“No, no, no,” the tall guy in the hoodie says into his phone. “I’m past the pirate ship.” He cranes his neck up to look at it, a giant promotional buy for something no one will remember in a year’s time. “Yeah, no. I got here at five.”
It’s a little after 6 a.m. on Saturday, and I’ve crawled out of bed after three hours’ sleep to get in line for Hall H, the central cathedral of San Diego’s Comic-Con, the four-day pop culture extravaganza that devours an extended summer’s weekend for more than 100,000 of the devout. The day before, I consulted with every Hall H expert I knew to figure out when would be early enough to get in line for a full day’s movie excitement. The assurance I received from every one of them was that 6 would be more than early enough. Hell, 6:30 might be safe.
About 3:30, a friend gets in line and sends out a tweet to say he’s right on the cusp of getting in to the venue. People haven’t just been camped out since the night before; they’ve been camped out since the afternoon before for Saturday, traditionally the big day in Hall H, when Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Marvel Studios all make their presentations. These three studios, not coincidentally, are responsible for nearly all the superhero films released each year. (Only Spider-Man, which remains with Sony and was presented on Friday, did not make an appearance on Saturday.) As such, Saturday in Hall H has always been a big-ticket item — or it would be if one could buy tickets for it.
By the time I make it to the line, it snakes underneath five tents, the last of which divides people into four “chutes,” like cattle, to send them into Hall H. (When they finally enter, volunteers will line every step of their journey, applauding, as if they are returning conquerors or Super Bowl winners.) Get past the tents and the line crosses a busy street to continue up a sidewalk alongside a nearby hotel, before ending up at a seaside harbor walk — where the aforementioned pirate ship is docked. The line then snakes around as many more times as it needs to accommodate every person who arrives. At various points this weekend, the line will hold in excess of 10,000 people and perhaps as many as 15,000 (it’s impossible to get an exact count). It is big and intimidating and exhausting just to look at, the Sisyphean ordeal all Hall H attendees must endure to enter the promised land.
After winding around three or four times, I find the line’s end, well beyond the pirate ship, settling onto the cold cement of the harborwalk. The guy sitting next to me grins. “You think we’ll get in for Warner Brothers?” I ask about the first panel.
“Dude,” he laughs, shaking his head. “We might not get in today.”
I am not the first person to compare a movie theater to a church. The two spaces are ones where multitudes come together to sit and listen to somebody else speak, occasionally in silent solemnity, occasionally with smirking laughter. At their best, both spaces provoke awe. We turn up our faces to watch a movie screen, just as those who believe do to sing praises to God. We make weekly sojourns, the truly devout returning again and again throughout the week, seeking the enlightenment and meaning they might find between the lines of holy scripture or between the cuts in a great film.
My friend Darren Franich, who has covered the room for Entertainment Weekly these last several years, once suggested to me that Hall H was the ultimate movie church, at least if you tend toward the sorts of movies preferred in its darkened confines. What he said was that even for a journalist, seasoned in sifting through promotional bullshit to understand what’s really going on, the experience of being in Hall H, of sitting surrounded by 6,500 people who are eager to see the wares on screen and will cheer that footage endlessly, is easy to get caught up in. If the religious metaphor doesn’t work, think of a rock concert, how songs that don’t work on an album can become electric when sitting with other fans of the artist in question.
Darren knows these trailers are cut within an inch of their life to ensure a certain kind of fannish response (though the room has turned on projects before, most famously James Cameron’s Avatar). He knows most of the films shown will end up being terrible. He knows that what happens in that room is rehearsed and carefully planned, the entertainment world’s equivalent of a tech company making a major product launch. But where those product launches are staggered throughout the year and often just for press, Comic-Con is the major blockbuster movie launching platform, especially in the last 10 years, and especially for superhero films. (Whether this works remains an open question. See the respective fates of Avatar and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.) Movie studios have capitalized on Comic-Con’s long-standing “fans first” policy to stack the deck and stack the room. They are, in other words, manufacturing a fundamentally religious experience. Hear enough people cheer, and only the most hardened contrarian won’t want to cheer, too.
I noticed this firsthand when I made it into Hall H for Warner Bros.’s panel. Tired, hungry, and cranky, I spent the first few panels snarking away, but then moderator Chris Hardwick introduced Man of Steel director Zack Snyder to announce that, yes, there will be another Superman film in two years. Snyder introduced actor Harry Lennix, who played a minor part in Man of Steel, to read a bit of dialogue Snyder found in Superman’s backstory that he thinks will exemplify the next film. The speech is one delivered by Batman as he pummels Superman at a climactic moment of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which, with Watchmen, cemented the growing maturity of comics and launched a million titles that believed writing about adult subject matter largely was a matter of adopting all the right postures.
