Get 'em to the geeks! Stars flocked to the annual San Diego gathering — and worked harder than ever to reward faithful fans

By EW Staff
Updated July 29, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Going into Comic-Con last week, the buzz was that the annual pop culture Mardi Gras had lost its freaky fizz. After all, several of Hollywood’s most monumental in-production geek properties — including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Hobbit, and Man of Steel — had chosen to keep their stars at home (or at work) instead of shipping them to San Diego to shake clawed hands, sign Slave Leia cheeks, and kiss grown men in Batman costumes. And yet Comic-Con 2011 was the most jam-packed ever, remarkable for more aggressive, personal efforts to generate word of mouth. The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Andrew Garfield stood in the crowd and gave a stirring testimonial about his own Spider-Man fandom. The Twilight cast served breakfast to fans who had camped out overnight for their panel. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Olivia Wilde came to town for an unprecedented glitzy red-carpet premiere for Cowboys & Aliens. ”Everyone was ready to give Comic-Con its last rites,” director Jon Favreau tells EW. ”But Steven Spielberg came for the first time. Francis Ford Coppola came. Peter Jackson flew in and surprised people. And there was just more originality given to presenting material and connecting with fans than just waving from a stage and throwing out T-shirts.”

TV shows dominated the confab this year. According to Comic-Con’s website, the events ranked ”most popular” by registered attendees focused on, in order, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, and Game of Thrones. (Only six movie-related panels ranked in the top 30.) Glee exec producer Brad Falchuk used his panel to announce that stars Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, and Cory Monteith might not be leaving the series at the end of next season, though their high school characters will be graduating. The cast of Chuck — heading into their last season — used their panel to say goodbye. Fringe, meanwhile, screened a spoof video that had Zachary Quinto, Michael Emerson, Jorge Garcia, and more auditioning to replace star Joshua Jackson. (”We wanted to give fans an experience that’s not typical,” says exec producer J.H. Wyman, ”something they can go home and say, ‘That was unexpected and awesome.”’) The video was immediately made available on the Web — an example of how Comic-Con has become a made-for-cyberspace event, ideally suited to generating bits and bites of news and neat nonsense for a trending, streaming culture. Says Favreau: ”The big winner of Comic-Con 2011 was the fans. Hollywood worked harder to whip up dishes that could satisfy them.”—Jeff Jensen

It’s a Snow White Smackdown
Charlize Theron did everything but break a magic mirror over Kristen Stewart‘s head. The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Huntsman wasted no time starting a rivalry with her fairest-of-them-all costar during their preview for the movie, which starts shooting this week and is out June 1, 2012. ”I’m ready for it, b—- ,” Theron told her. ”Let’s go.” (To be clear: The war of words was more playful than hostile.) The first pictures of Stewart’s Snow White revealed her to be more Joan of Arc than ballroom belle, sporting a full suit of armor. Sounds like she’s going to need it. —Anthony Breznican

Steven Spielberg Makes His Comic-Con Debut
The fans who packed into Hall H for a sneak peek at The Adventures of Tintin (in theaters Dec. 23) were already thrilled at the prospect of seeing the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, in his first-ever Comic-Con appearance. But when fellow geek icon Peter Jackson, who’s producing the performance-capture CGI adaptation of the Hergé comic-book series, made a surprise appearance on the stage, the place erupted with the sound of 6,000 nerd minds being blown. ”Working with Steven has been amazing,” Jackson said, deadpanning, ”If he decides to stick with filmmaking, I think he could really go places.” —Josh Rottenberg

Spidey Weaves His Web
While several studios steered clear of Comic-Con this year, Sony went all out to build buzz for its 2012 summer tentpole The Amazing Spider-Man, showing several minutes of early footage. Whatever cynicism the crowd may have had about the reboot dissolved in the face of the unabashed enthusiasm of its new Spider-Man. ”I needed Spidey in my life when I was a kid,” said Andrew Garfield, who showed up in a store-bought costume. ”This is definitely the coolest moment of my life.” —JR

