The Year the Walls Came Down at Comic-Con
Every year, Saturday at Comic-Con International’s renowned Hall H begins the same: with the opening of the screens. The enormous black curtains that festoon the room slide aside, revealing panels that flicker on to delight the 6,000 (or so) people gathered in the hall. What follows is a parade of images from Warner Bros. iconic franchises: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the DC Comics superheroes, maybe a few kaiju. It’s typically the most electrifying moment of the whole convention, and a big part of why people sleep outside in tents the night before, hoping to get in.
This year was no different. The curtains opened, the reel played, moderator Aisha Tyler took the stage, and then, poof! Eddie Redmayne. Armed with a wand, the star of the forthcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald made a few dramatic gestures. The audience, who’d been given light-up bracelets straight out of the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour, began to raise their illuminated wrists. "Guys, I can’t tell you; there’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking into this room," Redmayne said. "It's sort of raved about, people think it’s incredibly special." He was right about that. It’s part of the step-and-repeat of Comic-Con to comment on the vibration in Hall H. But this year, the frequency was different.
Hall H is more than an audio-visual thunder dome; it's a bubble, a zone of sequestered contentment where fans can forget their obligations and simply enjoy the culture they love. The upside of this is that the grand community of nerds has a place to gather and celebrate; the downside is that being shut away from reality, while always difficult, is now officially impossible.
This became evident about 17 minutes in the panel when a fan in the audience asked the cast of Crimes of Grindelwald what they would do if "you could use your magic in the real world for good." Without missing a beat, Zoë Kravitz (Leta Lestrange) said "Um, impeach Trump?" The crowd erupted in applause. Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone) followed that by saying, "Destroy the patriarchy. Just imagine—it would suddenly be such a fallout!" Much like the politics of the President Trump era have invaded television and film and every other medium, they’ve now reached the halls of Comic-Con. Moreover, as my colleague Brian Raftery pointed out earlier this weekend, awareness of the outside world has entered the windowless rooms of the San Diego Convention Center—and it may never leave.
Frankly, that’s a good thing.
When Johnny Depp showed up in character (he plays Grindelwald) but not as part of the question-taking panel, there was little question as to why; his recent troubles have been widely reported. When fans ask Gal Gadot what it’s like to play Wonder Woman, it’s understood that the question is really about being a female superhero in a world with so few female superheroes. When Aisha Tyler took the stage, no one wondered why Chris Hardwick—typically the emcee of Hall H—was missing; it was common knowledge weeks earlier that he’d been pulled from the convention after a former girlfriend wrote a Medium post alleging abusive behavior. (Hardwick has acknowledged, but denied, the allegations.)
But that’s not the only way reality has permeated Hall H. This year, HBO, purveyor of Game of Thrones and Westworld, and Disney, the house behind Marvel and Lucasfilm, both bowed out, leaving noticeable holes in Comic-Con’s programming lineup—holes that let the air out of the room, turning Hall H into a metaphor for the entirety of the con. Every surprisingly vacant seat, every overheard conversation that ended in "…they’re not here this year" is a reminder of years past, when Tom Hiddleston may come out in costume as Loki and demand an audience "say my name" or J.J. Abrams could show up and invite everyone outside for a free concert of John Williams scores.
For years, a popular refrain at Comic-Con was that Hollywood had invaded, turning a convention for comics fans into a spectacle of polished teen stars and tentpole movies. Walking around San Diego this year, past the streetlamp banners still hyping Avengers: Infinity War, it’s getting harder not to think the reverse is happening now. Perhaps those stalwart fans, the ones who still call it “San Diego,” are getting their convention back; maybe the comics dealers who have pulled out will return. Maybe Comic-Con is in the process of changing for good.
That phrase is interesting: “for good.” Colloquially, it means “permanently” or “never going back.” But literally, it means “for the better.” Comic-Con is changing. Again. Reality—about the world pop culture lives in and how it interfaces with it, about the toxicity often present in fandom—is setting in. It’ll be a rough transition, but it’s for the best.