Reports on San Diego Comic-Con always read like the story of the blind men describing an elephant. The scope of the event is so broad, its scale so large, that each attendee can only experience a small sliver of the long weekend’s activities.
This was Comic-Con International: San Diego 2016 from my perspective.
Because of my interest in the media marketing that accompanies Comic-Con, Wednesday afternoon before Preview Night provided a good opportunity to explore the branding and the media installations around the Convention Center and throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
Virtual reality was a major presence at Comic-Con this year, both at promotional events and at a separate mini-conference dubbed VR Con at the Con. A number of the large-scale marketing “activations” (as industry insiders like to call them) featured a virtual reality experience in combination with an impressive physical environment. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle experience included a museum of set pieces from the program and an interactive VR experience using the HTC Vive. To promote USA Network’s cult favorite Mr. Robot, the network created a detailed reconstruction of the Mr. Robot repair shop and the apartment of the show’s main character, Elliot Alderson. Inside the apartment you could enter a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Email. [For more on the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience, see “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]
Back in the real world, it was time to head to the Convention Center for the official opening of the con with Preview Night. For many, Preview Night is a mad rush to get first dibs on exclusive collectible items. I use it as an opportunity to visit the comic book creators in Artist Alley and elsewhere before the crush of the crowds in the subsequent days of the con. [See, “Be a Con-trarian: Go Against the Flow at Comic-Con.”] While San Diego Comic-Con attracts numerous high-profile movie and TV celebrities, I always enjoy the opportunity to meet the men and women who write, draw, and publish the comic books that form the basis of so much of our popular culture.
Thursday began with a second opportunity to experience Sam Email’s immersive Mr. Robot 360-degree film. Rather than taking place in the reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, this second viewing was in Petco Park with cast members Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, and Grace Gummer viewing the virtual experience along with the audience. At one point, while the audience members were still in the virtual world, Malek left the stage and sat in the crowd, surprising the adjacent audience members once the simulation ended.
First Timers and Old Regulars
Given the 47-year history of San Diego Comic-Con, it’s surprising to discover major popular culture icons who have never attended the event. This year a number of notable artists made their first appearances at San Diego Comic-Con.
Similarly new to Comic-Con this year was Luc Besson, who brought producer Virginie Besson-Silla and actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to present concept artwork and early footage from his film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Comic-Con International Senior Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Besson with an Inkpot award for his contributions to popular culture.
In contrast to these Comic-Con newcomers, Friday brought back to Hall H longtime fan favorite, writer/director Joss Whedon, who answered audience questions and hinted at future projects. He gave scant details about his current project, other than to say it was something new — neither a sequel nor a franchise piece. In response to an audience question, he reiterated his intention to eventually produce a follow-up to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, stating it would not be a prequel but, rather, focus on events following the original series. Work on this project isn’t imminent, however, since other members of the creative team (like Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron) are currently busy with other projects.
Following Whedon, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discussed their 20 years of working on the animated series, moderated by host Chris Hardwick.
Friday evening always brings the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards ceremony, honoring the work of comic book writers, artists, and publishers. With industry notables and surprise guests, the event is always a high point of Comic-Con for me each year.
Big Shows in Hall H on Saturday
While each day in Hall H brings panels with notable celebrity appearances and exclusive content, Saturday is the day coveted by the major studios for their showpiece events.
With a number of major movie studios, including 20th Century Fox, Paramount Studios, and Sony Pictures, skipping Hall H this year, on Saturday the room was dominated by two studios: Warner Bros. at the start of the day and Marvel Studios at day’s end (before the annual Kevin Smith panel). It’s worth noting that although they skipped Hall H, Paramount made a big splash in San Diego this year with the world premiere of Star Trek Beyond, Sony brought a Sausage Party screening and cast appearance to the Horton Grand Theatre, and Fox television programming had a significant presence at Comic-Con.
Arriving late in Hall H that day, I missed most of the Warner Bros. panel. As I entered the cavernous room near the end of the WB presentation, I almost ran into Eddie Redmayne as he raced around the floor handing out magic wands to fans to promote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
After Warner Bros., the panel celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series brought together cast members from several generations of the TV series: William Shatner, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Jeri Ryan, and Scott Bakula in a session moderated by Bryan Fuller, showrunner and co-creator of CBS’ new forthcoming Star Trek series.
