Late Saturday afternoon at San Diego Comic-Con, thousands of fans, packed inside a cavernous ballroom, roared to life as the cast for one of the biggest shows to appear at this year’s annual fan convention stepped onto the stage. It was, in fact, one of the only times a cast of actors appeared at SDCC this year. And it wasn’t for a superhero movie or TV show or any massive franchise backed by a major studio.
Instead, it was for “Critical Role,” the popular, long-running webseries that started as a group of voice actors getting together to play Dungeons & Dragons.
“A question for the audience: anyone who’s doing cosplay, will you please stand up so we can see it?” asked star Liam O’Brien from the stage. Half the crowd — many of whom were dressed as characters from the show — leapt to their feet.
“You look beautiful San Diego!” exclaimed Travis Willingham, marveling at their handiwork.
For the first time in decades, San Diego Comic-Con held its annual fan convention without any major stars or blockbuster panels for Marvel or DC. With actors joining the writers on the picket lines, several panels (Legendary’s “Dune: Part Two,” AMC’s “Interview With the Vampire,” Prime Video’s “The Boys” spin-off “Gen V”) were canceled outright, and Hall H, the 6,500-person mainstage, often sat empty during the convention, which ran July 19 to 23. Many panels for franchises that did appear — like the “Star Trek” and “The Walking Dead” TV shows and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” movie — relied heavily on exclusive footage to keep attendees entertained.
At the last minute, William Shatner withdrew from the Hall H panel for the upcoming documentary about him “in solidarity with his striking brethren,” according to the SDCC announcement. The tiny handful of stars who showed up did so on the fringes: Both Jamie Lee Curtis and Patton Oswalt came to promote their new comics.
“I’m kind of having a moment!” Curtis exclaimed when she spotted two cosplayers in the audience dressed as Deidre Beaubeirdre, her character from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for which she won an Oscar for best supporting actress.
Another attendee took a 20-hour flight from the Philippines to tell Curtis that “True Lies” is his favorite movie. “Thank you very much, I appreciate it,” Curtis replied warmly. “Welcome to San Diego.”
The vibes, in other words, were deeply chill — and, at least anecdotally, many people seemed to prefer it that way.
“One of the things I liked about this Comic-Con is because it reminds me of the older conventions from 20 years ago,” said Mike Ryan, showrunner of the upcoming interactive animated series “Ghosts of Ruin,” which debuted a first look in Hall H. Before Hollywood inundated SDCC, he said, the convention was “really about the fan community coming together out of love and passion for comics and storytelling and animation and characters and the beautiful, lovely obsessions we all have with this work.”
“You can see it this year really clearly,” he added.
Indeed, freed from waiting in line overnight to see A-listers, attendees — whose numbers were expected to exceed 130,000 — were able to explore less well-trod territory and turn back to the convention’s comic book roots. These were the major highlights of this year’s SDCC.
Indian Cinema and Video Games Make Hall H Debut
Hyped in advance with the codename “Project K,” the sci-fi epic “Kalki 2898-AD” became the first Indian film to appear at SDCC, with writer-director Nag Ashwin joined by all-star cast Prabhas, Kamal Haasan and Amitabh Bachchan (via Zoom) on stage. The filmmaker told Variety it was “a dream” to bring his movie to Hall H.
“It was an opportunity to bring our stories to the kind of audience that would appreciate these kinds of stories, because they’re used to and exposed to so many different cultures,” he said. “So we just thought, ‘Yeah, let’s have the Indian culture also represented here.’”
That said, Ashwin was hesitant to talk much about the movie itself, which is set to premiere in 2024 and has already grown infamous as one of most expensive Indian productions ever. Even the customary debut of a teaser trailer for the film during the panel, which played to some of the biggest cheers of the week, made Ashwin nervous.
“We don’t want to reveal too much,” he said with a smile. “We’re not used to revealing content so ahead of the release, so we’re just tiptoeing around because, whatever we released in today’s video, we feel is already a lot.”
Similarly, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” for the Sony PlayStation 5 was the first video game ever to appear in Hall H.
“To all you video game players, if this is your first time in here, I’m glad to have you,” Comic-Con international director of programming Eddie Ibrahim said as he introduced the panel. “I hope we can do more panels for video gamers in the future.”
Insomniac Games showcased a new story trailer, which teased Kraven the Hunter’s descent into New York and the return of Mister Negative, while actor Yuri Lowenthal, who voices Peter Parker, recreated Tobey Maguire’s iconic dance from the 2007 movie “Spider-Man 3.” Fans ate it up.
Labor Strikes Make a Splash
At the start of the “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” panel, Lowenthal made a point to express support for the striking actors and writers.
“We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters and everybody in the WGA and SAG,” he said. “We are able to be here because we’re under a different contract for games, but that might not last forever. We’re happy to be here, but we do support everything that’s going on.”
It was one of many shout-outs the writers and actors strikes received during the convention. Filmmaker Gareth Edwards — present to talk about his upcoming AI thriller “The Creator” during a Directors on Directors panel in Hall H with “The Haunted Mansion” director Justin Simien and “Fast X” director Louis Leterrier — also halted the conversation for a moment to speak to the strike. “We all stand with the writers and actors,” Edwards said. “We’re contractually obliged to promote our movies.”
On July 21, supporters put on an hour-long demonstration just outside the convention center in San Diego’s Gaslamp District. About 40 actors — including a Captain America cosplayer and a man dressed as the “Moana” character Maui — hoisted their black-and-yellow picket signs and passed out leaflets in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA, the WGA and IATSE.
SAG-AFTRA executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, meanwhile, attended a panel about the immediate perils AI poses to the voice actor community. Without referring to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” by name, Crabtree-Ireland likened the issue to “a story of a small mermaid and sea witch that literally steals that mermaid’s voice.”
Studios Make Out With Activations
While big studios largely sat out major panels, many maintained a robust presence outside the convention center with fan activations. Some experiences racked up wait times of more than four hours.
Hulu’s “Animayhem” took fans inside several animated series available on the streamer, from the Planet Express building of “Futurama” to the restaurant counter from “Bob’s Burgers.”
Universal’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of “Jurassic Park” dropped attendees onto Isla Nublar, where park “employees” guided them through iconic scenes from the film — including that T-Rex toilet attack.
Brands like BoxLunch, which hosted a Treat Truck offering ice cream and merchandise giveaways, drew queues that stretched more than a quarter mile in the blazing sun.
Comic Book Creators Make Out Like Bandits
Perhaps the most unexpected beneficiaries of this year’s muted Comic-Con were comic book creators themselves. Ted Abenheim, president of the LGBTQ comics advocacy organization Prism, said that SDCC moved the group’s panels into larger rooms for 2023 — and they were “standing room only.”
“I was very pleased to see the turnout,” he said.
Several independent publishers told Variety that they’d also seen a noticeable increase in the number of people coming to the sprawling showroom floor.
“It’s the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Eric Dean Seaton, a prolific TV director (“The Flash,” “Grown-ish”) who also publishes his sword and sorcery comic book series “Legend of the Mantamaji.” Compared to the SDCC of previous years, Seaton estimated he sold four to five times the number of comics this year — he sold out completely by Friday.
“People will spend all day in Hall H — they’d only get one day on the floor,” he says of previous years. “Without those long stretches either in the room or waiting in line, they have time to shop.”