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Review: New Doc on Comic-Con Misses Galaxy-Sized Opportunity

Opening today in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco, and in New York, Boston, and Philly on April 13, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is rolling out in a strategic way that should benefit from the generally good word-of-mouth it will probably receive from the geek community.

And it deserves all that warm buzz, too. Let me be clear about that.

Quite diverting, and prompting a goodly number of laughs, the new documentary from Morgan Spurlock follows a group of appealing individuals as they make a pop culture pilgrimage to San Diego in the summer of 2010. Each of them is looking for something—to make a splash with an art portfolio, to win at the cosplay tournament, and so on. In the most purely engaging, regular-fan-POV strand, a young fellow plans to propose to his geeky sweetheart during a Kevin Smith Q&A. The crosscutting between all these folks lends an inviting, if very reality TV-ish, rhythm to the proceedings. In between these segments we get connective tissue from some “names”—comics creators, but also movie guys such as Joss Whedon and Eli Roth.

Many of these talking heads are quite witty, especially Whedon, as one would expect. “I have found my tribe,” he recalls thinking the first time he attended Comic-Con. Then he goes on to remark on the “totally safe environment” at the event, one in which geeks from different, even rival, fandoms “can lay down their arms.”

And so it’s around this time that the sad truth might hit you:  you know most of this stuff already, even if you’ve never been to Comic-Con.

Pop Quiz for Geeks: Identify Everyone in This Photo; Give Yourself 20 Points for Each Correct Answer

Worse still, the doc’s refusal to put a critical lens on anything at all ultimately gives it an empty, almost self-congratulatory perspective. Yes, we all know fans feel more welcome, more like part of a big family, at events like Comic-Con than they might in their day-to-day lives, surrounded by non-fans. Depicting some of that is fine, even expected…

..but, hey, is that situation ever, you know, exploited?

All right, so maybe that would amount to opening a can of worms—but some commentary on the relationship between commercialism and the fannish impulse from the filmmaker who brought us the masterfully media literate The Greatest Movie Ever Sold isn’t too much to ask for, is it?

After all, why not just go after the easy topics, the obvious ones?

For example, much is made about how Comic-Con is no longer really about comics, how the dealers are all suffering (we even follow the story of one of them), but there’s no substantive context provided for any of this, just a kind of “Oh, well, isn’t that ironic?” attitude. That is, there’s no informed perspective behind such facts, and as a result what we end up with is a bunch of disconnected observations. No one cares enough to ask to what extent are DC and Marvel no longer “about comics” or, for that matter, is Stan Lee himself (instead, he’s treated like a combination of Santa Claus and Nelson Mandela). Even when we get the presence of someone who can offer insight such as Henry Jenkins, he’s relegated to one throwaway comment about the number of Princess Leia’s he’s seen. Really? We need arguably the world’s foremost authority on fan culture to count women in bikinis for us?

Moreover, we never learn who turned the keys to the kingdom over to Hollywood. What was their vision, if they had one? Do they regret that decision, or perhaps the opposite?

The problem is, we’ll never know one way or the other, because the film doesn’t bother to talk to anyone who helps organize Comic-Con, or even those who historically shaped it but may no longer be so active. And when one considers that most of these folks are fan volunteers themselves, the immensity of what’s missing in this film looms larger and larger. In fact, unbelievably, the Eisner Awards—which we even cover here at SLJ—aren’t mentioned at all!

Finally, and most troubling, there’s no sense that fans themselves are highly critical about their fan objects. Yes, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope does a terrific job at chronicling the aspirational aspect of fandom. But unfortunately, a casual, non-fan viewer—whom the doc is largely geared to—might come away with the sense that all fans simply want to become pros. Yet what about those who are professional about their very fannishness? You know, those who are at San Diego live-blogging, or conducting video interviews for their Web sites, or urging boycotts of X-men movies, or even just asking the occasional hard question at a PR-sanctioned panel?

In the end, A Fan’s Hope feels likes a welcome, if calculated, counterargument to all those mindless, mocking segments about Comic-Con one encounters on entertainment news programs and the like:  “Look at all those weirdo fans—aren’t they weird?” Sadly, though, its rejoinder simply amounts to “Look at all those weirdo fans—aren’t they weird? …but also kinda likable, smart, creative, and funny, don’t you agree?”

If you’ve ever been a fan, or even just engaged  in deep conversation with one, you’d already know that pop culture fandom comprises all these things—and a whole lot more. So it’s too bad, really, how superficial this film turned out, especially given Spurlock’s body of work. He of all people should know that “fun” does not simply equate to “fluff.”

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