"Heroes" whips Comic-Con fans into frenzy

SAN DIEGO (Hollywood Reporter) - Thanks to NBC’s “Heroes” presentation, the annual Comic-Con International gathering of comic-book fans, which wrapped in San Diego on Sunday, will be remembered as the Con at which TV shows eclipsed feature films.

The “Heroes” panel, which started at 12:45 p.m. Saturday, hit maximum capacity of about 4,000 people almost as soon as the doors opened at 10 a.m. Fans arrived early and sat through two other presentations -- for NBC’s “Bionic Woman” and a TV Guide panel on TV heroes -- just to hear the “Heroes” creators and to offer their love to the cast. Thousands more waited in line for hours in case, by chance, some room opened up.

When it was announced that Kevin Smith would direct the first episode of spinoff show “Heroes: Origins,” an already electric room amped off the charts.

Television’s presence was the strongest it’s ever been at the Con, where the small screen’s influence has been slowly growing since ABC launched “Lost” in 2004, previewing the pilot in a half-full hall. But it was those early fans that helped the show become a buzzworthy hit, and when an unknown show called “Heroes” previewed in 2006 and went on to become one of the biggest new dramas of the season, the Con’s launching pad status was solidified.

Shows that lined up in hopes of blasting off this year included ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” CBS’ “Moonlight,” NBC’s “Chuck” and CW’s “Reaper.” Underscoring the importance of the Con, even Fox’s “24,” heading into its seventh season, made its first trip to San Diego, perhaps to shore up geek support after a less-than-stellar year.

Also whipping geeks into a frenzy was word of “Xena” star Lucy Lawless returning to Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica,” and Sam Jones, who played “Flash Gordon” in the 1980 movie, set to appear as a guest star on the channel’s upcoming “Flash Gordon” series.

This year, the film contingents at the Con didn’t offer many standouts. The exceptions were Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Get Smart,” with its cast in tow; Paramount Pictures’ orchestration of the dual Spock casting of Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto in its next “Star Trek” movie; and Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man.”

Marvel’s efforts were almost a textbook example of how to make an impression at the Con. The company stoked the flames with a large mysterious crate with the words “Stark Industries” sitting on the convention floor. It was finally unpacked in a ceremony by the “Iron Man” crew, including director Jon Favreau, Tony Stark/Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. and creature creator Stan Winston. Fans jostled for prime camera position when the contents of the box were revealed to be a life-size replica of an armor costume that will be seen in the movie.

“It’s a great place to celebrate all the big films of the summer, since most of them have been released, and it’s an introduction for next year’s films,” said Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel. “In one convention, all our audience is there, and those that aren’t are reading the hourly updates on Web sites.”

Marvel’s presentation for “The Incredible Hulk” included Ed Norton, Liv Tyler and director Louis Leterrier, who had jumped on the plane from Toronto that same morning. That was followed by the “Iron Man” panel, at which a made-for-the-Con trailer was shown twice by popular demand, and at which Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard, all making their first appearance at the convention, took part.

Norton, known for heavy-duty dramatic roles, said that when he apprehensively told close friends he was taking on the Hulk role, he was surprised to learn how many people are secretly comic book fans.

“It sounds like a lark in the beginning, but there is a really big responsibility,” he told the crowd. “People are really invested in this character and in this story and in the spirit of it. And you go from it being a whim to something that you need to make sure you take seriously and bring all the stuff you would bring to any other film to it.”

Other notable presentations included New Line Cinema’s “Shoot ‘Em Up,” Sony’s “30 Days of Night” and the hilarious presentation of “Walk Hard” and “Superbad.”

More than ever, the convention found itself groaning under the bulging weight of its status as a pop culture mecca. With sold-out days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- a first for the Con -- and with more than 125,000 people in one confined place, getting from one event to another was never harder.

“When you walk around the hall, it smells like a fart a lot of the time,” observed first-time attendee Judd Apatow, director of the recent comedy hit “Knocked Up.” “Like just ‘cause you’re dressed as a storm trooper doesn’t mean you can fart at will.”

Lines were everywhere -- to meet artists, for swag, even to get a ticket to get in another line to get a wristband to get a poster. And it’s in those instances where anti-Hollywood sentiments crept up.

“Comic-Con used to be egalitarian, but it’s starting to favor the privileged,” said one high-level studio executive who declined to be identified. “I know I can bypass the geeks who drove from Kansas City and stood in line for hours.”

Part of the problem is the media’s over-coverage of the Con. More than 3,000 media registered for the event, with outlets from comic-book sites like Comic Book Resources to mainstream outlets like Entertainment Weekly sending teams of bloggers and reporters. MTV had three people dedicated to following “Watchmen” director Zach Snyder for one day.

While the organizers say that Hollywood isn’t taking over from a cubic feet standpoint, the studios have the marketing muscle that others don’t. Blocks before even reaching the convention, attendees were bombarded by free Hollywood giveaways such as “Dexter” stickers, “Halloween” posters and “Hellboy” patches.

“I may have a 10-by-10 booth and may do great business, but I don’t have the resources to advertise my presence at the show as, say, a top movie studio would,” said David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s director of marketing and publcity. “The perception is that Hollywood has taken over the event, but I would ask anybody to look at the guest list, look at the programs we have, and they would be very surprised at how comic-centric this really continues to be.”

At the end of the day, the Comic-Con experience remains a personal one, as attendees indulge in their inner geek.

“Sundance is like a museum, and this is like an amusement park,” said Michael Davis, director of “Shoot ‘Em Up.” “I like museums, but I prefer amusement parks.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter