SAN DIEGO—While the TV world is concentrated in Pasadena for the Television Critics Association Press Tour, the worlds of comics, video games, toys and movies (and just a bit of TV) are mobilizing down in San Diego for the 37th Comic-Con International, running from Thursday, July 20 through Sunday, July 23.
Zap2it took the short drive down the 405 to the 5 to get the latest scoop on some of the most exciting films that will be hitting theaters over the next year. Check back for updates on the clips, the director interviews and all of the impressively geeky questions. From "Spider-Man 3" to "Snakes on a Plane" to a new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie," we'll be updating often.
Saturday, July 22
Venom Spooks 'Spider-Man 3' Fans
Guess what, "Spider-Man" fans? The big villain in the next webslinging movie is Venom, who will be played by Topher Grace.
That's not actually much of a surprise, given that "Spider-Man 3" star Kirsten Dunst spilled the beans on the subject back last September. But Saturday's Comic-Con event was the first time director Sam Raimi and the other filmmakers were willing to admit that the fan favorite baddie -- an alien symbiote who inhabits a disgruntled and suicidal journalist named Eddie Brock -- would be on the big screen next summer.
The presented footage only offers a glimpse of Venom at its very end, but those one or two seconds revealed a dark and toothy looking creature very much like the comic depiction. Much of what was screened sticks to the material from the fantastic teaser trailer, though some rough effects shots of Thomas Hayden Church's Sandman and of the dark direction for James Franco's Harry Osborn seem promising. It's enough for another standing ovation, as is the arrival of stars Tobey Maguire, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dunst, Grace and Church.
The new cast members are particularly excited, as Grace puts it, "I want to see the movie more than all of you combined."
Church is quick to add that this isn't much of a stretch for him because "Weirdly, in 'Sideways,' I was also made of sand.
Although fans shout and cheer and beg for a second viewing of the clips, the panel ends with a standard question -- What super powers would you most like to have.
Howard, up first answers, "Teleportation -- to go to the grocery store."
Maguire chimes in with "I'd like to fly. And to be invincible. That'd be fun. And to live eternally as well. And have X-ray vision."
Church mugs, "I would wreak havoc with corn and I would be known as the Corn Cob Goblin." [His answer refers to confusion as to whether Franco's dark turn might make him the second Green Goblin or the Hobgoblin.]
Dunst closes things with, "I'd want the power to create as many wishes as I want."
Welcome Johnny Blaze (No, Not Method Man)
"This feels good to be here with people like myself, who love comic books," says Nicolas Cage.
Comic-Con crowds love that kind of stuff.
Cage continues, "We've had enough of the Supermans and Spider-Mans and we're here to kick some ass."
Well, actually, the huge main-stage convention crowd is really at the panel for "Ghost Rider," because the film is being released next spring by Sony, the same studio that's dropping "Spider-Man 3" in May.
The "Ghost Rider" footage presented to the faithful is somewhat encouraging, given how slow the buzz for the comic adaptation has been. Cage is obviously having a ball as Johnny Blaze, motorcyclist and vigilante, whose deal with the Devil (Peter Fonda, naturally) leaves him riding his bike with a flaming skull for a head. The transformation imagery is fantastic, but the fire effects -- the alleged reason for the lengthy delays on "Ghost Rider" -- still don't look nature. The tone, which director Mark Steven Johnson compares to "An American Werewolf in London," is muddled and comes across mostly as "loud." The audience cheers a loudly, but not for long.
The film's stars are eager to offer reasons to see the movie, both high culture ("These characters, in an almost Jungian way, get us through our lives," Cage says) and low ("It's actually a really beautiful, bittersweet love story").
Will 'Grindhouse' Be Amputee Porn?
