SAN DIEGO — With both Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios slated for panel time in the San Diego Convention Center Saturday for this year’s Comic-Con, sparks were sure to fly as the two superhero heavies revealed looks at the next phases in their quests to conquer the pop culture world. But who left the biggest mark on the geek masses?
WB was first out of the gate and, unlike in years past, led with the DC material. Other tentpoles like “Kong: Skull Island” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” were held for the back stretch.
Conan O’Brien moderated the event, which went nearly 30 minutes past its scheduled two hours and began with thoughts from the five directors behind DC’s upcoming slate: Zack Snyder (“Justice League”), Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), Rick Famuyiwa (“The Flash”), James Wan (“Aquaman”) and Ben Affleck (“Batman”).
Things then transitioned to the first of those scheduled to hit theaters: “Wonder Woman” (June 2, 2017). Jenkins, who was once attached to “Thor: The Dark World” at Marvel, flashed her geek bona fides by touting Richard Donner’s 1978 film “Superman” as a seminal moment. “That movie made me have an experience I never had before: I cried for Superman, I was Superman, I wanted to change the world and do good,” she said. “That’s the most powerful artistic experience of my life as a child.”
Joined by her cast, Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen, the director then premiered the first trailer for the film, revealing a full-blooded World War I action film with Gadot’s empowered Amazon all out of bubble gum (to steal a phrase). It’s a movie that comes at a time when strong female leads, certainly in the superhero space, are lacking, which Jenkins said was crucial to the mixture.
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“I feel so fortunate to be the person here in this window,” she said. “It’s overdue, but it also feels like the best time in the world to make this movie.”
For Gadot, it was important to portray the character, also known as Diana Prince, in a way everyone can relate to — girls and boys, men and women. “Wonder Woman has the heart of a human and the strength of a goddess,” she said. “I watched a documentary about the real Princess Diana, where she said she leads from her heart and not from her head. I think that quote describes our Diana.”
Snyder then took the stage with the cast of “Justice League” — Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jason Mamoa and Henry Cavill — to tease what they could of the film, which is still in production in London. It was a sizzle reel cut to The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” and tonally much lighter than the dark territory of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” depicting Affleck’s Bruce Wayne recruiting Mamoa’s Aquaman, Miller’s Flash and Fisher’s Cyborg, with particular levity afforded to Miller’s section.
But as impressive and enervated as that footage was, it’s worth mentioning that Snyder excels at crafting promotional material like this, often set to foot-tapping tunes. In 2009, “Watchmen” conjured a slick tone with Smashing Pumpkins’ down-tempo “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning.” In 2010, it was “Sucker Punch” electrifying the Hall H audience with a little help from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” And Snyder then primed the pump for “Batman v Superman” two years in a row, first in 2013 with an announcement that he would tackle Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” source material in some fashion, and then the following summer with a clip that seemed to deliver on that promise.
Reaction to all three films was considerably more muted than you might have thought in the convention center bubble, which is all just to say that the jury is still out.
You could say the same thing about DC’s slate in general. Unlike Marvel, which is mid-stride with no indication of slowing down, Warners’ comic book factory is still finding itself in a corporate system that touts itself as “filmmaker friendly.” But it seems to be figuring things out, amassing an earth-bound world full of interlocking mythology, with the cosmos (“Green Lantern Corps”) still to come.
The final showcase — “Suicide Squad,” releasing Aug. 5 — exemplified the most self-assurance of the bunch. Matched with an irreverent Day-Glo-like marketing campaign that sets it apart not just from the comic movie fray, but from its DC stable mates as well, David Ayer’s bad guy ensemble really feels like the eye-popping vision of a director eager to rile. The film revved its engines one last time with a trailer and the whole cast on hand. It’s ready to fire out of the canon, and perhaps drag the next phase of DC Films with it.
Later in the day, Comic-Con’s annual marquee moment finally dropped: the Hall H Marvel Studios panel. And there was a lot to get to, four films, in fact, with casting announcements, character revelations and a bit of light show wizardry thrown in.
Marvel president Kevin Feige kicked things off with “Black Panther,” bringing out director Ryan Coogler and stars Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan and Danai Gurira. It was Boseman and Nyong’o’s first time at the convention. Gurira, however, was among her people as a featured star of TV’s “The Walking Dead.”
Coogler, though, was on his second trip, but it was a considerably different experience for him this time around. “This is emotional for me,” he said. “In 2009, I came to my first Comic-Con and I sat way, way, way back there!”
There was nothing to show as the film doesn’t begin filming until January, but Coogler said he would take the fans’ energy and “go work harder.”
For “Thor: Ragnarok,” director Taika Waititi sent something a little different: a mini-doc in the style of his comedy “What We Do In the Shadows,” detailing what exactly Thor was up to during the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” You can probably expect it to show up as a special feature on the eventual DVD/Blu-ray release.
From there, a reel of footage and concept art was dropped on the audience, before seamlessly transitioning to a smoke- and light-filled display teasing the world of “Doctor Strange.” When the lights came up and the smoke dissipated, star Benedict Cumberbatch stood poised center stage like a rock star.
And that’s the environment Marvel has so thoroughly cultivated at Comic-Con. The massive screens lining the hall, which Warner Bros. brought in some years back, were used to dazzling effect and the whole thing took on a concert atmosphere. Later, when Michael Rooker and others from the cast of “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” took to the stage in-character and decked out in full makeup and costume, it felt like the hall was being treated to a variety show.
Footage was shown from both films, a mix of clips and trailer material. Most notable was director James Gunn basking in the glory of having successfully mounted an off-shoot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that stands on its own (not unlike “Suicide Squad” is aiming to do). “It’s much less pressure to know people are excited to see your movie rather than waking up in the middle of the night thinking you might be making ‘Pluto Nash’ and not know it,” he said.
Marvel also was able to showcase a little bit of Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” with director Jon Watts, star Tom Holland and others from the cast on hand to reveal something akin to a John Hughes high school movie. In this Spidey, the third iteration of the character in 14 years, Peter Parker watches YouTube clips in class of himself kicking butt (the “Civil War” fight sequence) and girls play “F—, Marry, Kill” with members of the Avengers. Watts noted that it was meant to be a ground-level view, the daily drama of pubescent life in a world full of superheroes.
It’s an increasingly expansive palette Marvel is working with and every new piece of the puzzle seems confidently placed. If anything, maybe the “Doctor Strange” material was a bit muted, familiar in many ways (“Inception”-like effects), in others, odd in tone (Strange’s snark felt out of place). But it doesn’t matter because wherever the slack may be on this slate, there is plenty of help around to pick it up.
And almost casually, the panel ended with a long-rumored casting announcement: Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. The Oscar winner hustled out for a Marvel group photo and that was it. They didn’t get into specifics with her because they knew they didn’t need to. Everyone will be back next year anyway, eager to see what Feige and company have up their sleeve.
There’s a lot to be said about that kind of confidence.
Nevertheless, in the battle of “Marvel vs. DC,” it would be disingenuous to declare a winner this year. It was the first time both of the two giants came to the duel with their pistols loaded, plenty of wares to show from separate line-ups, the machinery well-oiled on each side of the aisle. Bottom line: Hollywood’s superheroes got down to business this weekend, and fanboys — judging by the recent box office hauls of Marvel and DC films — will continue to be there to save the day.