Hollywood stars shook hands and offered sneak peeks in San Diego last week at the huge fan fest. Here's an inside look at all the geeky glory. The sights! The sounds! The smells!

Imagine the ultimate all-star sci-fi/fantasy mash-up epic, where Iron Man forms a power alliance with Superman. Where the heroes of Star Wars team up with Harry Potter, the Ghostbusters, and Gandalf — all of them leading an army of friendly zombies, robots, monsters, and aliens. Their mission: snag a seat inside the jam-packed convention center for Comic-Con 2012.

From July 12 to 15, more than 125,000 fans — so many in costume, it puts Halloween to shame — descended on San Diego to attend the sold-out annual gathering, which began in 1970 as a weekend-long hangout for a few hundred comic-book aficionados and has evolved into the single most important showcase for Hollywood’s biggest (and most expensive) projects.

For several years now, Comic-Con has been mandatory for any film or TV show hoping to capture the attention of fantasy lovers. Not only is the world’s entertainment press there to document every panel and preview, but that’s amplified by the social-media savvy of Comic-Con-goers, who aren’t shy about tweeting, Facebooking, and Tumblring their love — or hate.

Honoring Comic-Con fans for past support can be as important as impressing them with new titles. Joss Whedon’s sci-fi Western Firefly lasted only one season on Fox in 2002 and spawned an underperforming Universal feature film in 2005, but its cult of admirers continues to grow, and the creator and his cast reunited at Comic-Con this year to thank them for their loyalty. (See star Nathan Fillion’s exclusive Comic-Con diary on page 32.) And Marvel Studios opened this year’s presentation in the 6,500-seat Hall H with a reel of footage from its previous earthshaking moments there, which included assembling the Avengers cast in 2010, nearly a year before shooting began. ”We put that piece together because I thought it would do a better job than I could at thanking this crowd, and this hall, and this audience, for everything that’s happened to Marvel Studios in the last five years!” production president Kevin Feige said, warming up the crowd before revealing details on the Thor and Captain America sequels, and their upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man movies. From there, Marvel moved on to Iron Man 3 (out May 3), presenting images of Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, an alien-ring-powered terrorist. This movie will return the focus to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (which is right where both guys like it), so don’t expect much crossover from his Avengers superfriends, who have gone their separate ways. Except for Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. ”If you remember at the end of Avengers, he jumped into the car with Tony,” Feige said, teasing the cheering crowd before adding: ”And Tony dropped him off at the Port Authority.”

But that’s not all that got the geek hive buzzing. —Anthony Breznican

The Twilight Farewell Tour

The gaggle of fans who packed the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 panel screamed just a little bit louder when they learned — via a pretaped introduction from director Bill Condon — that they’d be seeing the first seven minutes of the new film (out Nov. 16), which features the long-awaited reveal of Bella (Kristen Stewart) as a ferocious vampire. ”It felt so good,” Stewart told the crowd of going vamp. ”They made me wait for it. It was like Christmas.” The cast — including Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner — plus Twilight author Stephenie Meyer gathered for the franchise’s last Comic-Con appearance, making the tone a tad bittersweet as they begin their goodbye press tour. Pattinson lightened the mood, however, when asked what advice Breaking Dawn Edward would give Twilight Edward. His answer? ”Keep it in your pants.” —Sara Vilkomerson

Tarantino, Unchained

Quentin Tarantino headed up the panel on his vengeance Western, Django Unchained (out Dec. 25). Most of his cast was there too, including Jamie Foxx, who plays the eponymous gunslinging freed slave, and Kerry Washington, who stars as his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (she was originally owned by Germans). The movie is guaranteed a place in film history, Tarantino quipped. ”Broomhilda von Shaft and Django will eventually have a baby, and that baby will have a baby, and that baby will have a baby…and one of these days, John Shaft will be born!” he said, referring to the 1971 blaxploitation classic. ”They’re the great-great-great-great-grandparents of ‘Shut yo’ mouth!”’ —Anthony Breznican

All Hail The Hobbit

Director Peter Jackson previewed more than 12 minutes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (out Dec. 14), including a fateful encounter between Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis). The crowd lapped it up, but Jackson elected not to show the footage in 3-D or at 48 frames per second, after a screening using the high-tech formats did not go over well at CinemaCon in April. ”Screening in a convention center — it’s not a real cinema,” Jackson explained to EW. ”I just wanted to make sure that the focus was on the content, the story, and the performances.” —Adam B. Vary

