They came, they saw, they set the agenda for Hollywood's next half-decade.
Before last weekend's Comic-Con International kicked off in San Diego, a towering wave of film-industry fretting threatened to eclipse the annual event, known as a launching pad for blockbusters. The big studios were recoiling from the event. Piracy was threatening to ruin the fun. The industry has moved on from courting the geek audience it once pursued so aggressively. Movies, the prevailing wisdom went, have had enough of San Diego.
But then the actual festival/PR exercise kicked off, and once again Comic-Con proved just how intertwined the worlds of once-fringe geekery and big business have become. It's true that 20th Century, Sony, Paramount and Universal largely skipped this year's Con. Yet, Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC were still on the slate – and both corporations had massive, comic-friendly offerings to unspool. Offerings that – unless disaster strikes and global audiences somehow become more obsessed with period dramas than high-flying heroics – will dictate just how Hollywood develops its products for the foreseeable future.
The moment was crystallized late Saturday afternoon, when Warner took command of the Con's fabled Hall H (6,500 seats, wrap-around screens with laser-light shows, lineups that stretch for city blocks, an untold number of men wearing Joker T-shirts both of the Ledger and Leto variety, etc.). The studio's mission was one of mea culpa: audiences had yet to forgive the misbegotten mess that was this past spring's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Normally, a large enough studio could rebound from such a bomb with relative ease, shunting the memory to the darkest recesses of the industry's mind. But Dawn of Justice – in all its needlessly dark, ugly, urine-jar-as-plot-point splendour – was the first piece in Warner's 10-movie DC Cinematic Universe, a plan that must succeed should Warner hope to ever gain the cinematic riches that Disney's Marvel unit has already gobbled up.
So, Warner appealed for sympathy in the only way Hollywood knows how: through sheer bombastic force of will. It not only revealed a propulsive, feminist-first trailer for Wonder Woman, it also debuted a work-in-progress teaser for Justice League, Zack Snyder's sequel to the Batman v Superman disaster that started it all. Combined, the approximately five minutes of footage – from Gal Gadot drop-kicking anyone who crosses her Amazonian princess to Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne hamming it up with The Flash – revealed that Warner at least knows where it went wrong in its quest for comics domination, and has taken the necessary steps to repair its image.
The movies still look relentlessly dark, both in tone and lighting, but both display a welcome sense of levity that's so far been absent from Warner's vision. (Batman cracks at least two jokes!) In its own way, the presentation was a revelation – and a stunning display of just how badly the industry needs to capitulate to comics fans. (The geek-first press responded accordingly, with various sites picking up the crumbs Warner so delicately laid in front of them.)
Still, when the dominant sentiment rests along the lines of, "Hey, this might not be as atrocious as we feared," perhaps it's not all that much of an accomplishment. At least not when compared to Disney.
Yes, despite Warner's best-ish efforts, it was Disney CEO Bob Iger's behemoth, the reigning king of the box office ($2-billion and counting this year), that went on to steal Comic-Con yet again. And it didn't even need to win anyone over. Disney's Marvel Studios is so successful that it could simply show up and unfurl a few new logos – which is exactly what it did, unveiling retro-ish designs for the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Captain Marvel.
As the company is so attuned to its audience, it also threw in a wealth of Con-exclusive trailers and behind-the-scenes clips. And a new Doctor Strange trailer. And the fact that Oscar-winner Brie Larson would play Captain Marvel. And some neat Spider-Man designs. And more, and more, and more, until your news feed was likely an echo chamber of franchises and cinematic universes and brand extensions and other products meant to be bought, with frenzied anticipation.
It's all a delicately crafted game of expectations – but a game that will be played by every studio over the next few years, whether they attended Comic-Con or not. Fox has at least four X-Men-related properties in development; Universal is forever making Fast and Furious films, perhaps the most comic book-y of movies ever made, in spirit if not in source material; Sony's The Dark Tower will quickly inspire a cross-platform cash cow; and Paramount is betting on hordes of Transformers, plus a series dedicated to other Hasbro toys, with Michael Chabon, of all people, along for the ride.
Most studios may have played it cool this year, but Hollywood and Comic-Con are now one and the same. The only thing left to do is start preparing for next year. I've already got my Joker T-shirt packed.