Documentarian Morgan Spurlock's latest film, like much of his past fare, is all about exposing the truth -- but instead of criticizing consumerism like in "Super Size Me" or the "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," the premise of "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" revolves around something much simpler: comic book fans are people too.
An engaging look at the convention, "Comic-Con" represents unusually fluffy material for Spurlock as he brings the same eye for storytelling that has served him well in previous films and despite the cringe-worthy name, "Comic-Con" presents its subjects as charismatic, talented and ambitious people. Combined with talking head interviews starring everyone from Joss Whedon (an executive producer on the film) to random cosplayers wandering the convention hall, the documentary gives a surprisingly comprehensive feel for the mood of the popular convention and what it's like to be a fan in an age where mainstream media embraces the term geek, yet most audiences still deign to pick up a comic book.
The documentary follows the lives of five Comic-Con attendees over the course of the four-day convention. Skip and Eric are two wannabe comic book artists, the former a bartender and the latter a soldier, both hoping to get hired by a company during the convention's artist portfolio reviews. Holly is an aspiring designer who hopes her ambitious "Mass Effect" costumes will win an award at the Comic-Con Masquerade Ball. Meanwhile, James is hoping to propose to his girlfriend at the Kevin Smith panel and Chuck is hoping the sale of an ultra-rare comic will keep his business, the famous Mile High Comics, afloat through another tough year.
Peppering these life stories are snippets of information about the real con, presented as talking head interviews with writers, artists, celebrities and regular fans, explaining everything from the definition of "cosplay" to the explosion of CCI as a pop-culture Mecca. With equal weight put on the opinions of conventioneers and high-profile interviewees (yes, true believers, Stan Lee does appear in the documentary) "Comic-Con" takes viewers through the convention from start to finish; from the central subjects saying goodbye to their families to them packing it back home, some more happily than others.
Of course, this being a documentary about comic books, cheesy live-scenes-turn-into-comic-book-panel transitions that filmmakers seem legally mandated to use, silly codenames for the subjects and some awful use of caption boxes to tie locations together are ever-present. However, these offenses can be forgiven as the film effectively wraps the audience in the struggles of the five main characters. Every one of the central players is likeable and motivated, even when the outside world does not quite understand them -- like Eric's tolerant but bewildered wife. It's easy to root for these unassuming individuals as we get a sense of their lives; Spurlock wisely points his camera not just at their obsessions but their hometowns, their day jobs, their friends and family. The picture he paints is compelling, the stakes are high for each subject and the outcomes are anything but certain.
There's also an added thrill for the Comic-Con attendees in the audience, a sense of familiarity that lends depth to the stories, especially Chuck's struggles to keep Mile High afloat. "Hey," you say to yourself, "I've been there, but I never knew what it was really like until now."
The real appeal of the documentary is the respect with which it treats the subject. I do not know how Mr. Spurlock views himself, but after watching the film I doubt he's an ardent monthly comic book buying fanboy. The film never panders to fans and his eye is too clinical and too focused on the real-world ambitions of his subjects; the details and content of comic books are a distant afterthought to the drama playing out on screen.
Despite this, Spurlock resists the all too easy urge to condescend his subject and his audience. Throughout mainstream media there is still a tendency to see fans, even when brought up in a positive light, as losers and loners, weirdoes who just don't fit in. Even fans indulge in it -- after all, what does it say about "The Simpsons" that they can simultaneously make nuanced jokes about "Watchmen" and references to obscure comic work while trotting out Comic Book Guy as the face of fandom? Even beloved shows such as "The Guild" and similar documentaries such as "Trekkies" can't help but take jabs at the people who support them.
By contrast a real, genuine affinity for these people comes across in "Comic-Con," and Spurlock's admiration for his subjects is exactly the same for the fat kid dresses as Darth Vader as it is for the celebrities he interviews. Under Spurlock's lens all subjects are equal and the audience gets an overwhelming sense of people who attend Comic-Con as people, first and foremost. While there is some gentle riffing, juxtaposing enthusiastic fans against each other in quick sight gags, the documentary avoids getting bogged down in geekdom minutia, always keeping an eye on the prize -- will Holly be recognized for her incredible costuming talents? Will Chuck be able to stay in business? Can Skip and Eric break into the biz, will James ever get a chance to propose? It's this question of success that's at the center of "Comic-Con" and what makes the film eminently watchable. These aren't just chubby 40 year olds quibbling over action figures (though those guys are in here too); they are well-rounded, interesting and funny people who you genuinely sympathize with.
Like all of Spurlock's work, "Comic-Con" tackles its subject with humor and dignity. Once again the documentarian has created a diverting film that will have you laughing, crying and cheering along with the rest of the audience, not to mention the countless thousands of convention attendees onscreen.
"Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" releases theatrically and on video-on-demand April 6.