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Movie Review: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope

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I am on the record -- aggressively so -- as being opposed to the mentality that has turned Comic-Con, the annual San Diego geek festival, into the force that seems to guide Hollywood.

So I walked into Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope (in limited release 4/6/12) with extra trepidation. (Yes, I know, I've often talked about approaching each movie with a blank slate, taking it on its own terms blah blah blah. Hey, I'm only human.)

But I came out vastly entertained, admiring all over again the intelligence and humanity with which Spurlock imbues each of his films. He's a filmmaker who always has a unique angle, a different take, a sense of compassion and wit -- all of which make Comic-Con an insightful and just plain surprising documentary.

It's not that Spurlock isn't out to show the massive weirdness and frothing fanboy gush that Comic-Con is. He does -- in spades. But he also wants to show the diversity and dedication of the people who have turned Comic-Con into the tail that wags the dog of Hollywood these days.

So, while he offers interviews with a variety of the celebrities who hover like gods over the Comic-Con consciousness -- everyone from Joss Whedon to Kevin Smith to toad-like Harry Knowles -- his true focus is on the men (and women) on a mission at the 2010 Comic-Con, to which his cameras apparently had an all-access pass.

He zeroes in on two would-be comic-book artists, who want their portfolios to be appraised by various publishers, in hopes of landing work drawing the comics they love. He finds a woman in San Bernardino, who dreams of being a movie costume designer -- and who has put together a brief tableau in which she and her friends dress up and act out a scene from the video game, Mass Effect.

There's the nerdy young couple that met at Comic-Con the year before; the young man wants to propose marriage to his girlfriend during a Kevin Smith event. But she's so clingy that he almost can't shake her long enough to retrieve the Lord of the Rings-inspired engagement ring with which he hopes to present her.

Most poignantly, there is Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics in Denver, who has the world's largest inventory of comic books. Business has been slow and he's hoping that, at Comic-Con, he can make enough to keep himself in business. And he's willing to part with several rare issues he owns (for a half-million dollars or more) to survive, though he would rather not.

But it's poignant because, as he and other comic dealers note, comic books -- the raison d'etre and building blocks for the first Comic-Cons -- are almost an afterthought today. Spurlock's cameras capture the teeming masses hovering over displays for horror movies, video games, action figures and the like -- then shows the all-but-empty aisles of the section of San Diego's massive convention center where the comic dealers have set up shop.

The key here is the mix of tones Spurlock achieves: a blend of boyish gee-whiz fascination and a winking sense of the absurdity of grown-ups devoting their lives to this sort of fantasy and role-playing. He walks a fine line between admiring the passion and saying "Get a life" (although Spurlock is too generous to ever actually say that). He also is always aware of the commerce -- including the fact that, for the most part, the movie studios and TV networks have figured out how to co-opt the event into an annual launchpad to pump their increasingly repetitive and derivative wares.

The only thing missing is the downside of that latter trend. It has polluted the movie industry, turning the studios into factories manufacturing mindless comic-book, action and horror movies in pursuit of a narrow demographic. The studios' slavish attention to the Comic-Con audience has caused any number of misfires, movies that killed at Comic-Con and died in the marketplace.

But that's a quibble about a movie as entertaining as this one. I still consider Comic-Con an insidious and reductive force in pop culture. But I had a super time watching Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope.

Find more reviews, commentary and interviews on my website.