One is a bartender who aspires to become a professional illustrator. Another is a soldier with two kids who lives in a flyspeck town in North Dakota. There is an obsessive toy collector who is willing to stand in line for two days to get a shot at a hard-to-find action figure. One couple is on their honeymoon; another is about get engaged.
They are among the thousands — 125,000, to be precise — who flocked to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest nerd meccas in the world. They are also some of the people director Morgan Spurlock ( Super Size Me) and his crew followed with their cameras, using their stories as the narrative spine for an exploration of the annual gathering, which began as a humble hangout in 1970 for comic book collectors and has grown into a major pop culture event.
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope uses interviews with famous nerds — including Joss Whedon, Seth Rogen and Eli Roth — to mount an eloquent defense of geek pursuits and a community that obsesses over things outsiders dismiss as childish and silly. The movie treats its subjects with warmth and admiration, such as a young woman who is building elaborate costumes based on the videogame Mass Effect 2 to compete at the convention’s annual “Masquerade” contest. Spurlock doesn’t try to show that she’s just an ordinary person with an odd hobby: Instead, he celebrates her drive and passion for such a curious art, and when one of her creations malfunctions minutes before she’s scheduled to go onstage, the suspense is wrenching.
Contemporary culture is dotted with nerdy pursuits, from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead to The Avengers: Geeks won the war, and Spurlock devotes part of his film to documenting the aftermath. Despite the surge in popularity superheroes have enjoyed in the past few years, the global shift away from paper and toward digital means old-school comic-book shops that once thrived on diehard collectors are struggling. One of the people showcased in the film is a representative from Mile High Comics, the largest vendor in the country, who travels to the convention hoping to sell a mint copy of the ultra-rare Red Raven #1 for a cool $500,000. When he gets nibbles from not one but two high-roller collectors, the seller is confronted with a dilemma: Part with his prized possession in order to pay the rent, or bring it back home and lock it away in the safe so he can sleep easy at night knowing the book is still his?
The movie is dotted with surprisingly moving moments. When the hopeful bartender (whose parents met at a Star Trek convention!) has his art criticized by a professional illustrator, your heart breaks for him. When a young man proposes to his girlfriend during a Kevin Smith QA panel, the movie strikes an indelibly sweet and romantic evocation of geek love. You don’t need to collect or even care about comic books to enjoy Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope: Most of the people who attend the event ignore them altogether. You only need to love, or have loved, something that seized and inspired your imagination — a book, a record, a poem or a TV show — and became a permanent part of your memories.