A Comic-Con without Marvel, HBO gives others a chance to pop

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SAN DIEGO | Comic-Con fans know one thing to be true: Where there is fun, there’s usually a line that precedes it. And hours before the annual pop culture convention officially kicked off Wednesday night in San Diego, there were lines everywhere — to get onto the convention floor to buy merchandise at the stroke of 6 p.m., to have the life scared out of them at the DC Universe Swamp Thing “experience,” to gaze at pretty Laika characters, to get into a Hall H panel Thursday morning and even to take a photo with an Andrew Lincoln lookalike.

Over 130,000 pop culture devotees will come to San Diego’s Gaslamp District for the annual four-day comic book convention Comic-Con, the big, bright and very heavily branded confab of costumed superfans and the corporate sponsors vying for their attention — and dollars.

Interested in dining at a working replica of the “Demolition Man” Taco Bell for the movie’s 25th anniversary? Or witness a mock court-martial of Star Wars’ Poe Dameron for leading a mutiny in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”? How about a wine and beer tasting with Neil deGrasse Tyson? Or a “Ready Player One” experience with retro gaming stations and recreation of Room 237 from “The Shining”? If you like pop culture, it’s highly likely there is something tailor-made for you at Comic-Con 2018.

“I’m blown away by everyone, everything,” said first-time attendee Jeffrey Potts, of Los Angeles. “It’s like an amusement park in the middle of town.”

Right outside the convention center, across the train tracks, DC Universe has set up a massive space with props and costumes from various movies and tv shows in DC history, like the giant rubber ducky cart from “Batman Begins,” and some elaborately-staged “experiences” like a menacing Harley Quinn-themed escape room in a paint-splattered asylum.

What started as a 300-person event in 1970 has evolved into a massive operation with events year-round. But San Diego Comic-Con is the marquee occasion. Tickets for four-day access plus preview night can set attendees back $276, before hotel, travel costs, food and any souvenirs.

Loicia Ware, a San Diego resident who has been coming to Comic-Con for at least 10 years, likes to venture onto the convention center floor right when it opens Wednesday evening for preview night, heading straight for Artists Alley and Small Collections on the 460,000 square foot space. It allows her to focus on panels for the rest of the week.

As it has grown, attendees have come to expect a lot from Comic-Con, like exclusive merchandise on the convention center floor, newsy announcements from some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, and screenings of anticipated films and television shows.

This year Warner Bros. is coming armed with stars and footage from “Aquaman,” ”Shazam!,” ”Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “The LEGO Movie 2”; Sony is hyping its Spider-Man spinoff “Venom”; and Universal Pictures will be teasing “Halloween” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass.” On the television side, fans will get a glimpse of new “Doctor Who” star Jodie Whittaker and have a chance to check out “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Riverdale.” And streaming services like Netflix and Hulu will be back with properties like Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and the new J.J. Abrams-produced “Castle Rock,” based on Stephen King stories.

But a few of the major players are conspicuously absent from Hall H, the 6,500-seat room in the San Diego Convention Center that boasts the highest-profile presentations and attracts an enthusiastic fan base willing to camp out overnight in line to secure a coveted seat — as of mid-day Wednesday there were at least 300 people already in line for panels that don’t begin until Thursday morning. Those skipping this year include Marvel Studios, HBO (“Game of Thrones”) and Star Wars.

“It’s a huge deal when major properties like Marvel, Star Wars or HBO don’t show up,” says Germain Lussier, an entertainment reporter for io9/Gizmodo who has been attending the convention for 15 years. “For the past decade, Marvel Studios panels have consistently been the No. 1 most anticipated thing for movie fans at Comic-Con. Their panels never failed to disappoint with exclusive footage, huge news and big surprises.”

Production schedules are more to blame than anything else, however. Lussier notes that each of the absent brands has a big (and intensely secretive) installment coming in 2019, including “Avengers 4,” ”Star Wars: Episode IX” and the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

“Instead of showing up and disappointing fans, they’re simply bowing out to not bolster expectations,” he says.

Also, other brands and properties could benefit from an unusually open runway.

“Every year, there’s always one or two things everyone is talking about. And if it’s not ‘Avengers 4’or ‘Star Wars,’ what’s it going to be?” says Lussier. “I think this is a huge opportunity for Warner Bros. to steal every headline with major news and exciting footage.”

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr