Review: Spurlock's 'Comic-Con' doc succeeds most when focused on the fans
I went to the San Diego Comic-Con for the first time about twelve years ago, but I've been going to smaller conventions my entire life. Fandom has changed so much since I first fell in love with it that I find myself feeling a little disconnected from the modern face of Comic-Con. I like fans when I meet them one on one, but I find that I'm less and less in love with the larger community called fandom.
I think I understand why, too, but it was something that only really started to come into focus when I was at Comic-Con this year and then again when I saw the new Morgan Spurlock film "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Journey" at Toronto this year. Tonight, it is the closing night film at Fantastic Fest 2011, and it seems appropriate since this is one of the first films where my friend and former employer Harry Knowles is an executive producer as well as an on-screen presence, and sure enough, I saw him show up in fine style tonight, ready to enjoy the hometown screening of the film.
There is quite a bit about the film that I like, and there are a few big things about it that I don't like at all. I think what the film does at its best is explain what it is that draws people to San Diego each year. There are five distinct stories being told in the film. My favorite deals with Holly Conrad, an aspiring costume designer who wants to enter the Masquerade with her friends playing a team from "Mass Effect 2." She's enormously talented, and the work she does in the film is professional quality. Spurlock follows her from her home to the Con and through the entire process of preparing on-site and rehearsing and dealing with tech issues and stage fright, and it's a lovely portrait of the way fandom and professional aspiration can sometimes synch up.
That's also true of the stories about both of the guys who are trying to break into the comic industry, both artists who have the desire to draw comic books even if they're working at very different skill levels. I like that they chose to focus one storyline on the guy who runs Mile High Comics, a huge online comic book store that has had a presence at the Con as long as it's been around. Chuck Rozanski's fate seems to be directly tied to the changing nature of Comic-Con and the way the emphasis has shifted from comics to movies and other media over the years. If there's not a place for Chuck and Mile High at the Con, then can it really still be called Comic-Con?
The last major storyline deals with a guy who wants to propose to his wife during Kevin Smith's panel in Hall H, and here's where my issues begin. If this were the only appearance by Smith in the film, it would be a winning one. It's a charming moment, and it speaks well of Smith in general that he agreed to let the kid use part of the Q&A to propose, and that Smith was so playful with both of them, helping the kid calm his nerves in that moment. It's sweet, and it works in context.
The problem I had is that the film also leans heavily on celebrity talking head interviews, and almost all of that stuff stops the movie cold. Suddenly, it goes from being an authentic heartfelt look at what attracts fans to the things they love to being an infomercial about this giant marketing extravaganza, the part of Comic-Con I find most antiseptic and unpleasant. I get that Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith and even Harry Knowles are celebrities who give voice to a certain type of fandom in each case, and that's cool, but these are very familiar faces that we've heard do this sort of material before. In Smith's case, most of this is just patter he uses in his various commentaries and his live speaking appearances, and it's so familiar that it's almost punishing at this point. There's a brief appearance by Paul Dini at one point in the talking heads stuff and another by Paul Scheer, and I wish we'd seen more emphasis on famous fans like them if they had to use celebrities at all. These are voices we haven't heard as much, and they're genuinely hardcore fans at heart. I just grow weary when we're sitting through material that we've heard previously, no matter how earnestly delivered.
I wish the film had more room to breathe and dealt with even more of the subcultures that make up the real world of Comic-Con, and I wish Spurlock and his various producers had trusted the material enough to not lean so heavily on famous faces. At its best, "Comic-Con Episode IV" is heartfelt and warmly intended, a film about what fandom can do when it works, and at its worst, it's artificial and plastic. In a way, I guess that makes this the perfect film about its subject, because that's exactly how I would describe the Con itself these days.
"Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Journey" is not currently set for US release.