In an Emotional Comic-Con Return, Marvel Showed Fans Its Future | Analysis

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Marvel Studios’ Saturday night Hall H presentation at San Diego Comic-Con is always the hottest ticket of the weekend – and at the first real Comic-Con since 2019, the premiere superhero studio delivered.

That was not so surprising. But what was surprising was how Marvel delivered: by creating an unexpectedly emotional presentation, by stepping back to acknowledge how much the world has changed in the last three years, building excitement for what was to come and acknowledging just how much these movies really mean to the fans. This year’s panel culminated not with hype about future plans or a shocking announcement, but with the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” cast huddled around writer/director Ryan Coogler, quietly sobbing after debuting the film’s emotional first trailer on stage while fans were wiping away tears of their own.

Here’s how the emotional rollercoaster played out, from inside the room:

Relief

Even the most ardent Marvel Studios fans can admit that Phase 4, the latest grouping of their film and television series, has been uneven at best and calamitous at worst. Previously, Marvel had used the “phase” distinction to indicate a group of films that were linked on a narrative level and would culminate in a big crossover free-for-all. The first phase, for example, started with “Iron Man” in 2008 and ended with “The Avengers” in 2012. Back then the Marvel Studios blueprint seemed foolhardy and potentially disastrous, but the success of the carefully diagrammed first “phase” emboldened Marvel Studios and new corporate overlords the Walt Disney Company to continue.

Phase 3 ended with two films: “Avengers: Endgame,” which became one of the most successful movies of all time and was the true culmination of more than a decade of expertly orchestrated superhero adventures, and, a few weeks later, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which pointed in the direction of hope and happiness, for at least some of the surviving characters.

But since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded greatly, mostly due to the demands of Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming platform Disney+. And the movies and shows, while almost always entertaining, have sometimes been confusing and oftentimes feel aimless. It’s easy, after more than 10 years of directional, interconnected storytelling, to wonder: Where is this thing going?

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You could tell that Marvel Studios President and producer Kevin Feige could feel this energy. “What’s fun to do here is to talk a little bit about the future,” Feige said cheekily. At the top of the studio’s Hall H presentation, he laid out the groundwork for the end of Phase 4 (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and the Disney+ series “She Hulk: Attorney at Law”) and most of Phase 5 (plenty of sequels to preexisting properties, concluding with in a villainous team-up movie, kind of the Dark Side “Avengers,” called “Thunderbolts”). Later on, he even divulged some of Phase 6, which will include a new “Fantastic Four” movie and two new “Avengers” movies, released six months apart. Phases 4, 5 and 6 now had a distinction – they are “The Multiverse Saga.” What was muddy instantly became clear. A path had been forged and named.

The clarification was helpful, like being so-so on a band’s new album but hearing the band play those new songs alongside old classics and realizing that maybe the new stuff is an essential part of their discography. Maybe Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will still feel like a one-off in a few years (like Marvel Studios’ haunted house movie), but there is now a possibility that it will feel foundational to this next batch of projects.

Anticipation

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Paul Rudd and Jonathan Majors teasing “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” at Comic-Con 2022 (Getty Images)

Was anyone looking forward to a third “Ant-Man” movie? Even those gathered in Hall H would probably be hard pressed to drum up excitement for the next installment in a saga that has, so far, mostly been about shrinking things or making them bigger (to hilarious effect, obviously). Well, after Saturday night, everybody who saw the footage from the new movie, due out next year and officially kicking off Phase 5, was definitely jazzed.

The new movie, called “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” sees Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly, who was noticeably not wearing the “vaccinated” wristband that the rest of us had on all weekend) and the rest of the gang (including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfieffer, and newcomer Kathryn Newton) sucked into the Quantum Realm. They have to deal with one of the upcoming Big Bads, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) and run into Bill Murray and comics favorite M.O.D.O.K. It looks darker and more intense, with actual stakes. At one point, Ant-Man appears bloody and bruised. When he tells Kang (who was introduced in the Disney+ series “Loki” and can slip around through time) that he’s an Avenger, Kang shoots back: “You’re an Avenger? Haven’t I killed you before?”

And the “Ant-Man 3” footage set a tone that would be repeated throughout the evening: projects that maybe had been written off or didn’t have much buzz (like “Secret Invasion,” which looks like a ‘70s paranoid thriller, as filtered through a cosmic Marvel lens) generated a lot of interest. “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” which had been ridiculed on social media for iffy looking visual effects, showed a trailer that played like gangbusters. Tatiana Maslany, who plays She-Hulk, summed up the character’s innate appeal: “She-Hulk is not trying to be a superhero, which is fun.” Indeed it is.