The speech is as follows:
“I want you to remember, Clark. In all the years to come, in all your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”
The further Lennix gets into it, the more a dull cheer begins to ripple through the audience, and then the Superman logo comes up on the giant screens installed just for the event and then, oh then, the Batman insignia looms up behind the Superman logo. And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I’d just been suggesting on Twitter that Superman should team up with Detective Chimp, or that I found Man of Steel a disappointing film that reduced the Superman characters to sterile automatons wound up to punch at each other, or that the whole thing was kind of stupid. (Relevant Simpsons quote: “Is Superman faster than The Flash!?” “Ehhhh … sure, kid!”)
To be in Hall H at that moment was to be on a rocket ship made of cheers.
So how I get into Hall H is that I cheat. I turn to Twitter, figuring maybe someone waiting in line will read of my plight and let me cut. (While forbidden, cutting happens at Comic-Con and is carried out via a combination of stealth and quid pro quo.) A guy named Mike and his girlfriend, Stefani, take pity and invite me to join them. They’re up under those tents, certain to get in for the whole day. Mike and another friend got in line at 8:30 the night before, holding that place for Stefani and, unknowingly, me. Even with that nine and a half hour jump on me, their group is still about 1,000 people from the front of the line. Devotion runs strong in this crowd.
Sitting in line is the best and worst thing about Comic-Con. Nobody likes being in line, and there’s lots of pointless shuffling about, to say nothing of how one might sit there for hours and not get to see anything. Yet the line is also the best place to get the social interaction with fellow geeks that makes Comic-Con so great. The group I end up with when I join Mike and Stefani is a little jittery from having spent the whole night in a state of half-sleep on the wet ground, but it’s also excited about what’s going to be happening in just a few hours. Opinions about movies and, especially, television are bandied about. At one point, a guy in a “Bazinga!” T-shirt loudly proclaims, “There was no point to that first season! It was just blood and sex!” seemingly out of nowhere.
We move forward into one of the chutes and mill about there for a while, the worst part of the whole Hall H experience, because it’s so close, yet takes so long to lead to anything. And then the gate opens, and we hurtle forward — and that word “chute” seems so appropriate in that moment, because we really could be heading blithely toward our own slaughter after so long penned up in the same area — and we’re into Hall H.
Hall H itself is basically a hamster habitat for humans. The room itself is a vast cavern, filled with mazes of chairs. It’s cold — horrifically so when only a handful of people are inside — and dry. Once you enter Hall H, you’re generally not allowed to leave, except under extraordinary circumstances. You’re trapped, kept in the habitat by the fact that if you leave, you’ll surely never survive that long line again. The whole experience is not exactly, how shall I say this, aesthetically pleasing. It’s a utilitarian public space, meant to placate the most people as quickly as possible, not unlike many of the films shown there.
The popular theory — one I hear advanced in line over and over again — remains that Twilight ruined Comic-Con, because it turned a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t have noticed the Con in a million years on to its existence. It’s coming up again today because one of the big events is the Comic-Con debut of the Hunger Games franchise, complete with Jennifer Lawrence and everything. In general, geek culture seems more OK with Hunger Games than it was with Twilight; the former is, after all, dystopian science fiction, which is more palatable to the average geek than paranormal romance. And yet the young adult fiction antipathy persists every time an ocean of people descends on the city of San Diego and forms an orderly queue.
The idea is that Twilight ruined Comic-Con because it took Comic-Con away from its natural constituency and handed it over to some other audience entirely. The target of this audience always shifts, but it is almost always young, and it is almost always female. Twilight makes a convenient scapegoat because it’s a franchise that’s not beloved by critics or the general populace, and it’s possessed of sexual politics that are just horrifying enough to provide a shred of cover to anyone who wants to assault it primarily on the grounds that it’s aimed at a woman’s inner 14-year-old girl instead of a man’s inner 14-year-old boy. (Before Twilight, Harry Potter was the “ruined Comic-Con” franchise of choice, attacked on similar grounds.) Comic-Con itself has admirable policies on sexism and harassment, but many of its attendees cling to an outdated sense of what “belongs” at the event, particularly in Hall H, which is the inner sanctum.
A panel called “Women Who Kick Ass” follows Hunger Games. It’s in its fourth iteration, and the fact that it’s in Hall H on Saturday is a surprise. On the surface, it makes sense for this to follow Hunger Games, and it’s also likely the Con intended it to be something that would allow for the room to clear out a bit while shuffling in more people from the line that still snakes off across the street outside. But, all the same, there’s something gutsy about placing a frank discussion of Hollywood sexism, feminism, and the limited opportunities for women in the entertainment industry right before 20th Century Fox and Marvel come out to present superhero-heavy slates.