Fans loved the clips from "300." That was great stuff. But the "300" clips didn't bring the entire auditorium into a standing ovation. The five or 10 minutes from Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" certainly did. To say the footage had everything a fan could hope for assumes a very specific type of fan, but we were able to spy Rose McGowan as a stripper, Danny Trejo as a badass named Machette ("He gets the women and he kills the bad guys"), Tom Savini as a nervous cop and, given enough time, Rose McGowan as an amputee who jams a machine gun where her leg used to be and, balanced on her other knee, opens fire on a gang of zombies.
I'll let that last image sink in.
"If there are amputee fetishists out there, I think this movie's for them," McGowan says before being assured by fellow panelist Quentin Tarantino that there are, indeed, amputee fetishists.
The Rodriguez footage was washed out and flawed to emulate the grindhouse movies that used to travel city to city, playing in double-bills often in the skuzziest of theaters. This collaboration is a dream come true for Rodriguez and Tarantino, who has been known to hold screening nights at his home to showcase movies of this kind.
"We want the whole world to have a night at Quentin's house," Rodriguez tells the crowd.
Rodriguez has nearly finished "Planet Terror," while Tarantino begins work on "Deathproof" in a month.
Some highlights of the panel:
Warner Bros. Has a '300' Hitter
There have been several panels this week for which audience demand has forced a repeat screening of a clip or trailer. The Warner Brothers graphic novel adaptation "300" is the first to mandate three viewings and the fans in the audience probably could have watched it for the rest of the morning.
Frank Miller's book reenacts, in often-horrifying detail, the Battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) led only 300 Spartans against the massive Persian army. Directed by Zach Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead") in a variation on the green screen technique used on "Sin City," "300" looks to capture every bloody nuance of Miller's book. The five minutes presented to the squealing Comic-Con faithful features severed heads, marauding rhinos, ample nudity and more realistically depicted carnage than most mainstream viewers are likely to stand for. Set largely to a Nine Inch Nails composition, the exclusive teaser is bracing and cinematic.
Snyder's edict, "Let's not f*** it up Hollywood-style" may actually be fulfilled.
Given the beloved source material and the obvious technical challenges of the production, the Q&A after the clips is a horrible disappointment as one female audience member after another takes to the mic to ask Butler and co-star David Wenham about their pre-production workouts, their favorite colors (no joke) and other pieces of Tiger Beat minutiae.
Miller, rarely to suffer fools, is forced into heckler mode.
"I really worked my little buttocks off," Butler says.
Audible whoops are heard throughout the auditorium.
"Your buttocks just got a cheer," Miller says with scorn.
Later, as Butler complains about the difficulties of wearing his Spartan cape, Miller cuts in.
"Spoken like a real Spartan," he cracks.
Playing along, Butler whines, "But it hurt!"
Fortunately, the third and final screening of the clip came after all of the banalities and left viewers able to leave on a positive note.
Friday, July 21
Snakes on a Mutha******n* Stage
With the mainstream media suddenly recognizing the existence of "Snakes on a Plane" in recent months, much has been written on the Internet that the film's buzz may have peaked too soon. If that's the case, the malaise and ennui are not reflected in the wildly enthusiastic fanatics filling the hall to capacity and yelling "Bring on 'Snakes'" through New Line's attempt to stir up excitement for the DVD release of "Final Destination 3."
Moderated by Keenan Thompson, the panel is a crazed affair, including a prolonged standing ovation for Samuel L. Jackson, making his first Comic-Con appearance.
In addition to Jackson, Ellis and half-hearted MC Keenan Thompson, Sylvester is back, but Frank is nowhere to be seen. Clearly, a tiny Honduran milk snake can't compete with an assortment of pythons, ranging between eight and 12 feet. Biggest of all is the 19-foot anaconda, a critter that requires Sylvester, his assistant and a pair of New Line publicists (looking either embarrassed or terrified) to all take a few feet.
The "Snakes" handlers appreciate the fans.
"Believe me, without you, we wouldn't be here right now," Jackson announces. "You are the s***."
