Comic-Con in Recovery: Marvel Studios Saves San Diego’s Otherwise Stillborn Return

After two years of virtual events, San Diego Comic-Con made its grand in-person return this weekend. The fan convention was chock full of surprises — Marvel! Stephen Colbert! — but it’s clear that SDCC and many of its exhibitors have not yet adapted to a new normal.

The pandemic’s pall hovered over Comic-Con. Entering the convention center required COVID verification wristbands and masks, but those precautions came late and caused confusion. Some panels were always virtual, like the one I hosted for “Abbott Elementary,” but one for fellow ABC shows “The Rookie” and “The Rookie: Feds” went virtual at the last minute. A disappointed heckler yelled, “We’ve been virtual for three years, c’mon!”

However, that wasn’t the biggest disappointment: Too many of the in-person panels lacked substance. Warner Bros. has always been one of the biggest draws for the prestigious Hall H, a massive conference room that traditionally inspires fans to line up hours in advance and even sleep overnight to gain access. In 2018, the studio’s 2018 presentation highlighted everything from “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman 1984” to “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “LEGO Movie 2.”

This year, Warners had little to say for itself in Hall H. New Line Cinema sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” starring Zachary Levi carried most of the burden alongside Dwayne Johnson’s passion project, spin-off “Black Adam.” The trailers and footage were cool, and Johnson on stage in costume was a convention highlight, but it left the audience underwhelmed.

Predictably MIA were “The Flash” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” given the ongoing turmoil surrounding respective stars Ezra Miller and Amber Heard, but the studio didn’t make a peep about smaller DC Comics projects like “Batgirl” and “Blue Beetle.”

The “Black Adam” cast during the Warner Bros. panel at the 2022 San Diego Comic-Con

Variety via Getty Images

While other studios gave fans a look at their plans all the way into 2025, it’s now clear that the studio plans to save most of its superhero material for FanDome, the virtual expo it established in the wake of the pandemic. Even so: Warners is more than just DC Comics adaptations. It couldn’t scrounge up an exclusive “Dune: Part Two” image or showcase a “Wonka” featurette?

That frustration carried over into the next panel for another major WarnerMedia project, “Game of Thrones” prequel series “House of the Dragon.” The Hall H presentation kicked off with an extended trailer and then brought out the cast for a panel discussion. The HBO series’ premiere is less than a month away; fans did not even get a single exclusive clip after they weathered double-digit hours in line. Even George R.R. Martin’s presence couldn’t save attendees zoning out during the panel: It was an extended interview with still-unfamiliar actors who play characters the fans don’t yet know.  A deeper look at the show would have gone a very, very long way.

By contrast, the July 22 panel for Amazon Prime Video’s September 2 premiere, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” provided the spectacle that Hall H demands, starting with the reveal that Emmy-nominated late night host and Tolkien superfan Stephen Colbert would be the moderator.

It also included a performance led by composer Bear McCreary, whose Comic-Con bonafides include “The Walking Dead” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Much like “House of the Dragon,” the panel introduced a massive cast of (unknown) characters and the actors who portray them, but Amazon revealed the 21 actors in segments preceded by exclusive clips. It’s a great way to inspire interest: Get people intrigued by making them more informed.

Stephen Colbert at “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” panel at the 2022 San Diego Comic-Con

Variety via Getty Images

Still, the biggest surprise was the June 23 Marvel Studios panel. Back in 2017, Marvel pulled a Warners with its Hall H presentation, saving all of its best “Avengers: Infinity War” material, including most of its stars, for Disney’s biannual D23 Expo. The next year, Marvel skipped Comic-Con entirely. Disney will host another D23 Expo September 9, so what could that leave for Comic-Con? A bonus featurette for “Thor: Love and Thunder”? Maybe a half hour with the cast and creators of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law”?

“She-Hulk” did make an appearance, but so did panels for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” “Secret Invasion,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” plus slides teasing projects for MCU phases Four, Five, and Six, including the announcement of reboot TV series “Daredevil: Born Again.”

Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige concluded the panel saying, “I look forward to seeing you next year.” As do we. Marvel Studios not only took over Comic-Con weekend, it also justified the in-person convention’s existence — COVID be damned, it reminded us how magical these live presentations can be when done right.

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