ALTHOUGH NEARLY 30 YEARS AGO, I can vividly remember filing into a San Diego ballroom as a beardless boy, eager to see a preview of Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Superman” movie starring a then-unknown named Christopher Reeve.
Alas, those handling the presentation quickly proved about as popular as Karl Rove at a Democratic fund-raiser. Exhibiting scant familiarity with the DC Comics hero, they referred to arch-villain Lex Luthor as a “real-estate mogul,” displayed stylized renderings of the Man of Steel that resembled a hand-made Halloween costume and pretty much alienated every die-hard fan in the room.
Flash-forward to last weekend, where thousands squeezed into a massive convention hall to be teased about “Superman Returns” at the latest Comic-Con Intl. — a now-sprawling event demonstrating just how far Hollywood has come in mastering how to address comics, sci-fi and fantasy devotees in their own lingo, which falls somewhere between classic Variety “slanguage” and Jodie Foster’s character in “Nell.”
Same studio, character and venue. Completely different outcome because, put simply, studios have learned to speak geek.
“Superman” director Bryan Singer winged in from Australia with previously unseen footage, sending a message regarding how seriously the comics contingent is taken. By all accounts, the faithful were so enthusiastic they should have distributed tissues. (Lest anyone consider that a vulgar exaggeration, one fan prefaced his question during Universal’s “King Kong” session by saying Peter Jackson’s remake looked like “a cream dream.” Blecch.)
IN SOME RESPECTS, the importance of courting this audience has been overstated. Comic aficionados are more likely to have been voted the coolest kid in high school than they will be to skip “Superman Returns,” whether Singer struck the right notes or not. Even if the movie blows, curiosity will get the best of them.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt comic buffs have begun to feel embraced by movies and TV only in the last few years, after smarting at campy treatment of beloved characters, from the “Biff! Wham! Pow!” TV “Batman” of the 1960s to “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze” and the “Superman” villains of the ’70s.
By contrast, this has been an unusually good summer for geekdom. Not only do they finally have a new-trilogy “Star Wars” movie they needn’t be embarrassed about queuing up for, but “Batman Begins” proved both an artistic and commercial triumph and “Fantastic Four,” its flaws notwithstanding, opened well and delivers more fun than most critics have suggested.
Television reveals a similar drift, with “Lost,” USA’s “The 4400” and Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” spawning a gothic resurgence, from ABC’s “Invasion” and “The Night Stalker” revival to the WB’s “Supernatural,” CBS’ “Threshold” and NBC’s “Surface.”
The negative aspect for Comic-Con loyalists basking in this relatively newfound attention is that the medium of comics has become secondary at its nominal gathering — an event that has outgrown its humble beginnings so dramatically that attending represents something of an ordeal.
The “Superman” session, for example, played to a cavernous hall of 6,500 people but at least that many were left standing in line unable to get in. Traffic was a disorganized nightmare, and the exhibition floor has morphed into a dank, almost primordial mess. Comic dealers grumbled about being exiled to the guest quarters of what was once their party and merely buying a soda required a half-hour wait. Fortunately, if nerds are uniquely accustomed to any activities, standing in long lines and experiencing disappointment would rank near the top.
DESPITE PROGRESS, the studio-fan relationship also remains somewhat wary. During one panel I overheard a guy complain about “Fantastic Four” departing from the quartet’s origins. His female companion patiently explained that such annoyances were to be expected and, rather than quibbling over what was wrong, his focus should be on the movie’s general faithfulness to the comics’ tone. “Hollywood takes its liberties,” she sighed.
That Hollywood is taking fewer liberties isn’t a gesture of magnanimity, by the way, but strictly good business sense. Creators possessing a feel and respect for the material, it turns out, actually tend to make better movies.
More than one audience member, meanwhile, sounded a bit suspicious by asking why big movie stars made the trek to San Diego. The well-coached responses were polite, but as with any junketeering, they boil down to Willie Sutton’s rationale behind robbing banks — namely, “Because that’s where the money is.”