Long gone are the days when “Nerd!” has been uttered on film or elsewhere as an effective insult. While there are still plenty of niches that elicit a confused or even antagonistic reaction from more traditional types, more and more people have spent enough time in one of the traditionally geekish areas—comic books, roleplaying, cosplaying, etc.—to at least appreciate that someone else might love doing it. Sure, we’re still waiting for a movie that actually captures the flavor of D&D (or of Lovecraft, for that matter), but all in all, it’s the best of times to be someone who embraces escapism and game-playing. For some examples, look no further than these documentaries that explore and to a large extent celebrate different nerd-vironments.
1. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (2012)
In Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Morgan Spurlock gazes directly into the Heart of Dorkness—the annual Comic-Con in San Diego that began in 1970 as a gathering of comic book writers, illustrators and the fans who love them. The documentary represents a noticeable departure from Spurlock’s earlier efforts, if only for the marked absence of himself as central character or principal commentator. Instead, the film presents five neatly packaged story arcs placed amongst a targeted array of interviews and brief, order-imposing spans of narrative—all amidst the event’s multi-media panoply.
There’s Chuck Rozanski, the president and CEO of legendary Mile High Comics; Skip Harvey and Eric Henson, each an illustrator hoping to upgrade his lot from “amateur” to “professionally employed”; James Darling, who hopes to surprise his girlfriend with a marriage proposal, and there’s Holly Conrad (and her crew), an aspiring costume designer, trying to pull off a Mass Effect 2-inspired group performance sequence at the Con’s Masquerade contest. By the end of Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, these five main stories have gone through all the obligatory paces found in these type of docs—from initial quest to obstacles introduced and (in some cases) overcome to lessons learned and morals delivered. All in all, Spurlock’s latest is a crisply packaged and competently paced affair. —Michael Burgin
2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008)
In Seth Gordon’s feature directorial debut, newcomer Steve Wiebe challenges longtime world-champion Donkey Kong player Billy Mitchell for the highest score in the game’s history. After it becomes obvious that Wiebe may threaten to depose the competitive gaming world’s longtime hero, countless roadblocks are thrown in his path by both Mitchell’s fans and the gaming institution itself. As Wiebe becomes increasingly embroiled in this subculture, he ends up learning firsthand about the disturbing lengths people will go to in order to be the best at something, regardless of how silly that something may be. A humanistic comedy in the vein of early Errol Morris, the film’s contest is every bit as exciting as any sports film, while also shedding light on how obsessions can combine with corrupt power structures to drive otherwise normal people to ridiculous ends. —Sean Gandert
3. Trekkies (1997)
When talking about Star Trek as a subject, it’s impossible to talk around the fan culture—a particularly impassioned legion known as “Trekkies” (or “Trekkers”, a debate in itself with the importance of the Catholic Schism to many). Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Tasha Yar) is the investigator into vast and varied world of the Trek-devoted. From casual convention attendees to those who actually carry out their entire lives by virtue of the Prime Directive, Trekkies is frequently hilarious, never (knowingly) condescending, and always fascinating in its spotlighting of a truly remarkable group of people. —Scott Wold
4. Darkon (2006)
Even as the traditionally nerdy pursuits have experienced a surge in acceptance and popularity during the last decade or so, some cultural niches remain less understood than others. Live-action roleplaying (LARPing) can still seem strange to the casual observer, but when viewed close up with a compassionate eye, it becomes easier to appreciate the joy therein. Directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel bring just such an eye to this film following the Darkon Wargaming Club in Baltimore, Md.—and more particularly members of the club such as Skip Lipman and Kenyon Wells as they escape their mundane lives to battle for control of a fictitious kingdom. —M.B.
5. The People vs. George Lucas (2010)
Swiss director (and lifelong fan) Alexandre Philippe examines the heart of both Star Wars fandom and some of that fandom’s serious issues with creator George Lucas’ decisions post-original trilogy. In doing so, he provides an excellent primer for that still somewhat rare viewer not soaked in—or at least decently exposed to—the mythos, exploring Lucas’ career prior to the 1977 cinematic game changer before providing a barrage of interviews with a host of taking heads (fans, academics, critics, etc.). The relationship between Lucas and the fans of his films is much more complex than that found in other genres with rabid fanbases. (Think Gene Roddenberry/Star Trek or Stan Lee/Marvel Comics.) Though the acquisition by Walt Disney may well lessen some of the thornier sticking points—like the potential remastering and rerelease of the original trilogy—Philippe’s documentary is also a compelling exploration of what responsibility, if any, a creator has to cater to the expectations of a property’s fans. When and how exactly does a creator’s license to decide how a world is built transform into a responsibility to preserve that world’s “essence” … as determined by the very fans who have supported it in the first place. —M.B.