Book Article

It Came From Comic-Con

We report on ''Heroes,'' ''Iron Man,'' and ''Star Trek''

On one side of the door are tens of thousands of people. On the other side is Kevin Bacon. It's a bright, warm Saturday in San Diego, and the actor/director/musician/pop icon has come to the world's biggest comic-book confab to promote Death Sentence, a most un-comic-booky revenge thriller directed by Saw's James Wan. For the third time in the past hour, the star of Footloose and Mystic River is asked ''Are you ready?'' He is. So is his wife, Kyra Sedgwick. The two clasp hands and follow a pair of bodyguards into the cool, sunless, star-destroyer-size convention center hall. They make their way from the periphery of the action — Artists Alley, where legendary cartoonists sit at small tables, sketch, and shake hands with the occasional fan — and muscle up a crowded aisle flanked by extravagant trade-show-style booths manned by videogame companies and toy marketers. Cell-phone cams click. Someone shouts, ''Kyra! I love you!'' Sedgwick waves.

Finally, they reach a large booth run by Death Sentence distributor Fox Atomic, located near the center of the convention floor, just down from a massive Plexiglas spaceship and a faux pirates' galleon — showcases for Sci Fi Channel and the Walt Disney Company, respectively. Bacon takes a seat. The autograph seekers step forward: a woman bearing a button for the Showtime series ITALIC {Dexter}], and a girl dressed as Princess Leia. Across the aisle, the foot soldiers at the Paramount Pictures booth — monitors blaring trailers for J.J. Abrams' untitled monster movie and Ben Stiller's upcoming comedy The Heartbreak Kid — compete for attention by announcing free Indiana Jones posters. Beholding the spectacle, Bacon shakes his head in bemused wonder. Then he shrugs. ''It's a living.''

Just in case you thought that was a misprint — yes, this is a comic-book convention. At one time, the annual Comic-Con was almost exclusively the dominion of comic-book publishers and retailers, a place where fanboys could meet their favorite artists, hunt for treasured back issues, gather into fan clubs, and parade proudly in masks, capes, and spandex. That freak flag fun remains at the 37-year-old event, and comic-book power players still preside on the floor. But with the explosion of superhero serials and epic fantasy films (X-Men, Star Wars, Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings), Comic-Con has gotten a showbiz makeover, thanks to Hollywood marketeers who've realized that these hardcore fans are early-adopting, Web-chatty entertainment consumers who wield enormous influence. It was here that cult stuff like Lost, Heroes, and 300 began the march toward mainstream success. Hollywood has learned: Make big waves at Comic-Con, and you can create serious ripples in the world beyond. Says 300 director Zack Snyder: ''The so-called geeks who come here? They're the new tastemakers of pop culture.''

Comic-Con's new status as hot ticket Hollywood happening and potent hype machine was never more apparent than with the 2007 event, noteworthy for its high-watt star power (Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Steve Carell, Nicolas Cage, Edward Norton, Liv Tyler), increased presence of non-nerd TV (including 24) and movie comedies (Superbad and Hot Rod), and glamorous after-hours industry parties, including one thrown by this magazine. But even some of those A-listers have begun to wonder if the convention's metamorphosis has come at a cost. ''Comic-Con has always been about connecting with the fan — about the 'common people.' But you also don't want people who are just here for the glitz and don't care about the craft,'' says Heroes star Masi Oka. ''There's a fine balance that has to be struck.''

EW spent four exhausting and often incredibly bizarre days at the pop-culture-palooza. Here are the highlights.

THURSDAY, JULY 26

HOT TICKETS
Presentations by Paramount Pictures, the Jessica Alba/Dane Cook romance Good Luck Chuck and Lost

Opening day's must-see spectacle: a two-hour peek at Paramount's geek-friendly slate. At the head of the line was Brian Freet, 35, an emergency room nurse from Turlock, Calif., dressed up as Indiana Jones and hoping to get some scoop on the studio's new, still-untitled Indy film. ''This is going to be probably the best thing that happens to me this year — unless the Grateful Dead reunite,'' he says.

Once everyone's inside the cavernous auditorium known as Hall H, Comic-Con honchos firmly instruct the gathered masses to behave themselves around the movie stars. No disrespectful questions, no illicit recording. (''Our friends in Hollywood won't come back, and we don't want that to happen.'') Freet's dream comes true in the form of a live video greeting from Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and Karen Allen — and sure enough, within 24 hours, the video's on YouTube. There are big cheers for Star Trek rebooter J.J. Abrams and his two Spocks, Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, but Paramount's most popular offering turns out to be Iron Man. An extended teaser — introduced by director Jon Favreau — suggests a smartly polished superhero movie anchored by a charismatic performance from Robert Downey Jr.

After the event, Marvel Studios exec Kevin Feige hits the streets to ask attendees for their impressions of his company's first self-financed film, while a few thousand miles away, Iron Man's insta-buzz reaches the ears of its star, who's not scheduled to arrive until Saturday. ''I was in Hawaii shooting,'' Downey tells EW, referring to the war movie spoof Tropic Thunder. ''All of a sudden, all the guys there, their BlackBerrys are going off. They're like, 'Dude. Iron Man's tearing up at Comic-Con!'''