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Sadness

The other fascinating aspect to the Marvel Studios presentation at this year’s Comic-Con was its emotionality. The presentation began with a sizzle reel. But this wasn’t one of those usual sizzles, trumpeting the successes of the company. This one had a more somber tone. It was still hopeful, but it acknowledged what a trial the past few years have been and how lucky we were to be together now. Again, it did much to cement the otherwise adrift Phase 4 movies as worthy canon: the makeshift family from “Black Widow” coming together in a group hug elicited sniffles, the hopeful climax of “Thor: Love and Thunder,” where Thor gives a group of children the power of the gods, a smattering of triumphant applause. It was strange to be so moved so early. But it was good. This was how it was going to go down.

After that initial sizzle, the first real lump-in-your-throat moment came from a collection of footage from “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” (out next summer). The footage was beautiful and several scenes of a young Rocket being experimented on drew impassioned “awws.” When the footage was over, though, writer/director James Gunn — who was briefly fired off the film after right wing trolls dug up inappropriate old tweets — introduced the cast, who looked visibly upset. When asked questions, they sometimes stumbled, searching for the right words. “I was so moved to see the images,” Pom Klementieff, who plays Mantis, said.

Then Sean Gunn, who has been a part of the franchise from the first film as Rocket’s motion-capture performer (and also plays Kraglin) and who is James’ brother, spoke and had to occasionally pause to hold back tears. “The most rewarding part of it has been working with my brother. That is the honest-to-God truth. But it expands over the course of three movies and it’s come to a point where it’s not just the joy of working with him but the joy of working with these other people,” Gunn said. “We were legitimately choked up backstage watching what we did. And it’s because we care. It extends to all of us. It is the most beautiful thing to work on something creatively where your colleagues are all on the same page – to make something beautiful that people will respond to. I can’t ever ask for anything more in my career and it’s been absolutely wonderful.”

As they were about to shuffle off the stage, James Gunn then directly addressed the crowd. This was his first Comic-Con in six years, after briefly “defecting” to Warner Bros. and DC where he made last year’s “The Suicide Squad.” “You guys have been so supportive and lovely,” he said. “I love you all.”

But that was just the preamble for what would be the big event: the unveiling of the trailer for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

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The cast of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and writer/director Ryan Coogler at Comic-Con 2022 (Getty Images)

After an incredible musical performance that saw African artists weave through the Comic-Con crowd, co-writer/director Ryan Coogler came out on stage. He told a story about how, for the first “Black Panther” showcase at Comic-Con, Chadwick Boseman sat next to him and squeezed his shoulders. When he got more excited, he squeezed harder. Apparently he had legendarily large hands. By the end of that trailer, he couldn’t lift his arm. “I promise you I can feel his hand on me now,” Coogler said, in his usual softspoken way. “Chad is no longer with us physically, but his genius and the impact he made on this industry will be felt forever.”

The cast shared stories about making the movie and how much it meant to them, with newcomer Michaela Coel recounting how she saw the original film in various places around the world. “For me it’s really special. It reminds me of what an honor it was to support this cast,” Coel said. “To be a supporting role to a very sensitive and beautiful and delicate process.” Winston Duke said it was an honor to be with his “chosen family.” And Tenoch Huerta, who plays the film’s villain Namor, made a powerful speech about inclusion. “I want to say something about inclusion. I come from the hood. Thanks to inclusion, I’m here. A lot of kids out there in their hoods, looking at us, dreaming to be here. And they are going to make it. They’re going to make it,” Huerta said. He then said a second part, in Spanish. No matter what you spoke, you were moved.

But what was really remarkable was what happened after the trailer first played. During the trailer, of course, you could hear the audience audibly sobbing or choking back tears. It’s a unique piece of marketing, a work of art in and of itself. And when the house lights came back on, instead of addressing the audience, the cast members of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” huddled with Coogler, hugged each other and cried. For two minutes. No one said a word, no one tried to intervene, the crowd just applauded, wiping away tears, moved by what they had just seen and what they were witnessing on stage. It was a truly unforgettable moment. At a place defined by razzle dazzle and in service of the super-heroic, it was a quietly human moment that brought the house down.

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