San Diego Comic-Con is back for its first full convention since 2019. This year, it’s less about specific panels and the schedule of events, as it is determining what Comic-Con is in a still-COVID world. Comic-Con rose to pop cultural prominence throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but by 2019, the industry’s rose-colored glasses were off. Hall H panels are expensive, a lot of talent isn’t fond of going, and there is no provable link between Comic-Con success and box office paydays. (The Twilight surprise of 2008—a unexpectedly large and crazed Comic-Con crowd followed by an unexpectedly large box office—tricked everyone into thinking there was a link, but the subsequent decade proved otherwise.) But the relentless marketing machine of Hall H is back, and as it pertains to the entertainment industry and the idea of Comic-Con as a proving ground for geek film and TV, I’m interested to see if the cultural dominance continues, or if three years without it created some breathing space between the event and everyone else.
I’m not saying Comic-Con is going to slide into irrelevance—it most certainly is not. It’s the pinnacle of the nerd convention circuit, attracting hundreds of thousands of dorks to celebrate all things dorky. But in the 2010s, Hall H especially became less of a place for fans to dig into their favorite shows and movies with the people who made them, and more a place to absorb the quarterly marketing budget of a movie studio. Many “panels” weren’t even that, not including Q&A portions in favor of canned statements from stars of upcoming comic book movies before a trailer played and then everyone hustled off stage for the next gewgaw to be gawked at. It got to the point where you couldn’t even pretend this was for the fans anymore, it was such a pure corporate advertising spectacle aimed at headlines about who “won” Comic-Con. The minute that stopped being the fans, we all lost.
I know Hall H has been about marketing since at least the X-Men days of the early 2000s, but I’m also old enough to remember that those days were FUN, and informative, and it felt like more of an organic exchange between creators and fans while the marketing people sort of stood off to the side and wondered what this was all about. Anyway, I’ll stop yelling at clouds now and just remind everyone we don’t actually know what the value of Hall H will be in the current and post-COVID era, but we’re about to find out.
It starts this afternoon, with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the biggest presentation of the day. We are certainly going to get our first look at the film via a trailer, and though no talent has been confirmed, I bet we see writing and directing duo Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daly (a Comic-Con veteran from the Bones days), along with stars Chris Pine, Regé-Jean Page, Michelle Rodriguez, and probably It star Sophia Lilis, too (for the horror nerds). The big question is, can they get Hugh Grant to Comic-Con? I know everyone is wondering if they’ve finally managed to make a good D&D movie, but let’s be honest, getting Hugh Grant in his crusty era to appear at Comic-Con is the real drama.
Friday, television takes center stage, with Amazon Prime’s uber-expensive The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power going up first, followed by a two-hour block of Tales of the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead. THIS is what I am talking about re: the value of Hall H post-COVID. We had unprecedented home time in 2020 to watch stuff, and people did all kinds of nostalgia-viewing, like The West Wing and Mad Men and Supernatural. But you know what show didn’t get a boost from all those hours logged on TV? The Walking Dead. Its cultural peak was in 2015, and by the time Glenn ate it at the end of Negan’s bat, the show was already losing ground as watercooler TV. But it’s STILL getting TWO HOURS in Hall H. It feels like filler, frankly. So don’t be surprised when Friday’s headlines all come down to Keanu Reeves, who will be on hand to talk about BRZRKR, the comic book he co-created with writer Matt Kindt. BRZRKR is already being adapted into a film that will star Reeves, so the panel is as much about the comic—which isn’t bad—as it is the upcoming film (screenwriter Mattson Tomlin is also one of the panelists). It’s naked corporate synergy, but no one will care the second Keanu steps onto the stage.
Saturday is when things kick into high gear, with Warner Brothers presenting first thing in the morning. The Rock is expected to show up and show off Black Adam—I sure hope it looks better the second time—as is Zachary Levi, star of Shazam! Fury of the Gods. No one else is confirmed, but Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu are the villainesses of Fury, and I hope they show up, too. Shazam! remains the best DC film not The Batman, and I hope they act like it on stage. I know Dwayne Johnson is literally one of the biggest stars on the planet and Zachary Levi is Zachary Levi, but Black Adam wouldn’t exist if not for Shazam!, and if/when Black Adam is godawful, it will probably be Fury of the Gods that erases everyone’s memory of it.
Then there is a block of television panels, including The Sandman and most notably The House of the Dragon, hoping to recapture that Game of Thrones thunder. Again, here is a BIG test of what Hall H can do for launching new properties in the post-COVID world. And for Dragon, they have the special task of having to win everyone back after the GOT finale turned everyone off. Hall H crowds are polite, they’ll likely get a warm reception in the moment, but watch the online comments when everyone gets the cell service back after…
Marvel, of course. They’re in their traditional Saturday evening spot, and nothing is confirmed, as per usual. The next movie on the slate is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, so we’ll likely get a trailer for that. But there is also an in-house Disney D23 expo this year, in September, and Marvel is expected to hold some big surprises for their own fan convention. In 2019, they used Comic-Con for their big movie announcements while D23 was primarily focused on launching MCU television series on Disney+. This year, it could break on similar lines, except She-Hulk: Attorney At Law premieres in August, so we will undoubtedly see Tatiana Maslany and/or Mark Ruffalo in Hall H to hype their series.
The question marks are Ant-Man: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and The Marvels, all due in 2023. Marvel is not over-reliant on Comic-Con, and again, they have D23 in just a couple months, but it does feel like they need to come out swinging this weekend and take back the narrative that Phase Four is getting to a point and it’s not just a bunch of spaghetti on the wall. Bringing out popular stars that link back to the original era of the MCU is one way to do that. Another way to do it? Anything to do with Blade. Revealing Mahershala Ali as the star of a new Blade movie was one of the biggest moments of Comic-Con 2019. It only just started production, but they could bring the house down with a surprise visit. And Blade seems better suited to those wild nerds in San Diego than the more family-friendly atmosphere of Anaheim and D23.
Finally, it pleases me to no end that What We Do in the Shadows is featured in Hall H on Sunday. See, here is an example of Comic-Con’s COVID-world moment. WWDITS debuted in 2019, but I feel like everyone got hooked watching season two at home in lockdown in 2020. And now it’s coming back to celebrate season four with an episode screening and Q&A, and THIS is what I mean when Hall H used to be a celebration for and with fans. The Marvel presentation will undoubtedly launch a million think-pieces—we’ll definitely cover any trailers they release—but fans will not be involved beyond mad shrieking. But WWDITS is giving time to the fans, and while Q&As can sometimes be painfully awkward (“This is less of a question, more of a comment…”), they can also be wonderful moments of connection that feed both fan passion and creator energy. It gives everyone a moment to check in with each other and just enjoy themselves and this thing they love. WWDITS will probably get one-tenth the attention of Marvel and DC, but this is the only Hall H panel giving me FOMO.
Attached - Chris Pratt out yesterday in LA.