And "Women Who Kick Ass" is the most fascinating and enriching panel I attend at Comic-Con. In particular, its discussion of how sexism still rules far too often in Hollywood is terrific, with panelist Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica fame) discussing a time an unnamed male actor pulled her arms out of their sockets while filming a fight sequence, in what she believes was recourse for her questioning him earlier in the shoot; and fellow panelist Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black discussing how a male crew member inappropriately hit on her when she was just 18 and bound to a bed for a shot. The moderator is good, in that she knows to get out of the way when the women on the panel — particularly Michelle Rodriguez — cut loose, and the content is engaging throughout.
For the most part, the dudes I’m sitting near either pay respectful attention or check Twitter, though there are some jokes from an older guy in front of me about how stupid he finds all of this. Then Rodriguez uses the phrase “destructive male culture” — as part of a larger answer about how women need to take more agency in telling their own stories — and something in the crowd flips. A certain subset of the audience begins to get more and more vocal, and when the panel runs slightly over, as all panels have done during the day, the vocalizations begin to get easier to hear, even to someone sitting clear across a giant room in a place that tends to eat sound from specific individuals in the audience; one really has to make a ruckus to be heard.
The final question — from a young woman about what aspects the perfect kick-ass woman would have — turns into a digression about the many roles that women play in real life and the few that they are asked to play onscreen. It’s all fascinating stuff, with Sackhoff talking about wanting to see someone as kind and strong as her mother onscreen, and Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira talking about the effectiveness of female political protestors in her native Zimbabwe, the sort of story that would almost never appear in a Hollywood film — but the longer it goes on, the more restless the crowd gets. When Rodriguez grabs the microphone again to follow up on a point made by another panelist, for the first time, the audience ripples with something close to jeering anger. When the panel finally ends and the five women on it proceed off to the side for photographs, something done at the end of most Hall H panels, someone shouts something from the audience, to a mixture of supportive laughs and horrified gasps, and the women quickly leave the stage. (I was not sitting close enough to hear what was said, but I confirmed with several people sitting in the immediate vicinity that it was a young man shouting “Women who talk too much!” after the loudspeaker asked attendees to voice their appreciation for the participants in the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel.)
It’s an ugly moment, an unfortunate capper to a great session, to be followed by many of the guys sitting around me offering up tired lines like “I hope they feel empowered now!” and several recitations of the Twilight mantra about ruining the Con. To be sure, most people in the room were respectful. But at a certain point, there needs to be an accounting for the fact that there is an ugliness that burbles beneath the surface of too many Comic-Con events, sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional. That’s not a task for the Con itself. It’s a task for nerd culture, and one that will require an earnest attempt to understand why this sort of ugliness rises up so often around women, lest all the nerd culture stereotypes prove unfortunately true.
In her review of Inception, critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing.” She was roundly pilloried for what she said and for tearing down the generally respected Nolan, but there’s a kernel of truth to her words. There are plenty of small movies about recognizable human beings made in every corner of the world, but fewer and fewer of them are given the huge financial backing of the Hollywood studio system. Even in the sorts of franchise films Hollywood does like to make, it’s unusual to find anything other than the typical formulas, the standard emotional arcs of boys becoming men and seeking their revenge. Or, put another way, look at how the earlier, better Superman films all were essentially romantic at their core, while Man of Steel largely exists to propel everything toward a battle that goes on and on.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it has resulted in some great films (including Inception). But it becomes a limited diet, something that leaves the other parts of the soul craving sustenance. Yet for reasons outlined in detail by everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Steven Spielberg to Lynda Obst, it seems only more likely that Hollywood will proceed further down this path, perhaps setting aside some money for an Oscar candidate or two at the end of the year but conserving most of its funds for the big movies that drive overseas ticket sales. The success of movies like The Heat and The Conjuring this summer, movies that define sleeper hit status, suggests that American audiences may feel similar emotions, yet Hollywood can’t easily leave the path it’s on. The year 2015 alone will contain the aforementioned Superman and Batman film, The Avengers 2, and Star Wars: Episode VII, among countless other franchise tentpoles.
That numbing sameness creeps into the footage screened in Hall H. The one genuinely different film shown — Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming Gravity — receives a more muted reception. The rest of the footage consists of a constant barrage of awesome, of weird, of over-the-top bombast. It wears one down, but in a way that benefits the sellers, not those being sold to. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the Thor: The Dark World footage screened, but I know that I applauded excitedly for it. That effect Darren described to me, of being swept along by the rocket ship of applause and propelled into the movie heavens, has been so perfectly calibrated by the studios that it’s almost impossible to find angry words on Twitter when I go looking for them or when I ask people in person. Everything is awesome, which also means that nothing is.