Sobbing for Superman

There was no better proof of the power of Comic-Con than the moment during the Man of Steel panel when a grown man stepped to the mic to ask a question of director Zack Snyder and star Henry Cavill with tears streaming down his face. Unfortunately, his query — who will be the main villain? — went unanswered by Snyder, even though many reports peg the Big Bad to be General Zod. Instead, Snyder and Cavill preferred to talk about Superman, and the film’s attempt to make the mythic superhero more relatable, instead of, as Snyder put it, ”this kind of big blue Boy Scout.” The director also weighed in on an eternal fanboy debate when asked who would win in a fight, Snyder’s Superman or Christopher Nolan’s Batman? ”I love Batman,” said Snyder (whose movie, out June 14, happens to be produced by Nolan). ”Batman’s awesome. But…really?” —Adam B. Vary

Sexy Vampire Talk

The Vampire Diaries has some of the most passionate fans in TV, so when the microphone handlers tried to cut off one admirer’s question during the Q&A portion of their panel in Ballroom 20, the cast and creative team were not happy about it. ”This is why we flew here, and this is why they lined up and waited,” Ian Somerhalder told the mic god. It didn’t happen again. Luckily, the rest of the panel was drama-free and produced some juicy scoop on next season (premiering Oct. 11). Among the best? When Paul Wesley said Elena’s new vampire form could result in some steamy vampire-on-vampire sex, ”which lasts half a second” — a reference to their superhuman speed on the show — and went on to imitate it. —Sandra Gonzalez

Zombie Mania

The second season of The Walking Dead shattered basic-cable viewership records even as it tested fans’ patience with interminable subplots. But the last few episodes of AMC’s zombie-apocalypse drama built up serious momentum that carried into its Comic-Con panel, where Danai Gurira and David Morrissey were introduced. (They’re joining the cast as Michonne and the Governor, two fan favorites from the comics.) Attendees also got to see an action-heavy trailer featuring the highly anticipated return of Michael Rooker’s bat-crap-crazy Merle Dixon. As fate and happy cross-promotion would have it, the landmark hundredth issue of the Dead comic went on sale July 11, leading to a number of tie-in events — including an elaborate undead obstacle course that ran across several floors of San Diego’s Petco Park. —Darren Franich

Butt-Kicking Beauties

Who was the toughest actress on EW’s Women Who Kick Ass panel? It’s so hard to pick between Kristin Kreuk (Beauty and the Beast), Nikki Reed (Breaking Dawn), Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead), Anna Torv (Fringe), Kristin Bauer van Straten (True Blood), and Lucy Lawless (Spartacus). But extra points must be awarded to Lawless, who spoke openly about being arrested in February for protesting aboard an oil-drilling ship in New Zealand. She has admitted to trespassing, and with her sentencing coming up on Sept. 12, she said: ”I am guilty…of trying to save the environment!” —Sandra Gonzalez

Fringe‘s Big-Screen Dreams

Here’s hoping a lot more observers check out Fox’s Fringe this season: John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop) told fans that should the drama’s final 13 episodes do well in the ratings, ”I would think a film is very possible down the track.” That elicited some serious screams from the fedora-wearing crowd (freebies courtesy of Warner Bros. TV). Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop) felt like he had to temper expectations, though. ”Of course, it will be shot on this, in our trailer,” he said, while gesturing to his Flip cam. The drama’s fifth and final season begins Sept. 28. —Lynette Rice

The Con’s Biggest Surprises

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis paid an unannounced visit to Hall H to plug The Campaign, and the extended trailer for the Aug. 10 comedy played like gangbusters. Afterward, the duo kept the audience in stitches. ”San Diego is a fictionalized city,” deadpanned Ferrell about Comic-Con’s (and Anchorman‘s) setting. ”At least, I thought it was.” The biggest bombshell of the Con, though, was Legendary Pictures’ announcement that it was mounting a reboot of the venerable monster-movie franchise Godzilla. The shocker came complete with a test reel filled with astonishing shots of devastation and a chilling first look at the fire-breathing giant lizard — think a towering snapping turtle, but scarier. ”We’re going to take it seriously,” said director Gareth Edwards. His only other feature-directing credit is the well-received, little-seen 2010 indie Monsters, so he appeared understandably overwhelmed by the brief footage’s raucous reception. ”I’ve never worked this hard, this long, and been this emotionally invested in something that’s lasted a few seconds since the time I lost my virginity.” —Adam B. Vary

EW’s Comic-Con Party

San Diego: July 14

Stars from Game of Thrones, Fringe, and The Hunger Games flocked to EW’s sixth annual Comic-Con bash sponsored by Just Dance 4 and held at Float at the Hard Rock Hotel. Everyone agreed the convention’s fan experience was incredible. ”We were signing autographs, and I looked up, and there’s Belle and Snow White,” said Once Upon a Time‘s Emilie de Ravin. ”I’m like, ‘This is never going to happen again.”’