Far from a snarky smackdown on the geeks and freaks who descend on this San Diego fest every year, documentary maker Morgan Spurlock puts aside his barbed sarcasm to indulge in an affectionate and infectiously entertaining look at nerd culture, or what Joss Whedon describes as "members of my tribe."
Squeezing in half a dozen subjects into 86 minutes, Spurlock dedicates himself to validating the fixations of fanboys and fangirls without context or critique, instead offering viewers a vicarious all-access pass to what used to be a giddy grassroots gathering of comic-book fans but has recently morphed into a corporate-dominated, commercially-hyped, carnival-like extravaganza of genre-flavored pop culture.
From a young geek who wants to propose to his clingy girlfriend at a Kevin Smith lecture, to an obsessive action-figure collector who waits in line for two days to get an 18-inch Galactus, to a pair of would-be comic book artists, to a talented costume designer who hopes to impress with her Mass Effect cosplay creations (the most satisfying of the vignettes), Comic-Con not only captures the passion and energy of the event, it demonstrates how easily subcultures can be exploited by corporate interests.
But part of what's wrong with Spurlock's amusing documentary is its reliance on fringe icons like Whedon, Kevin Smith, Harry Knowles, Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro to provide the talking-head insights. Top heavy with these celebrity geeks, the movie ends up replicating the top-down change in culture that permeates an event where everything feels planned, programmed, and branded. As a market that capitalizes on geek fetishization Comic-Con is clearly the place to be, but as a venue for creative spontaneity and self-expression, it's crushingly derivative in its expectations. There's something sad about a guy dressed up as the Hulk confessing, "Even if I'm not famous, people want to acknowledge me."
At one point in the film, Whedon succinctly explains how Hollywood and media companies have come to recognize the intense love geeks have for superheroes, fantasy, and science fiction and have ruthlessly strategized to extract every last dollar from them. It's a reality that's apparent to Chuck Rozanski, owner of Denver's Mile High Comics. Sidelined by the big business of video games and movies, he struggles to stay relevant (and financially solvent) as hundreds of thousands of avowed fans pass by his booth. One has to ask: If there's no place for guys like Rozanski, can the event even be called Comic-Con anymore?
Unfortunately, it's a topic Spurlock gives only cursory attention to, never really standing outside the event where he can examine the nature and implications of the fanboy phenomenon. Given its profound cultural and economic impact you'd think there'd be plenty of grist for his typically tart mill. It's almost as if Spurlock is afraid to court the fans' ire (which many a comment thread has revealed to be fanatically irrational and uncompromising) should he present anything less than a flattering celebration of their gee-whiz obsessions.
Yes, misfits and oddballs deserve to have a place where they can enthusiastically express their personalities and find a sense of community. That Comic-Con offers this without concern for skin color, religion, or (arguably) gender is certainly worthy of exploration. But while Spurlock's rambling doc provides a detailed and amusing look at this pop culture-possessed world, its lack of agenda, critique, or insight guarantees that only the choir will seek out what it preaches. —Jeff Meyers
Screens on Thursday, Mar 31 at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, 248-544-3030. Doors open 8 p.m.
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