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The Rise of the Geek in Pop Culture

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, geeks quietly populated the fringes of pop culture, hoping to avoid the wedgies and swirlies that came with the territory of worshipping at the altar of Yoda. Today, it’s one hundred percent likely that your mom watches a “genre” show like Game of Thrones, Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl character casually tosses out Tolkien references, and The Hunger Games, a movie based on a YA fantasy series, is poised to become the next big film franchise, following in the footsteps of equally geek-friendly fare like Twilight and Harry Potter. Maybe you think this sounds like a good thing. But after watching Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, the latest documentary from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, I’m not so sure.

The film opens with some black and white footage from the first installment of San Diego Comic-Con, which was held in 1970. Back then, the expectations were a lot more modest — the hope was that something like 500 people would show up for the convention. Cut to the present day, when that number is closer to 125,000, and you’ve hit on the issue that lurks in the shadows of every frame of this enjoyable documentary: what was once a sacred space where comic book geeks could commiserate with their own kind has now become a hype circus (or as someone in the movie says, “the world’s largest focus group”) where anyone who’s obsessed with any facet of pop culture flocks annually. Plenty of attendees haven’t even read a comic book. Ever. That would be fine if it the parts of Comic-Con devoted to video games, films, and TV shows didn’t seem to be sucking all of the air out of the convention hall — which, it’s worth noting, apparently smells pretty gross — but they are.

Lest I lead you to believe Spurlock’s doc is a bunch of hand wringing over the commercialization of the convention, it’s not. Mixed in talking head-style interviews with geek celebrities from Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith to Robert Kirkman and Marc Guggenheim — as well as some giggle-inducing footage of cos players of all ages — there are also several narrative lines that run throughout the film. We meet Skip and Eric, both aspiring illustrators and Comic-Con virgins, who are hoping to find comic book publishers interested in their work. There’s Holly, a designer who’s planning to debut her Mass Effect-inspired costumes in the annual masquerade; Chuck, a struggling comic book dealer who is reluctantly hoping to unload his $500,000 copy of Red Raven #1; and James and Se Young, a young couple who met at last year’s convention and are about to take their relationship to the next level. While they’ve all come to Comic-Con for different reasons, their stories are connected by the fact that they’re hoping for something life altering to happen in San Diego — whether that’s landing a big deal or a future wife.

In the press materials for the film Spurlock explains that for more than two decades, filmmakers have been trying to make a documentary about Comic-Con, only to be denied access. He was lucky enough to have Stan Lee, as well as Whedon, Thomas Tull, and Harry Knowles in his corner. In the end, it’s the passion of these guys (who Spurlock refers to as his geek “Dream Team”), as well as his documentary subjects, that shines through here. Yes, there might be a battle for territory raging at Comic-Con, but it’s also still the kind of place where a nerdy guy can propose to his equally nerdy girlfriend in front of an enormous crowd at a Kevin Smith panel — with a Lord of the Rings-inspired engagement ring to boot — and instead of being judged for it, gets a standing ovation. And that’s what Spurlock chooses to focus on. Crazy crowds and marketing tie-ins be damned, this is still a place where geek dreams can come true.

Watching A Fan’s Hope, for this viewer at least, raised some interesting questions about the future of the comic book industry, without really attempting to answer any of them — a shame given the investigative chops he displayed in Super Size Me. That would have made for a very different, and certainly less celebratory film, and one with an even more limited audience. What you get instead is a charming homage to a geek subculture that’s quickly becoming less rarefied and more mainstream with every passing year. While I think that’s a great thing for pop culture, I’m not sure what it means for the next generation of geeks.

Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope opens in limited release and is available On Demand beginning tomorrow. Watch the trailer below.

Main image credit: Diagram of Geek Culture by Julianna Brion

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