The crowd agrees. We are the s***. We feel even more certain of that after a video tribute to the fan posters, songs and trailers that helped create the buzz for what should have just been a late-summer creature feature.
"I hope that people in studios are looking and paying attention and trying to figure out how and why this took place," Jackson says.
Jackson, wearing a "Snakes" shirt and necklace along with a "Snakes"-enhanced Kangol, is in fine form, swearing up a storm and greeting even the most absurd of questions with good humor and enthusiasm. When one fan asks him if the snakes deserve to die, Jackson doesn't think twice.
"Yes they deserve to die. AND I HOPE THEY BURN IN HELL."
The crowd roars.
The audience is also pleased with the 10 minutes of footage which suggest that "Snakes" may be every bit as bad and good as we've been hoping. We're treated to Jackson battling snakes with a taser, harpoon and a makeshift blowtorch. We see snakes biting people on the face, rear and everywhere in-between. There's an anaconda falling from the ceiling and several shots in SnakeVision. There's also laughter when Jackson and a co-star exchange quiet, sensitive dialogue.
"Star Wars," Nothing But... "Star Wars"
Say this for rabid "Star Wars" fans ... They have no fear whatsoever about being thought of as stereotypes. Some 7,000 fans pack into the main Comic-Con meeting hall to listen to Lucasfilm Fan Relations Guru Steve Stansweet doing his standard "Star Wars Is Forever" extended commercial. And what kind of session is it? Well, the disembodied announcer has to begin by asking people in the crowd to turn their lightsabers off to avoid distractions. And a legion of stormtroopers walk the aisles passing out "Han Shot First" buttons to celebrate the DVD release of the original trilogy.
What revelations were unveiled from On High (wherever astral plane George Lucas currently inhabits)?
With so much happening in the Lucasfilms universe, it boggles my mind that there are still no plans to make the "'Star Wars' Holiday Special" widely available. What's up with that, George?
"Children of Men:" A Movie That Actually Looks Good
The string of clips for Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" look phenomenal. After showing the somber trailer, Cuaron tells moderator Guillermo del Toro ("I am not Alfonso Cuaron, but they needed a Mexican fluffer," the "Hellboy" director cracks), "The trailer has more cuts than the film."
It sounds like he's just saying that the trailer is more quickly edited than his film, but the extended scenes for the movie suggest that long, hand-held takes may be the project's trademark. In one take that Cuaron says runs 10 minutes, the hero played by Clive Owen dodges bullets, explosions and crazed street thugs while running between destroyed buildings in 2027 London, a dazzling shot that confirms the director's pitch, which he says was "Let's do 'Battle of Algiers' in 2027."
The footage offers hope that "Children of Men" will be less bombastic than "V for Vendetta," but every bit as potent a mixture of political commentary and sci-fi excitement. We also see Charlie Hunnam looking crazed with dreadlocks and Michael Caine as an aging hippy ("I'll have to see his filmography, but I think it's the first time he farts on screen," Cuaron guesses).
Optimus Prime Directive
Perhaps sensing that the "Stardust" panel is making the comic fans happy -- they worship Neil Gaiman the way Xixo worshiped the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" -- but lacking in that newsworthy "Wow!" factor, Paramount sends producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura out with a special message from Michael Bay about "Transformers."
Oooh... Is he going to apologize for the awful teaser trailer or for forcing websites to pull on-set images whenever they appear? Is he going to show some footage with actual transforming of some sort?
Nope. Dressed in a "Transformers" t-shirt (rocking a Go-Bots outfit would have been far more ironic, hip and detached), he mentions a casting announcement and then the video cuts out. After some awkward gag involving a getting somebody on a cell phone and then trying to get an audio feed, out comes a voice.
"People of Comic-Con. I have a message. Our planet was destroyed by the ravages of war, a war waged between the legions that create chaos and those of us who follow freedom. All of you here must join me in this fight for freedom next July 4. I am Optimus Prime."
The big reveal is that Peter Cullen, voice of Optimus Prime in the cartoon, will take the same role in Bay's film.