The panel following Star Trek marked another anniversary of a popular science fiction franchise: the 30th anniversary of Aliens. On stage for the event were Aliens writer/director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, and Carrie Henn (who portrayed Newt in the film).
Next up in Hall H was the annual Entertainment Weekly: Women Who Kick Ass panel moderated by EW’s Nicole Sperling, featuring an array of women who portray strong female roles on television and the movies: Morena Baccarin, Melissa Benoist, Nathalie Emmanuel, Lucy Lawless, Tatian Maslany, Connie Nielsen, and Ming-Na Wen.
Marvel Studios then capped the day with a session that featured cast members and exclusive clips from several of the company’s upcoming feature films introduced by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and moderated by the ever-present Chris Hardwick.
Appearing first was the director and cast of Black Panther: director Ryan Coogler and actors Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, and Chadwick Boseman.
Smoke then filled the stage and sides of the auditorium along with abstract patterns of projected light. The smoke cleared to reveal Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch at center stage. Joining Cumberbatch was Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson and cast members Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Clyde Kusatsu. The Doctor Strange presentation included new footage and the debut of a new trailer.
Next up was Spider-Man Homecoming actor Tom Holland, joined by director Jon Watts and cast members Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya. A brief comedic video segment showed scenes of Peter Parker trying to balance his daily life at school with his responsibilities as a superhero.
Director James Gunn next took the stage — along a cadre of fully-costumed Ravengers — for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Gunn then introduced cast members Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kurt Russell (who was revealed to be playing Peter Quill’s father). Gunn also announced that Disney would be opening a theme park attraction based on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. The Hall H crowd also saw a clip from the film and a new trailer.
Finally, Feige confirmed the long-held rumor that Brie Larson would play Captain Marvel in the movie slated for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Larson joined the cast members from all the films for a Marvel family portrait.
Wrapping Up on Sunday
Sunday provided the opportunity to visit some of the marketing activations I hadn’t yet seen, including the Timeless time travel ride (built around that old amusement park classic, the Gravitron), Adult Swim on the Green, and the Son of Zorn rock climb and giant leap into an air bag (the latter pair of which I merely observed rather than participating in). After the virtual reality experiences of Mr. Robot and The Man in the High Castle, these decidedly non-virtual activities were an interesting change of pace.
Sunday’s final Hall H panel was originally slated for a much smaller room. Back in April 2016, Comic-Con International was coordinating with gaming company Niantic to present a panel on their augmented reality game Ingress. When the programming schedule for Comic-Con 2016 was released — as usual, just two weeks before the event — Niantic was scheduled to speak about Ingress and a new game they planned to launch, Pokémon GO. Shortly afterwards, Pokémon GO debuted and quickly became the hottest thing on Internet. Comic-Con International quickly changed the schedule to move the panel from its Thursday time slot in a modest 480-seat room to the last available spot on Sunday in the 6,500-seat Hall H. While this initially seemed like overkill, it proved otherwise. The enormous auditorium was packed on Sunday afternoon.
Host Chris Hardwick interviewed Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke for the session. Fans’ expectations that Hall H events bring big surprises caused many to assume that a special, rare Pokémon creature would appear in the hall for attendees to capture. But, alas, CEO Hanke seemed somewhat taken aback by the amped up expectations of the Hall H crowd, and no special creatures were to be found.
As in past years, my final session at Comic-Con was the Talk Back session in which Comic-Con International president John Rogers responds to questions and complaints from attendees. This year, Rogers and Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim made a valiant effort to keep the session on schedule, only running roughly 15 minutes over the allotted one hour time slot in contrast to the two-plus hour sessions in past years. While the Talk Back can be a rather dour way to end the con, it offers insights into the choices made by Comic-Con International in running the complex event. For a good recap of the key points from this year’s Talk Back session, see the report from ConShark.
After the Talk Back, one final glance at the crowds streaming out of the Convention Center and it was a wrap for San Diego Comic-Con 2016.
For the complete photo gallery from Comic-Con International 2016, see the Flickr photo album: San Diego Comic-Con 2016: