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I've lived in Toronto for 16 years, am a member of TIFF's year-round Cinematheque, but I've only been to a couple of Toronto International Film Festival screenings in all that time. Tonight was the first time where I actually attended a film's premiere where the filmmakers were also in attendance.

The film was Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope directed (and co-written) by Morgan Spurlock of Super-Size Me fame. It was quite simply the best documentary I've seen on fandom.

First, a few notes about the experience.

It was held at the ScotiaBank Theatre (formerly the Paramount theatre - until a different corporation bribed to have their name on the place). For those who don't know Toronto, there's a very long, steep staircase and escalator of DOOM up to the cinema level. (Which today as most days is a genuine safety hazard getting down the escalator as two people stalling at the exit can cause a massive pile-up on the still moving escalator). Anyway, the staircase alongside the escalator was lined with many CosPlayers (that would be people in costumes) and there were more up at cinema level. Some good, some not so much. A lot of Storm Troopers, Bobba and Jango Fetts, Princess Leias (Leiam?), X-wing pilots, Darth Vader, a snow-trooper, etc. But there was also a number of X-Men (red-clad Jean from X-Men 3, Wolverine, Gambit, Cyclops, etc.), Superman and Supergirl, the Bucky-version of Captain America (with the Bucky/Winter Soldier domino mask), an extremely good War Machine with glowing chest, Scarlett and Snake-Eyes from GI Joe, a Transformer (Starfire/Jetfire seemed like the closest match - at least from the original cartoon that I'm familiar with, I don't know the later generations) and a Japansese giant robot with was probably Combattler or Raydeen, definitely one of the toys used in the old 1970s Shogun Warriors line as I did recognize it. Oh, and Female Shepard from Mass Effect 2, although not being a video gamer I only know the last because she's the superb costume designer actually featured in the documentary.

Someone took a TwitPic showing some of the CosPlayer staircase:

And a TIFF photo of Morgan Spurlock on stage with various Cosplayers:

When I got into the cinema, I saw Harry Knowles - the head geek of Ain't It Cool News and co-producer on the film - in the wheelchair section. But most of the filmmakers were seated in the row directly behind me, including Stan Lee. I'm positive all my friends here know who that is, and I doubt there's anyone who will google this film review without knowing that either. The total strangers to the left and right of me both turned to me to giddy announce that Stan Lee was right behind us. A geek bonding moment. And while I didn't take his photo - I felt just the same way as those beside me who did take his picture. Sure, I might gripe that Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby deserve a bit more mainstream recognition, but Stan Lee co-created so many iconic Marvel characters like Spider-Man, it's impossible for a comics geek like me not to be starstruck. (And yes, when he got on the stage he was the classic funny and hammy Stan we all know from the interviews, a sheer delight. For example, his joking complaint about the film was that Kevin Smith had more screen time than him.)

They brought most of the CosPlayers to the front of the stage to take their well-deserved bows. And after the film was finished there was a Q&A with Morgan Spurlock, other filmmakers such as the co-writer, cinematographer, Stan Lee, etc.

It was a fun time, and my sense is that the crowd was into the film as much as I was.

So, the film....

It succeeds where I think a lot of similar films have fallen short. Documentaries like Trekkies seem like glorified freak shows. We are largely meant to laugh at the CosPlaying Dentists who tell Tasha Yar actress Denise Crosby that it's the male dentist who often dresses as her. And then there was the SpinerFemme - portrayed as a creepy stalker in training. And sure, there are fans like that. And as a geek myself, I can say we often get maybe a little over-enthusiastic (although less than quite a few sports fans I know). Even the pretty good doc Waiting for Superman falls into that trap a bit too often.

This film doesn't. Sure, there are a few facepalm worthy comments from the lead cast of characters, but we see them as human beings first and foremost, with elements beyond an obsessive devotion. The movie followed a diverse cast of characters attending the famous San Diego Comic Com. There are two people who wanted to break in as comic book artists, both shopping their portfolios around - each different in background and attitude. There are the lovers who met at the previous year's con. The boyfriend plans to pop the question at the Kevin Smith panel, and some hilarious complications ensue. There is the collector who is on the look-out for the limited edition 18-inch Galactus action figure. Oh, then there's a costume designer and her gang, hoping to win that year's masquerade with some astonishingly complex outfits. And finally, there is the dealer, a 35-year veteran of the convention from Mile High Comics. In recent years, Comic Con has become more and more dominated by film and television, and that meant his comic book business was struggling. Part of his dilemma is should he sell a very rare and precious comic to stay afloat.

Each group has a focus, a goal - which gives the film a strong narrative. It doesn't become a freakshow, because we actually care about the characters. We want to know how their stories turn out, and we root for them. Cutting between the different characters and goals keeps the film moving along at a strong pace. Also, most of the featured folks do not wear costumes, and even the masquerade contest plot ... well, the folks seem more human and less freakish than the fans in Trekkers.

The film also splices in interviews with comic creators like Stan Lee, Kevin Smith (yes, he doesn't just make movies), Joss Whedon (who does write comics, although not nearly as well as TV), Robert Kirkman, Todd Macfarlane, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller among others. Also featured are celebrity geeks such as Seth Green, Seth Rogen and Eli Roth. Oh, and quick glimpses at some other fans. (Including a few Doctor Who cosplayers -- I spotted the 11th Doctor and the Brigadier, for example.) These quick interviews provide necessary background and also very funny lines.

Overall, the editing is superb, capturing wonderful movements. So superb that part of me wonders how much was scripted. And yet still the experiences feel authentic.

It's funny and moving, and a good look at geekdom.

I started to wish they'd spent more time on the shift away from comics, and bang.. there was the guy from Mile High with that very subplot. And then I started to think, it would be nice to see the effect this had on comic creators and not just the guy selling stuff, and bang there were a few brief interviews with comic creators talking about the issue. There were three or four occasions where just as an objection was forming in my mind, the subject was addressed.

There isn't any psychological professional talking about geeks and how they think, but I don't think there needs to be. The film does a good job of showing us these people as human beings - largely likeable ones - but with enough moments in that we can speculate on our own.

If I did have a criticism it's that I don't think they spent enough time talking about the corporatization of pop culture. Sometimes fandom feels like a supposed underground movement that's actually in favour of big corporations. Perhaps a little more of the stuff discussed in books like Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool was needed. Then again, some of the people making the film were part of those corporations.

Still, overall the film worked. It was sincere but funny at the same time. And the stars were never demeaned in their portrayal.

I'd highly recommend it.



Here's Harry Knowles's comments on the experience, including photos of two great cosplayers - and confirmation that it was Raydeen in the Shogun Warrior costume.


Here's Spurlock talking about the companion book for the film:

And here's the website of the Costumer featured in the documentary, including her audition for the doc:

November 2011

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