Every year southern California becomes home to a geek orgy of singular importance: San Diego Comic-Con. Originally founded in 1970 as a place for comic book enthusiasts to gather and talk, it’s ballooned and transformed over the ensuing decades, and is now better known as a massive Hollywood bulkhead designed to push the biggest of big franchise movies into mainstream consciousness.
It’s where Marvel announced the title of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s where director Zack Snyder shocked everyone with the news of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But as the lines have grown longer and the marketplace saturated with comic book movies, there’s been a growing countermovement, one in which companies like Disney have begun to favor their own conventions so they can show off their wares without fear of being upstaged, and other studios are deciding to just forego the festivities altogether. While two years ago San Diego Comic-Con may have felt like the most important date on Hollywood’s calendar next to the Oscars, it now finds itself on the precipice of potentially becoming a lot like CES: a mecca and must-attend event for the faithful, sure, but not the epicenter for news it once was.
It’s a shift that’s happened quickly and mercilessly. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens in attendance and Warner Bros. taking advantage of Marvel’s absence to tout its upcoming DC slate — hopefully turning around some lackluster buzz in the process — there’s plenty at stake this year, both for the movie studios and Comic-Con’s ability to steer public opinion. We’ve broken down some of the biggest items to keep an eye on, and we’ll be there on the ground to see how everyone does.
Above all else, this is the year of Star Wars, and Lucasfilm is hosting a panel in the cavernous Hall H to highlight The Force Awakens. Already confirmed are director J.J. Abrams, writer Lawrence Kasdan, and producer Kathleen Kennedy, but we’re expecting quite a bit more. While new footage isn’t expected, it wouldn’t be Comic-Con without some of the cast showing up to talk about their work on the film. Most of the team showed up during Star Wars Celebration, but Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, and Gwendoline Christie have yet to make public appearances promoting the movie. What better time to send the universe of fans spinning out of control than the home base of fan culture itself?
The big question: Just hang on. There’s no stopping this train.
Warner Bros. and DC go after Marvel
Marvel won’t be attending Comic-Con this year — we’re expecting a big presence at Disney’s biennial D23 conference in August — but the company’s absence presents a huge opportunity for Warner Bros. and its own superhero slate. The cast of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will be in attendance, including Ben Affleck as Batman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And we wouldn’t be surprised to see new footage from both that film and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.
The keystone to the entire Warner / DC strategy, of course, is matching Marvel’s The Avengers with its own Justice League series. While interest is certainly high, questions remain about whether jumpstarting an entire expanded universe with a single film is going to work (there’s also those concerns about Jared Leto’s Joker). A good way to blow past that concern would be to put the entire Justice League on stage together for the first time, drowning out naysayers with the sheer power of fanboy hype.
The big question: Can Warner Bros. prove Zack Snyder has things on the right track? If fans walk out of Hall H without being 100 percent convinced, it could make for a rocky road from here to B v. S’s 2016 release date.
Fantastic Four and X-Men
Let’s get real: there’s reason to be concerned about the new Fantastic Four. Rumors of a troubled production at the hands of director Josh Trank persisted during filming, with reshoots appearing to buttress the claims. Of course, reshoots are pretty standard these days, but then there was that whole "Trank getting fired from a Star Wars movie" thing. With Fantastic Four opening in August, this is Fox’s chance to turn around any restlessness and put the movie on course for a strong, successful opening.
However, the majority of Fox’s panel may end up being about other franchises entirely. Director Bryan Singer recently teased that X-Men: Apocalypse will be a big part of the studio’s Hall H presentation, and Deadpool recently finished filming. An appearance from Ryan Reynolds would be a perfect fit, particularly when you consider that there’s more Comic-Con cosplay per capita for Deadpool than any other character. [Note: totally unverifiable stat that the author nonetheless stands by without equivocation.]
The big question: Can Fox salvage bad Fantastic Four buzz and tee up Deadpool?
Warcraft and Legendary Pictures
Warcraft fandom is insane. Comic-Con fans are insane. This should be great, right?
The question becomes how do you turn a game like Warcraft into something that’s going to appeal to those who aren’t already fans of Blizzard’s universe? Legendary Pictures will be using Comic-Con to test how they’ve done, and while a brief teaser was shown at BlizzCon last year we expect this will be the first time a wider audience gets a look at footage from the film, with director Duncan Jones (Moon) in attendance.
The panel should also provide a bit of insight into how Legendary’s upcoming slate is looking overall. While the company started incredibly strong in its early days with movies like The Hangover and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, recent films like Seventh Son have proved problematic. With Krampus and Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Crimson Peak also expected to get some time at Comic-Con, it will have plenty to show.
The big question: Can Legendary prove its new movies are more Godzilla and less Blackhat?
TV, TV, and more TV
Like SXSW before it, Comic-Con has increasingly amped up the television presence over the past decade. While many TV panels were once relegated to convention center rooms or the second-tier Ballroom 20, this year TV continues to be dominant in Hall H. Among the shows taking over Comic-Con’s premiere room are Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead (and its upcoming prequel), Heroes Reborn, Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens and the full roster of DC’s shows, including Supergirl. There’s also the San Diego Gaslamp District, which is usually transformed into a kaleidoscopic horrorshow of TV-oriented brand installations and promotional opportunities.
The big question: How will fans react — on the ground and online? Nothing breaks the internet like fervor over a television show, and that response will tell the tale of whether TV will be able to take over the spotlight completely should movie studios continue to drift away from Comic-Con.
YA tightens its grip
While superheroes may be the primary lens through which most people see Comic-Con, the young adult genre has been a huge part of the show going back to the Harry Potter and Twilight films. That presence is even more pronounced this year, with Hunger Games dominating Thursday as the only big movie in Hall H, and The Vampire Diaries getting a promotion to the big room for a doubleheader with Supernatural. It’s part of the changing face of the convention, with a younger, very vocal generation poised to redefine fandom over the next decade.
The big question: The only real question is whether YA fans merely match the attendance and passion of superhero fans — or outclass them completely.
Sony, Paramount, Marvel, and Disney
One of the biggest things to watch this week will be the studios that won’t actually be in San Diego. Except for a Pixar short film panel, Disney is taking a break from movies this year, and Sony, Paramount, and Marvel are all sitting it out as well. (Universal is also playing it very low-key, letting Legendary take the lead for its movies and sticking to a smaller panel for the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan movie The Visit). The common denominator here is that none of these players have superhero movies on the immediate horizon, but Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond seems like a gimme for Comic-Con — and it’s coming out next year.
But if, as I suspect, Comic-Con isn’t helping movies break through like it used to, the studio’s absence could be the loudest bellwether of the convention’s transformation.
The big question: Will strategically timed trailer releases or other announcements allow the studios to remain part of the conversation despite not heading down to San Diego?