The fanboys have been temporarily placated.
Having seen six clips from Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' "Stardust," I'm prepared to venture a guess -- I can't speculate on its substance, but its style is sure to be impressive. The clips presented to fans showcase Michelle Pfeiffer as a fierce witch, Robert DeNiro as a fearsome pirate and Ricky Gervais as a stuttering merchant. There are charging unicorns, spirited sword fights and swelling love story, lots of American actors boasting British accents and enough fairy tale whimsy to teach M. Night Shyamalan a lesson or two.
While Vaughn wasn't able to make it ("He's currently back in England shooting green screen stuff and worrying," Gaiman says), the two creators seem optimistic.
"One thing I like best about this is it doesn't look like I imaged," Gaiman notes. "It looks cooler."
"My brain was dead when I got to the set, but it immediately came back to life when I saw the visualizations," Vess says.
My other favorite quote from the panel involves Gaiman's assessment of Dakota Fanning, who will play the lead role in the upcoming adaptation of "Corraline."
He observes, "I think she's going to be a great little stop-motion Corraline."
Indeed. Fanning is quite lifelike.
Joel Silver Co-Invented Ultimate Frisbee
Super-producer Joel Silver is at Comic-Con to talk about his upcoming spiritual horror movie "The Reaping," starring Hilary Swank. His appearance has nothing to do with ultimate Frisbee, nor with these three movies, projects in development that we journalists are contractually obligated to ask about whenever we see him.
To recap: The Wachowskis are going to do something. Someday. Something mysterious. Stay tuned. Joss Whedon keeps trying to write "Wonder Woman." At some point we'll get concerned. Not yet. And Silver's convinced that Singer's got another "Superman" movie in him. Is Warner Brothers convinced?
Snakes on my Tape Recorder
The stars of New Line's not-so-drowsy late summer sleeper "Snakes on a Plane" are all on hand on Friday morning to talk about their word-of-mouth sensation. Full stories about star Samuel L. Jackson and director David Ellis will run closer to the movie's August 18 release, but for this morning, the true star is Frank.
Frank is a small, thin slithering "Snakes" co-star and for purposes of the junket, he's wrapping his way around Jules Sylvester's arm and sticking his tongue out in the direction of several tape recorders.
"This is a Honduran milk snake," Sylvester says. "Today is name is Frank. He doesn't answer to his name, so you can call him anything you want."
Sylvester is being called the snake trainer for "Snakes on a Plane," a film that utilized more than 450 of his snakes.
"I like to say I'm a snake trainer, but I can't," he admits. "I'd be lying to you. I'm a snake handler. Snakes don't do any training whatsoever. They go from light to dark. They go up and down and they hold still or the don't. That's pretty much it."
For now, Frank looks very well trained, or at the very least, he looks unlikely to attack, which is probably good enough.
"Right now, he's at a very optimum temperature," Sylvester says of his friend, who also appears in the movie. "Room temperature's very good. It's a little cool. I'm warm. He's just fine right where he is."
Then again, maybe Frank can just see the stack of cooler boxes in the corner and knows he's replaceable.
"He's nice and calm. I've got another six over there. We've got all day to go through and we'll use them up one at a time."
Thursday, July 20
The Latest on Doug Jones as the Silver Surfer
From surfing penguins to the Silver Surfer ...
Rumors have been swirling for the better part of a week that Doug Jones -- probably best known for embodying Abe Sapien in Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy" -- is in line to play the Silver Surfer in the upcoming "Fantastic Four" sequel.
Sharing a "Pan's Labyrinth" panel with del Toro on Thursday, Jones has to wait a while before the Silver Surfer question is directly addressed, giving a careful and obviously prepared answer.
"OK. I will make this as brief and as legal as I possibly can -- No comment," he says. "I'm so sorry. It's like taking porn away from a teenager. But I can address one thing for sure and that's that I will not be wearing any green-screen leotards or doing motion capture in any film coming up soon that I know of. However, no comment."
