San Diego Comic-Con’s heroes? Margot Robbie, Gal Gadot, Rihanna

In recent years the San Diego Comic-Con has exploded into the mainstream with A-list stars, first-run footage, and the world’s most dedicated fans. Liam Burke on the highlights from this year’s pop culture behemoth

 

1 Fans v Makers
San Diego Comic-Con International positions itself as a democratic space in which fans and creators can meet as equals, and filmmakers seem eager to perpetuate this sense of community. Recalling how his breakout hit Guardians of the Galaxy was a risky proposition in 2014, writer/director James Gunn describes Comic-Con “as the petri dish in which [the film] was borne” during a presentation for its sequel. Gunn says media savvy Comic-Con attendees create digital ripples that resonate far beyond the convention floor.

The close proximity of creators and fans can also lead to tense exchanges. At the premiere of the animated adaptation of Batman comic The Killing Joke, one attendee yells out to protest the problematic representation of Batgirl in the animated movie. The film’s writer Brian Azzarello responds by calling them a “pussy” for not repeating the question.

Despite the community atmosphere, the creator-fan relationship is open to exploitation, with studios coercing attendees into hashtag-friendly activities. For instance, lines snake around the convention centre as fans queue for hours, even days, to get into panels with first-run footage and their favourite stars. However, in a miserly move, Paramount Pictures has fans line up for hours in the baking San Diego sun to draw tickets for the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, with those failing to draw a winner having to settle for sunburn and little else.

2 A Tale of Two Cons
Recognising the global reach of Comic-Con, comedian Conan O’Brien brings his talk show to this year’s convention. In his opening monologue the late-night host draws inevitable comparisons between the pop culture event and the Republican National Convention taking place in Cleveland: “You can spend a week surrounded by cartoonish people who live in a fantasy world, or you can attend Comic-Con.” The comparisons continue, with head of the Baldwin acting clan,  Alec, remarking during his appearance at the DreamWorks Animation panel: “I have one brother at the Republican convention. It’s okay, my other brother is there protesting Trump.”

3 Belle of the Ball
Harley Quinn, an anarchic cosplay-friendly antihero poised for Deadpool-like breakout success, dominates this year’s convention centre. Best known as the Joker’s girlfriend, the DC Comics character is due to make her live action debut in August’s Suicide Squad, played by Margot Robbie. The Aussie star is here along with co-stars Will Smith and Jared Leto, with many attendees sporting her character’s trademark baseball bat, ruby lips and chalk-white face. Smith recalls how Leto adopted a method approach to his role as the Joker, sending Robbie and Smith gifts during filming, including a live rat.

4 Pokémon No-Go
While conventions corral fan activity into confined spaces where civilians can ignore them, the success of augmented reality game Pokémon Go has made nerd culture a daily presence (and in many cases a nuisance). Marvel panel chair Chris Hardwick is so starstruck by Tilda Swinton (on hand to promote November’s Doctor Strange) that he threatens to capture her Pokémon Go-style. While promoting Snowden, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the CIA whistleblower, director Oliver Stone describes the game as “capitalist surveillance” that could lead to “totalitarianism”, a point that may have been lost on attendees who later that evening take part in a Pokémon Go pub crawl through San Diego’s Gaslamp quarter.

5 New and Improved
Many projects at Comic-Con are simply reboots of work that already has a purchase in the pop-culture community. There might be an eager audience for a new TV series based on Lethal Weapon or the return of Prison Break, but what’s the value in adapting a largely forgotten movie such as Jim Caviezel-thriller Frequency, into as a police procedural? And it’s hard to imagine how Fox will extend The Exorcist into a weekly series. These shows may be hoping to replicate the success of Psycho-series Bates Motel. It made waves at the convention for its fifth and final season by announcing that pop star Rihanna it to take on the role of Marion Crane.

6 Game Over Man!
Anniversaries were a strong theme for panels and presentations. The 31st anniversary reunion of the M.A.S.K voice cast has limited appeal. Star Trek, though, celebrates 50 years of “boldly going” with the world premiere of the latest franchise instalment, Star Trek Beyond, and a panel of cast members from each of the show’s series.

However, the real highlight is the Aliens 30th-anniversary reunion in which Sigourney Weaver says she hopes for a sequel that will finally do Ripley justice, while James Cameron recalls an on-set anecdote in which child star Catherine Henn (now a school teacher), while covered in mounds of Alien gloop, said: “It should be illegal for you to do this to little kids.”

7 Number One Fans
The collision of stars and their most avid audience provides many of the convention’s most colourful moments. Oliver Stone fields questions from conspiracy theorists on the dangers of social media. A seven-year-old girl asks the cast of Fear the Walking Dead what gruesome death they would like to befall their characters. Motormouth writer-director Kevin Smith provides an hour-long response to a single fan question. In a moment that recalled a cringeworthy episode of The Late Late Show, one attendee uses the Aliens’ 30th anniversary panel to propose to his girlfriend. The newly engaged couple take to the stage for a photograph alongside the cast and crew including James Cameron and his producing partner and ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd: perhaps not the best omen.

8 Game of bores
An enthusiastic response at Comic-Con can help launch a new show, but for established series the convention has become an obligatory stop they don’t need, but never miss. Ratings-topping zombie show The Walking Dead shuffles into Comic-Con on Friday morning in a playful panel that concludes with many of the grizzled cast covered in glitter. There is no such hijinks during the Game of Thrones panel. The recently wrapped series has no new footage while its spoiler-shy showrunners offer few hints of what winter will bring, resulting in a panel with less laughs than a Winterfell wedding.

9 About time
A mere 75 years after her first comic-book appearance, Wonder Woman will finally join contemporaries Batman and Superman with a feature film. The footage for the first World War-set blockbuster finds Batman V Superman highlight Gal Gadot taking centre stage.

After Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Marvel’s fruitful relationship with Netflix next moves to Harlem for Luke Cage, a Blaxploitation take on the familiar superhero story. Early footage for the series, which drops on September 30th, features the best (and possibly only use) of The Notorious B.I.G. in the Marvel Universe.

Marvel introduces the cast of African-set superhero movie Black Panther including Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o. Writer/director Ryan Coogler recalls how he first attended Comic-Con as a fan in 2009, before Fruitvale Station and Creed catapulted him to the director’s chair of a Marvel movie.

10 Marvel V DC
DC Comics opens Saturday morning with a roster of directors. Ben Affleck, recently announced as the star and director of a solo Batman film, draws cheers, while a smattering of boos greets Batman V Superman filmmaker Zack Snyder. Snyder placates many with some promising footage from the upcoming Avengers-like Justice League movie.

Marvel responds with a cavalcade of clips and exclusives for its next half-dozen releases. Oscar-winner Brie Larson will take the plum role of Captain Marvel. Early footage suggests that Spider-Man Homecoming will be a John Hughes-like teen movie. And New Zealand director Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords) will bring some much-needed humour and trippy visuals to the moribund Thor franchise with Thor Ragnarok. Concluding the panel, each of the 7,000 attendees is given a Marvel Studios hat, possibly so they could take them off again in recognition of Marvel’s Comic-Con victory.
 

- Liam Burke is the author of The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre

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