The producers of Lost had hoped to cause a similar commotion by announcing that Harold Perrineau was returning to the show, but they were scooped the previous day by ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson. Still, exec producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse — dinging each other with actual bells when the other got too spoilery — offer a textbook example of what Comic-Con does best: nurturing community with intimate fan engagement. Coming to the Con, explains Cuse, ''was born out of our desire to have contact with our most fervent fans — often the ones most angry with the show — and hearing about how we're doing.''

FRIDAY, JULY 27

HOT TICKETS
Warner Bros., the Kevin Smith Q&A, and the William Morris party

You'd have thought Warner Bros. would use its prime-time presentation not only to tout Get Smart (whose hilarious trailer made it the surprise talking point of the day) and Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's classic comic Watchmen but to hype next summer's Batman movie, The Dark Knight, too. Nope. Instead, the studio goes viral. In a complex PR stunt, attendees are required to purchase from vendors real dollar bills sporting the Joker's image and complete various tasks — like collaborating via cell phones with Web-surfing friends — just to obtain the URL for the first official Dark Knight teaser trailer. Meanwhile, other Hollywood firms spend the day trying to impress conventioneers more directly — summed up by the oft-heard attendee chant ''More free stuff!'' They've got T-shirts for the new NBC series Chuck. DVDs of the new Spawn cartoon. And to carry it all, Comic-Con's ubiquitous accessory: an oversize canvas bag promoting Smallville and a direct-to-DVD animated movie called Superman: Doomsday.

At the day's last event, a raucous Q&A with 12-year Comic-Con vet Kevin Smith, the Clerks auteur can't help but comment on the convention's evolution into a marketing free-for-all. ''Every studio in town except one is here trying to kiss your ass,'' says Smith, knowingly referring to Twentieth Century Fox, which pulled out of Comic-Con because it was concerned about the quality of its presentation. After playfully dissing Spielberg for ''jumping on the [Comic-Con] bandwagon,'' Smith winkingly turns pitchman himself and screens the pilot episode for Reaper, which he directed. ''It airs on The CW. Don't leave.''

SATURDAY, JULY 28

HOT TICKETS
Heroes, Marvel Studios, Battlestar Galactica, and the Joss Whedon Q&A

A sellout weeks in advance, Comic-Con's busiest day emerges as an epic clash between Marvel Comics' biggest heroes and...well, Heroes. Fans of the NBC hit series start packing the ballroom around 8 a.m., sitting through presentations for NBC's Bionic Woman revival and a TV Guide panel discussion to secure a seat. (''We are the Elvis of Comic-Con,'' Heroes costar Greg Grunberg tells EW.) One attendee confesses to paying $3,000 for a flight from Australia just for the Heroes panel, while another is greeted with ecstatic applause when he announces that he will write and direct an episode of the show's spin-off series Heroes: Origins. His name: Kevin Smith.

With Heroes vacuuming up so many fanboys and girls, many empty seats greet the other headliners for the first half of the day — even Matt Groening, whose The Simpsons Movie opened the previous day to $30 million. Hall H doesn't fill to capacity again until newly christened Comic-Con rock star Favreau brings his Iron Man cast — Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard — to the late-afternoon Marvel Studios event. Elsewhere, Hollywood's hucksterism reaches new levels of ingenuity by co-opting one of Comic-Con's great traditions — attendees wearing home-made costumes. Screen Gems flooded the floor with 200 Milla Jovovich-in-Resident Evil look-alikes, while the Weinstein Company hired Lacey Henderson, a single-leg amputee, to stand at the Grindhouse booth fitted with a machine-gun prosthesis — a Rose McGowan. ''Some of the guys are just like, 'You're hot,''' laughs Henderson, 18. ''Like I really want to get to know them.''

By contrast, fanboy auteur Sam Raimi (Spider-Man and its sequels) — touting 30 Days of Night, which he produced — spends an hour zipping around, disguised as Zorro, buying himself a vintage Marvel T-shirt and a print from Artists Alley. ''This reminds me of my youth,'' he says. ''As long as there's room here for the individual artists, this place could never lose its soul.''

The Comic-Con extravaganza concludes on Sunday, the third sold-out day of the event. (Prior to this year, it had never sold out any day.) New Line's elaborate display for The Golden Compass is a popular destination. The casts of Jericho and The 4400 hold court, while Milo Ventimiglia talks up his forthcoming movie thriller Pathology. The geeks who regard Comic-Con as a little slice of heaven don't really mind Hollywood's wooing. They kind of look at it as legitimization — not exploitation — or just plain fun. At the height of Comic-Con festivities, two lovebirds were spotted sharing a deep kiss outside the convention hall, much to the amusement of onlookers. What emboldened them to express their affection so publicly? Kaisa Harris, 23, dressed as the fiery hero Phoenix from X-Men, put it this way: ''It's just...the magic of Comic-Con is in the air. It brings out the imaginative side of everything. The wonderful, the idealistic, the romance. That's why I'm here today. It's about my fantasies.'' Hand in hand, she and her boyfriend stroll away, hoping to find some cool anime — and more free stuff. (Additional reporting by Nisha Gopalan, Lynette Rice, Nicole Sperling, and Adam B. Vary)

Originally posted Aug 03, 2007 Published in issue #947 Aug 10, 2007 Order article reprints