Game of Thrones‘ Warm Welcome
No new footage, no problem! It just wrapped its first season, but HBO’s Game of Thrones received a roaring reception usually reserved for Comic-Con Hall of Famers. Fans lined up early in the morning to get a look at the cast, many of whom were unknowns this time last year. Jason Momoa (also promoting his Conan the Barbarian reboot) stole the show when asked whether his Thrones king Drogo or the big-screen bruiser would win in a fight. ”Between you and me, Drogo would kick Conan’s ass,” he insisted. —James Hibberd

Welcome Back, Buffy!
Some projects never get old to the Comic-Con crowd, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of them. Though it’s been eight years since she kicked butt on the show, Sarah Michelle Gellar was treated like a true geek goddess while promoting her CW drama, Ringer (debuting Sept. 13). ”When you have a show like Buffy that was so perfect, you’re not looking to top it,” she said. ”I wanted to come back and do a show that the fans would love.” —Lynette Rice

Walking Dead Gets Even Darker
What would The Walking Dead exec producer Robert Kirkman do if there were a zombie apocalypse? ”I would kill myself,” he told fans matter-of-factly. ”People [come up to me] like, ‘I’d go hole up in my school.’… No, you wouldn’t. You’d be somebody’s pet, [because] the whole world turns into prison.” And that sunny forecast should give you an idea of the desperate struggle for survival at the center of the second season of the AMC hit (premiering Oct. 16). Kirkman & Co. unveiled a new trailer, which has our heroes ditching Atlanta and heading into the wilderness for the most intense forest scenes we’ve seen since Lost. ”First season, nobody knew what was coming,” he said. ”There’s an expectation now. We’re taking that seriously and really trying to deliver.” —JH

Steven Soderbergh (Jokingly) Slams Matt Damon
Steven Soderbergh says talk of his impending retirement is greatly exaggerated — and he blames Matt Damon. ”I had this drunken conversation with him in Chicago shooting Contagion,” the director told the crowd during a presentation for his revenge thriller Haywire (out Jan. 20). Damon then mentioned their chat to a reporter and it got ”blown out of proportion.” (Soderbergh has multiple projects still in the works, but has acknowledged he is looking for an extended break.) His take-home lesson: ”Matt Damon is about as discreet as a 14-year-old girl.” —AB

Starz Unveils New Spartacus
When a fan asked Starz’ new Spartacus, Liam McIntyre, to deliver the famous ”I’m Spartacus!” roar, the Aussie actor smartly urged his Comic-Con audience to join him in the battle cry. It was indicative of the sensitive skill McIntyre has displayed as he takes the reins from the show’s original hero, Andy Whitfield, who had to step down from the role due to his fight with cancer. (Spartacus: Vengeance premieres in January.) ”Everyone can agree Andy was amazing,” McIntyre told the crowd. ”The best thing I can do is…honor that legacy [by] trying to make season 2 as amazingly exciting as season 1.” —JH

Shrieks for Skarsgård
Good thing there weren’t any windows inside the room housing the True Blood panel: Squealing fans of Alexander Skarsgård (Eric) would have shattered them all. Though hot cast members like Stephen Moyer (Bill) and Ryan Kwanten (Jason) generated their fair share of adoration, Skarsgård’s appearance brought down the house. (He skipped last year’s convention, so fans had plenty of pent-up praise.) Also cause for celebration? EP Alan Ball‘s comments about the life expectancy of the show (now in its fourth season). ”The show [still] has a tremendous amount of life,” he said. ”I hope it becomes a problem for us in the writers’ room to explain why the vampires seem to be aging.” —LR

Visionaries Unite for EW Panel
Filmmakers Jon Favreau and Guillermo del Toro are two of Comic-Con’s conquering heroes: Favreau (on hand this year to promote Cowboys & Aliens) famously started a tidal wave of buzz for Iron Man at the 2007 convention, while del Toro has long been a fanboy favorite for films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Taking the stage for EW’s Visionaries panel, though, the two sounded like fanboys themselves, riffing on their shared passion for Walt Disney, their love of oldfangled special effects, and other geek pleasures. Del Toro, at Comic-Con to sow early seeds of excitement for his monster movie Pacific Rim, shared a sentiment close to many a fan’s heart: ”I’m a weird, strange, fat motherf—er, and I plan to stay that way.” —JR

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