like that movie, but it focuses on the freak show. I think what this film does really well is it humanizes people in a way that is important. What happens over the course of this film is you start to see a little bit of yourself in all of the characters or in their passion or their dedication.”
The subjects are five fans who travel to the convention looking for their own golden ticket — two want to score a career in the comics industry; another is a collectible-comics merchant desperate for a big profit weekend; the fourth is a costume designer who wants to win the “cosplay” tournament; and the last is a nervous man who wants to propose to his girlfriend in front of thousands of fans.
Those story threads, faces and voices form a tapestry of the long weekend, but Spurlock fans will be surprised that missing from the journey are the wry observations and eager charm of the filmmaker himself. From “Super Size Me” in 2004 up through last year’s product placement exposé “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” Spurlock has been the film and vice versa. This time he kept off-camera even as he was pressured by financiers who felt that the movie’s key asset was the documentarian’s ongoing career conversation with the public.
Spurlock suspected that his voice was extraneous — or maybe just too close to the voices already in the movie. Instead of a foreign correspondent, Spurlock’s youthful passions for Jedi knights and Marvel Comics made him more like a courier delivering a valentine to his own childhood.
Growing up, Spurlock found “big pivotal moments” sitting in the dark with movies such “Star Wars” — “There was a summer when I was 7 where I just wanted to go see it over and over, every day,” he said — and the “The Exorcist,” which inspired his first career goal, to become a Hollywood makeup specialist.
“I couldn’t believe I was meeting Stan Lee,” Spurlock said with a flutter of genuine excitement as he sat over coffee on a recent visit to L.A.
It was a chance meeting with Lee, the Marvel Comics pioneer, at Comic-Con in 2009 that set the project in motion. Spurlock then built a sort of dream team of Comic-Con figures — Joss Whedon, “Dark Knight” producer Thomas Tull and blogger Harry Knowles among them — to get the access and credibility he needed to drill deep into the event.
“This big challenge,” Spurlock said, “was figuring out how you cover something as massive and as crowded as Comic-Con and tell a coherent story. And what is that story? We had a huge crew, 150 people and between 15 to 20 cameras that were rolling at any given moment. We shot about 650 hours in about six or seven days over the course of this … then when you’re done it’s all about trying to find the gold in there.”
Some early reviews have noted that the documentary plays better to Comic-Con true believers rather than to curious tourists, and there is something of a pilgrimage vibe to the documentary with the seekers in it who travel to Comic-Con looking for their great reward. To Lee, that urgency is part of the fabric of the event. Comic-Con sounds a lot like The Force when described by the co-creator of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man.
“Comic-Con is so spectacular — there are people all over the world and they come to see each other and cheer and meet their heroes but they also come so they can try to become a hero themselves,” Lee said. “They always ask me: ‘How can I get your job?’ I tell them they can’t, I’m still using it! But everyone at Comic-Con who works in the business started off as a fan of the entertainment.”
Holly Conrad, the costume and makeup amateur followed by “A Fan’s Hope” cameras during a tense competition of latex and foam wizardry, now has a foothold in the industry thanks to the documentary, and she said the film already is a bonding element in the world of fans.
“What’s funny is that every subject in the film has been amazing, we all get along so well, I think in part because we all have similar interests and such a passion for being part of the geeky community,” Conrad said. “Also it was great seeing the sort of Jedis of the nerdy world talk about their past, like Frank Miller, etc. They were where we are now, and that’s a really encouraging thing to see.”
There are other messages too. One of the aspiring artists has his dreams battered pretty well by the cruelly honest appraisals he gets at the convention, for instance. It’s a reminder that careers are like costumes — you can wear a Superman cape but that doesn’t mean you can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The film also picks up the voices of a conflicted community when it comes to the growth of Comic-Con (it started scruffy and small in 1970 with a few hundred people in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel) and the shift in emphasis from comics to celebrity promotional appearances and digital entertainment.
Comic-Con returns in July and seems likely to draw even more pop culture enthusiasts — audiences most excited about the prospects of a new “Star Trek” film, a return voyage to Middle-earth for director Peter Jackson with his two-part fantasy epic “The Hobbit” and new look versions of Superman and Spider-Man (not to mention 3-D reissues of the “Star Wars” movies).
Although Spurlock is moving on — “Mansome,” his documentary on the surge in male beauty as an industry and lifestyle, arrives this month at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival — he said his visit to planet Comic-Con made it clear to him that the fan factions are here to stay. Their beloved Con, though, seems destined to lose some of its charm the more it continues its monster growth and hulks out into the mainstream.
“The weird thing is it gets bigger, there is something there for everyone,” Spurlock said, a bit perplexed by the dynamics of cult, culture, creation and co-opting. “I mean now I could take my mom and she could find something there that she likes. They have ‘Glee’ there too, how does that happen? It’s where any of the outsiders can go to find others like them but now maybe everyone is becoming an outsider. My mom, the outsider.”
— Geoff Boucher
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