The notion that we're all geeks now is a fantasy of degrees. No one will make fun of you if you go see the new Batman movie this summer; but if you go see it dressed up as Batman, well – we're not all geeks like that. Which is why San Diego Comic-Con International has never allowed anyone to make a documentary film about the largest annual event in comics culture, until now.
"We're really protective of the people who come to the show," David Glanzer, Comic-Con's director of marketing and public relations, said in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, made its world premiere last summer. "We've always been hesitant about somebody coming in trying to tell our story who really wasn't us."
When filmmaker Morgan Spurlock approached the convention with a pitch to document it, he was essentially told sorry, we've had plenty of requests in the past and this is one more we'll probably turn down. It's not as if the four-day festival, which now attracts nearly 130,000 people, wants for publicity, after all. But then Spurlock let it be known that he was coming to them with the backing of a real-life super team from the world of comics, which included Stan Lee, the man who made Marvel famous, and fanboy (and girl) favourite Joss Whedon, director of the upcoming superhero movie The Avengers.
Spurlock, who has brought a critical eye to American mass culture in documentaries ranging from Super Size Me to The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, understood the Con's hesitation.
"The fear would have been that I was going to make Trekkies. I was going to make something that would have been more of a joke than taking everything serious," Spurlock said at TIFF.
The 41-year-old filmmaker didn't even reach out to the convention until he had the backing of Lee and Whedon, which happened through a happy accident.
Three years ago, Spurlock was hired to produce and direct The Simpsons 20th anniversary special. Filming took him to the convention for the first time, where he went to find Simpsons "super fans." The spectacle of the convention – fans of every stripe, costumes, its sheer size – wowed Spurlock. "My producing partner Jeremy and I were like, 'This is a movie.' " That night, Spurlock was at a party where he met Stan Lee, the man who co-created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and The Hulk, among other characters. "I literally went over to kiss the ring," Spurlock said. After a bit of small talk over their shared passions of comics and film, Lee suggested they make a movie together about the convention. Spurlock excitedly shared the idea with his agent, who introduced him to Whedon the next day.
"That's where the movie was born from," Spurlock said.
The result is a film that goes beyond the typical gawking at grown men in Star Wars costumes to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the convention through the eyes of six different people: a collector out to get merchandise, a costume-maker showcasing her work, an aspiring illustrator hoping to land a job, a comic-book dealer and a young couple there to share their passion for comics culture and just maybe get engaged. There are also interviews with the giants of comics, including Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane.
It's a loving portrait, but not an entirely fawning one. Spurlock does explore the criticism that the comics have been eclipsed by film and television at the convention since its beginnings in 1970. But the goal of the film is to bring viewers inside the convention to see it for what it is.
"One of the things I think this movie will do is shatter a tremendous amount of stereotypes around conventions," Spurlock said.
Mockery? Derision? These are a path to the dark side. When you take off the Darth Vader mask (or the Batman cowl), you'll find a real person underneath.
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope opens in select cities on Friday.