Did Marvel Just Save Comic-Con?
Whew! That was a long one. And also … a slow one? As with years prior, this year's Comic-Con International was packed with movie news, TV casting announcements, and lots of waiting in lines. But unlike years prior, its big splashes weren't as splashy. Or at least that was the case until Saturday night, when Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige took the stage and announced the studio's Phase 4 slate, and brought a lot of star power—Angelina Jolie! Natalie Portman! Tom Hiddleston!—with him.
It was the kind of thing folks come to Comic-Con to see, and Marvel delivered. Did it save an otherwise lackluster convention? WIRED canvassed the team that covered the event to hash out everything that happened in San Diego over the last few days.
Angela Watercutter, Senior Editor: I'll admit I was fairly underwhelmed by Comic-Con this year. There were a few highlights—ScareDiego was fun—but this year really lacked the excitement of years past. I was in Hall H for the big Marvel reveals, and they were great, but they also felt like not enough. Not that Marvel didn't pull out every stop, but it felt as though Feige could've announced one movie and stolen the show. Without presentations from Warner Bros. or Fox, the bigness of the show seemed lacking. Am I being too hard on this year's con?
Adam Rogers, Deputy Editor: The absence of bigfoot titles and grand gestures was palpable, sure—we all talked about that one time when J.J. Abrams took Hall H to a John Williams concert. But I feel a little churlish complaining about that; old nerds like me cherish our right to complain that San Diego Comic-Con has gotten too big and it used to be about the comics, y'all. Maybe it's not so much that it's weird that giant studios aren't spending zillions at SDCC, but that it was always weird when they did?
- Adam Rogers
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- Angela Watercutter
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- Peter Rubin
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Peter Rubin, Senior Correspondent: I never went to Comic-Con in the Pre-MCU era, but Adam, this weekend you were remembering when the only way to find out what had happened in a panel was to read the official Comic-Con newspaper the next day. (Presumably, there was a GeoCities version as well.) Now, you've got websites publishing panel recaps minutes after the applause dies, and you're getting in-panel footage from attendees as soon as they can upload the tweet. These are different phenomena, but they're both good barometers for whether 2019 was a truly off year for the con. It's not like there were fewer panels, it's more that the panels there were simply felt less momentous—Feige's parade of stars notwithstanding.
Watercutter: Agreed. It wasn't so much that there weren't things—good things, cool things—happening, it was just that some of the usual whiz-bang that would come out of the big halls was missing.
Before the convention, we'd discussed the possibility that the spaces left open by some of the bigger studios could be filled by the streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon. Do you guys think that happened?
Rubin: Absolutely, but not quite in the way we'd imagined. I discussed this last week in my walkup piece: As streaming services were first growing into publishers of original #content, they would unveil a whole slate at Comic-Con, aping what the movie studios did. Last year Amazon brought six shows to a single panel—"trust us, fans, we've got a pipeline worth the subscription!" Now, not only have they grown more confident, but they saw an opportunity for the beginnings of a takeover, so they gave each of their properties a full panel. Sometimes that worked—Hulu's Veronica Mars continuation felt like a reunion and revival all in one—but I suspect that some might have been a little premature.
One interesting exception to this is the big Star Trek blowout panel, which sounded like it doubled as a CBS All Accesstravaganza. Adam, as the streaming landscape continues to fracture, how much is a new platform's fate bound to a single IP?
Rogers: As a longtime Star Trek adherent, I won't be complaining about three concurrent Trek shows—Season 3 of Discovery, the new Star Trek: Picard, and Lower Decks, the comedy animated show. Just lemme get my comm badge shined up and I'm ready to engage.
On the business side, though, Trek has long been a vehicle for television executives to experiment with new economies. Next Generation was an hourlong drama that went direct to syndication. Voyager helped launch the broadcast network UPN. And I think that’s because Trek shows come with an all-but-guaranteed audience. (It me.) It’s not Big Bang Theory-size, but it gives you something to budget against.
What I don't understand, if all that is true, is how it helps to have more than one Trek show. Subscriber models have two numbers to worry about: the costs of acquisition and retention of those subscribers. Star Trek helps you with both, but I don't get how more Star Trek helps with either, despite several of the producers at the SDCC panel talking about new entry points and onboarding new fans. That's much more possible when you run two Trek shows concurrently on broadcast TV, as happened with TNG and Deep Space Nine. But if you have to subscribe first? Dunno.
Yet that strategy also seems like it's part of HBO Max, for example, which is built around … Friends reruns? A stark contrast here is Disney+, which controls so many story universes—Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic, Fox-Marvel (I presume), and straight-up Disney— I mean, that's how you acquire and retain right there. It must make the antitrust lawyers at the FTC salivate uncontrollably.
But Angela, I wonder if that's me being too much business up front and not enough party. You moderated a panel! What did fandom look like from the front of the room?
Watercutter: Ha! Yes, I moderated the panel for the CW's new Batwoman series. The fandom looked strong. They played the pilot before the panel and people were cheering as the credits rolled. (I'm presuming they weren't screaming for me.)
Broadly, that seemed to be true throughout the con. Fans were excited, asked questions during Q&As, and generally seemed to be having a good time. But I will say that the energy felt turned down. To Peter's point about streaming services, Netflix taking over Hall H for The Witcher and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance definitely got a lot of people excited. But were they as excited as they would've been to see some Wonder Woman 1984 footage? Probably not. Also, there was one room where fans clearly felt … conflicted: the Game of Thrones panel. About 75 percent of the room seemed there to celebrate the show, but there were boos and I'll never forget the person in Night King cosplay who had a dagger marked "Star Wars" in his gut. Those fans probably deserved a Q&A but they never got one—and now they never will.
But enough of me being a Debbie Downer. It was a fun con, even if it was subdued. Adam, Peter, what's the thing you'll remember most about this year? For me, it's Tessa Thompson, whose Valkyrie is now king of Asgard, saying Valkyrie needs to "find her queen." But I'm biased …
Rogers: The visceral, heart-pounding and tear-jerking of episode one of Primal, the new adult animated show from Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Symbionic Titan, etc.) has me anxiously tapping my velociraptor claws for more—10 episodes, no dialogue, all Frazetta-Toth-Kirby style caveman-on-a-dinosaur fights other dinosaurs. Yes, please.
But for me it's always the small moments. I love the convention floor, which feels like an externalization of my brain. And then, at breakfast at our hotel, I saw a family—two little girls, both dressed as Captain Marvel, and two adult women, one dressed as Holztmann from Ghostbusters and the other in full green body make-up as She-Hulk. This is what these fandoms are for at their best: to show we can all be heroes for each other.
Watercutter: Adam, you just totally changed my entire outlook on this year’s con. Thank you.
Rubin: That's the weird thing about this year for me. I enjoyed a lot of what I saw—Veronica Mars and Snowpiercer in particular come to mind—but my enduring memory likely won't be a show or a movie or even the sense of anticipation about a movie. Even when that movie involves the Fantastic Four or Blade, which, I mean, say I'm what's wrong with movies and all, but I'm ready for Phase 4.
Instead, I'll think back to something almost purely physical: a VR activation at DC's Batman exhibit where the headset let me swoop through Gotham while my actual body was "skydiving" in a vertical wind tunnel. A bizarre, liberating sensory experience. That being said, we don't come to Comic-Con to be alone in the sky. We come for those moments of collective ecstasy of seeing the same thing at the same time—those moments of realizing that excitement is bigger than fear or loathing or anything else that the rest of the world has been stoking lately. That's the great thing about fandom, and about Comic-Con in particular: We can find those moments even when the big studios stay away.
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