"Let me ask you a question. Do you like the color of this shirt on me?"
Jones is wearing a shiny shirt that could most certainly be categorized as silver, or otherwise metallic.
"I'm liking this color on me and I hope to wear more of this color soon. I've been shopping for outfits and I did find one that I really like. But right now I don't own it yet, because they're still approving my credit card. But let me make a pledge to you right now and that would be that if my credit card does get approved and the purchase is finalized on this new outfit of mine, that I hope to have... Legally, legal. I pledge to you right now that I will take very, very good care of that outfit."
The non-answer earns an extended ovation.
Taking Del Toro By the Horns
Conventioneers know better than to ever skip a Kevin Smith lecture because you never know what the "Jersey Girl" helmer might say next. Savvy conventioneers, though, know to have the same expectations of Guillermo del Toro, on hand to chat about "Pan's Labyrinth."
Of the Spanish-language Cannes favorite, del Toro says, "I hope that this is the beginning -- as with dogs -- of when my balls drop."
I think he means that the imaginative film -- think "MirrorMask" meets "Alice in Wonderland" meets del Toro's "Devil's Backbone" -- is an audacious step for a director still best known for "Blade 2" and "Hellboy."
Prone to profanities and lewd references, del Toro is a fan favorite and the adoration is mutual.
"To me, I am first a fan and then a filmmaker and this means not only that I am fat -- which you have to be... If you care for your body, you are not paying attention to your comics -- but I love this s*** and I really wanted to introduce it to you."
Del Toro tantalizes attendees with news of "Hellboy 2" ("We have to find new financing and with that comes a cartload of politics," he says, though he calls Mike Mignola's screenplay "beautiful") and his adaptation of Lovecraft's "Mountains of Madness" ("If you saw the maquettes and designs, you would cry and then jack off in a corner," he tells one over-eager questioner).
His lewd advice to aspiring filmmakers is, "It's a sperm race. It's a sperm race and there's only one... egg. And you know, if you give up, you're going to end up in the Fallopian Tubes."
The First Rule of 'Saw III' Is...
Nobody talks about "Saw III." Or at least that's the first rule of the "Saw III" panel on Thursday at Comic-Con, which means it's really less of a "Saw III" panel and more of a "Gush embarrassingly about your love for the first two "Saw" films affair. Fortunately, fans are willing, eager and shameless about going in that direction, from the questioner who admits to seeing "Saw" 10 times (but seems unable to understand a major plot point) to an even more enthusiastic fan who attempts to reunite Tobin "Jigsaw" Bell with his bloody boxers from the original.
Because of the bias against "Saw III" talk, offered details are minimal.
"It's my kind of story -- unexpected and hilarious and full of hope," says Shawnee Smith with more than a hint of sarcasm.
"It makes 'Saw II' look like a Disney film," argues returning helmer Darren Lynn Bousman.
That makes says, since Bousman told me back in a February interview that "I guarantee you the next thing I'm doing is going to make 'Saw' look like a Disney film."
Those who might be disappointed by the absence of spoilers are placated by a four-minute rough clip, likely the film's trademark pre-credit torture sequence. All that needs be said is that it involves many chains, painfully pierced body parts, a bomb and more sadism than I find necessary, which means that it delivers exactly what fans will be craving.
It sure looks better than the clip for "Skinwalkers," a Lionsgate horror effort that producer Stan Winston promises will be the definitive werewolf film. He swears it will be the genre's best since the early-80s double-bill of "An American Werewolf in London" and "The Howling." Is that why Lionsgate's clip of choice is lycanthrope free? Is there anything lamer than selling a werewolf movie with bad actors delivering bad dialogue out of context?
Then again, Lionsgate does begin its session with a montage celebrating its horror legacy from "The Ninth Gate" to "See No Evil." In that light, does the new Lionsgate tagline "Where screams come true and the worst is yet to come" serve as a promise, or a threat?