I won’t lie or anything. There was some awesome shit that was screened in Hall H. Cuaron brought one of the extended shots from Gravity that look to up the ante of the one-shot sequences from his Children Of Men, and it was terrifying, sending astronaut Sandra Bullock drifting off into the void of space. The footage from Captain America: The Winter Soldier at least looked different from most other superhero movies, bringing to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and featuring Robert Redford. It also had by far the coolest fight sequence screened during the day, with Captain America’s hand bolted to the wall of an elevator, forcing him to fight off a bunch of goons from that impossible position. (Full disclosure: I know Joe Russo, one of the film’s co-directors, somewhat.) My inner 14-year-old boy, at least, was excited by the brief footage shown of Godzilla, particularly when the giant lizard took on some sort of insect creature. The panel for the film that followed also pinged my radar in terms of something potentially worth being excited for, with director Gareth Edwards, who made the very good Monsters, talking about wanting to find human stories amid monster chaos and panelists Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Bryan Cranston praising him for doing just that. And it was great to watch individual actors handle the massive crowd, whether that was Lawrence talking down teen girls who seemed on the edge of panic attacks or Tom Cruise singing songs from Rock of Ages with Hardwick.
The moment when I got Hall H, when I understood exactly why people had been in line since the day before came at the end of the Fox panel, when Hugh Jackman, there to promote the soon-to-open The Wolverine, brought out Bryan Singer, the director who gave Jackman the role that made him famous. The two were there to screen the first footage from next summer’s ambitious superhero epic X-Men: Days of Future Past, but they were also there to present a giant panel that included over a dozen participants, including most of the massive cast of the film, which includes three Oscar winners, three additional nominees, an Emmy winner, a Tony winner, and Michael Fassbender.
I wouldn’t call myself a particular fan of X-Men, and I’ve never read the comic this movie is based on, but the moment when all those actors came out to greet the crowd was electrifying. It’s the one time when the surge of enthusiasm that roars through the room and crashes up on stage included me as a fully willing participant. Loving the movies means loving the people who make your favorites, and there were so many here, all lined up together, smiling because they knew we were eating out of their palms. And, OK, when the overhead screens showed the cameras zooming in on Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen laughing together in tight two-shot, my long dormant inner fanboy came alive. It was over almost before it started, but in an instant, any frustration or ugliness from earlier in the day was gone.
I stared up at the enormous screens. I had won the victory over myself. I loved Hall H.
When I leave Hall H, it’s 13 hours after I first sat in that line, when I was told that I might not get in. I leave right before Marvel shows some Guardians of the Galaxy footage that sets the Internet on fire, as does Karen Gillan’s reveal that she’s shaved her head to play a bald character from the comics.
Outside, it’s cool and noisy, the cloud cover that waited over us in line having never been burned off by the sun. With every step away from Hall H, it dissipates a little more, a shadow that now seems to exist solely on Twitter. I realize how hungry I am after only a day of Hall H junk food, how tired I am, how little any of the footage actually hung with me.
Through the rest of the evening, when people find out I was in Hall H, they ask me how it was, in terms you might usually reserve for a theme-park ride, and I have to admit that it was a lot of fun. But it doesn’t really last for me. It’s a series of carefully constructed moments, designed less to be long-lasting memories than in-the-moment staccato bursts of emotion. The reason to go to Hall H isn’t for the proximity to stars or the exclusivity of the footage — it’s to go to Hall H itself, to add this experience to the memory bank. For me, the day already begins to fog over, turning into a muggy haze.
Yet I do have specific memories, but mostly of the people in Hall H, of the girl who sucked in her breath to keep from completely falling apart while asking Lawrence a question; or the woman a couple of rows ahead of me, who told a friend, “Well, I thought it was pretty good” when he disparaged the women who kick ass; or the guy I sat next to who came all the way from Texas just for this and sat there with the biggest grin on his face all day long; or the man asking me to get him a readmittance ticket as I left, who just wanted to get inside for 10 minutes; or those people I waited with in line, whom I came across throughout the day, giving me a thumbs-up across that crowded sea of faces. There are people in that room for whom that experience might prove life-changing, who might step out into the cool breeze that comes in at night off the sea and feel tired and hungry, yes, but also elated.
It’s easy for me to be cynical about all of this. I’m steeped in news of how the entertainment industry works, and I’m increasingly tired of pointless action blockbusters, and I lament the loss of the human amid computerized specters and formulaic screenplays. But I am an agnostic inside the movie church, someone who chooses not to buy into the collective faith generated there by those who believe, all evidence to the contrary, in the possibility of a summer when all the movies, at last, might be good.
Todd VanDerWerff is the TV editor of The A.V. Club. His writing also appears in the Los Angeles Times.