Considering the treasure trove of weirdness and fascinating material that a massive event like San Diego's annual Comic-Con offers up, it's surprising the convention hasn't received the feature-length documentary treatment until now. Director Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope revolves around the 2010 convention, exploring the evolution of Comic-Con from its origin as an event for hardcore comic book enthusiasts to one that now relegates the actual comic book aspect to the background, with much more of an emphasis put on general pop culture content such as movies, TV, books, toys, and video games. Along with some of the film's high profile producers (Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles, and the unfailingly cheerful Stan Lee), numerous other celebs and artists like Frank Miller, Matt Groening, Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, and Kenneth Branagh weigh in with their take on the convention. The documentary had a companion coffee table book released in July and is Spurlock's second feature this year after The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Incorporated into the probing of the convention's history and relevance are the individual stories of a handful of Comic-Con attendees. There's the two amateur comic book artists looking for their big break into the business, who are willing to endure harsh criticisms of their portfolios from professionals and the sting of rejection. Then there's the couple who met at the previous year's convention, with the boyfriend hilariously attempting to break free from the clingy grip of his girlfriend in order to pick up the engagement ring (Lord Of The Rings themed, naturally) he'll present to her when he proposes during the convention panel featuring filmmaker Kevin Smith. Chuck, the crusty owner of America's largest comics retailer, Mile High Comics, struggles with a decision to sell one of his ultra-rare issues to pay off some debts and generally frets about how his sales at the convention are going. Another man seeks his Holy Grail of toys for his collection, a limited edition figure of Marvel Comics' Galactus character. Finally, there's Holly, an aspiring costume designer for whom a two minute appearance on stage at the Comic-Con masquerade event is the biggest moment of the year. Her and a small group of friends dress up as characters from the Mass Effect video game.
Clearly, with so many examples of arrested development from these folks, there's plenty of opportunity for ridicule here. I mean, what's not to laugh at in a scenario involving a grown, married man who pursues a toy with unwavering conviction? Laughing at, and not with, these people is an inevitable by-product of such fanatical behaviour, but the viewer also can't help but develop some level of respect for the passion and focus the characters demonstrate towards their obsessions, despite the pummelling their individual levels of cool take. As a hardcore fan of U2 and Bruce Springsteen who has, on a number of occasions, spent anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours at a time waiting in general admission lineups at their concerts and gotten puzzled looks from most people when I tell them about it, let me just say that on some level I can relate to these Comic-Con eccentrics.
Despite the interesting subject matter, Spurlock's documentary feels flat and just never achieves liftoff. He has a lot of balls to juggle with the numerous paths the film follows, but many of them lead to unfulfilling conclusions and an uneven movie. I've seen nearly all of his previous film and television work and thoroughly enjoyed all of it and Spurlock, like fellow documentarians Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, has always taken an active on-screen and narrative role in his projects. Here, the charismatic filmmaker barely appears in the film and provides no narration. Perhaps there's a connection, perhaps not.