'Turtle' Soup: Heroes On a Half Shell Return
When most mainstream viewers think of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," we think of Vanilla Ice, Corey Feldman in a turtle suit and a very ill-fated trip back in time to ancient Japan. At Comic-Con, though, people remember the early comic books, a darkly rendered action series with a complicated mythology. Perhaps that's why no film presented on Thursday gets a reception that can compete with Kevin Munroe's "TMNT," a computer animated "Turtles" movie that Munroe describes as a "rebirth" for the franchise, set chronologically somewhere soon after the second live-action "Turtles" movies (but vaguely acknowledging parts of the third).
Comic-Con fans were the first audience to see the brief trailer -- a fast-paced teaser emphasizing the athletic turtles, tightly packed urban landscape and just a little low humor -- but only barely. It's up on Apple now. The response was rapturous, with one devotee gushing, "You have no idea how long people have been waiting for another 'Ninja Turtles' movie."
That's true. I have no idea.
That's the beauty of a convention like this. The second the trailer ends, dozens of fans rush out of the room, no doubt ready to instantly blog their approval. Stupid bloggers. They missed a number of revelations.
Those pesky bloggers also missed five minutes of unfinished footage, conceptual drawings and models. I'm not necessarily a fan, but this stuff looks wicked cool.
Penguin Fever: Catch It ... CATCH IT!!!
Have movie studios dramatically over-estimated the enduring appeal of penguins in wake of the "March of the Penguins" box office? While Bob Saget's "Farce of the Penguins" isn't being presented at Comic-Con, Thursday afternoon saw both Sony and Warner Bros. present dueling computer animated flicks about plucky misunderstood penguins.
Receiving the most hype thus far is the Warner Bros. comedy "Happy Feet," which has the advantage of bigger vocal talent -- Elijah Wood plus more of Robin Williams' patented ethnical caricatures -- and an obviously higher budget. The studio presented the trailer and several additional scenes which confirm an early suspicion -- penguins dancing to popular music are invariably cute, but will there enough story to carry an entire movie? Oh who cares? Cute dancing penguins!!!!
Sony's "Surf's Up," about a penguin who yearns to surf, actually looked far superior, at least in the early scenes screened for audiences. The computer animation obviously isn't on the same level as "Happy Feet," but the project appears to be shot in a mockumentary/behind-the-music structure that may help it live up to producer Chris Jenkins' contention that "It's not just another penguin surfing movie, it's not just another animated movie." Then again, none of the clips showed the character allegedly voiced by Jon Heder, who has the ability to single-handedly turn me off of any film at this point.
Enough About 'Flyboys' ... Bring on the 'Stargate' Sequels
There's a hilarious story to be told about my exploding tire in the carpool lane on the 405, but the only important thing is that I made it to the day's first movie's session which was, naturally enough, for World War I film "Flyboys," which made an appearance because of producer Dean Devlin.
"This convention in particular and sci-fi conventions in general have been incredibly supportive of my films," the "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" producer tells the somewhat bewildered crowd.
In addition to screening two different versions of the trailer -- one rousingly nostalgic and the other exhaustingly action-heavy -- the "Flyboys" panel included one of several dogfight scenes in the movie, a well-executed sequence that seemed to showcase top-of-the-line effects as well as a resolutely old-fashioned sensibility.
But enough about that. The Q&A very quickly turned to how much people love Dean Devlin, particularly that "Stargate" thing. Apparently, Devlin also still pines for the movie that was supposed to be the beginning of a trilogy, but has instead spawned an unkillable SciFi Channel franchise. The "Who Killed the Electric Car?" producer mentioned that under his new deal with MGM, he's hoping to get moving on a "Stargate" sequel in the near future. He said that the sequel would pick up where the first film ended, rather than messing with the entrenched "Stargate: SG:1" mythology.
"I don't think it will step on its toes," Devlin says.