Morgan Leigh Davies’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Recently, I slept on the ground for the first time in maybe ten years, and I didn’t do it in a campground in the middle of the wilderness but instead on a small strip of grass in-between a busy street and the San Diego Convention Center, under a fleece blanket with someone I had met around six hours before.
“Well, that moved fast,” she said, as we settled in for the night, peering down at the row of other nerds sleeping – or trying to sleep – packed into the small space like sardines. One or another of our large group had been in line since nine-thirty that morning, so we got to sleep on grass. Less dedicated – or, you might say, less insane – people, who had gotten there at any time in the day before nine PM, when the line was capped, mostly wound up on concrete.
When we finally stumbled into Hall H – the Convention Center’s largest venue, which according to the Convention Center’s website holds 6,700 people – the next morning, the staff waving us in cheered encouragingly, as though we had undergone some test of endurance. I suppose this is true, if you consider the number of stories that went around that day about people vomiting in line, or the fact that we were mostly getting by on protein bars and adrenaline. Still, the entire thing seemed surreal: we had, collectively, waited in line for a total of twenty-four hours in order to sit in a large dark room, watch movie trailers, and listen to famous people talk.
The day was characterized by varying states of delirium, extreme boredom, and intense discomfort. But we didn’t really care about any of that: we just needed to make it to 5:30, when the Marvel Studios panel – the biggest ticket event of the weekend and the real reason we had slept outside overnight in the middle of a major city – would start.
They were late. Everybody started getting restless. “We want Marvel, we want Marvel,” one of the sections at the back started chanting. The front of the room tried to do the wave. Finally, at 5:45, the lights dimmed, and all six thousand-plus people in the room started screaming so loudly you could practically feel the floor move.
“Gav this is so bonkers and it hasn’t even started yet I feel like I am in an actual cult situation,” I had tweeted at my friend only moments before.
“probably because you are in an actual cult situation,” she replied, which was true.
San Diego Comic-Con, which runs annually for four days on the last weekend of July, is the largest convention of any kind in the world. Though nobody except the organizers themselves seems to know the exact figure, upwards of 130,000 people attend, which I don’t believe includes talent, press, exhibitors, and staff. I’ve seen figures as high as 160,000.
A single-day pass to the con costs $45, or $30 if you want to go on Sunday, which is less busy since everything is winding down. Since you can no longer buy a pass for the whole weekend, attending for all four days would come to $165. For your money, you earn the privilege of having access to something called the exhibitor hall, where massive studios, publishers, and independent artists and vendors alike have booths where they sell merchandise, and also to panels and events put on by studios, publishers, and networks. To get into these panels, you have to wait in line for many hours, often overnight.
At these larger panels, most of which are designed to promote movies or TV shows, celebrities, directors, and producers talk about their work, and screen maybe three or four minutes of footage as an “exclusive” sneak peek. (This footage typically debuts online a day or two later.) Audience members get to ask questions for fifteen minutes or so, and then everybody leaves, the so-called talent to run the gauntlet of press, and the audience to go off to the next thing. There are panels for comics or video games that don’t require nearly as much time in line, and smaller panels run by independent attendees – journalists, academics, fans, and so on – that are not necessarily designed to make a profit, but everything else is, because Comic-Con, despite its claim of being a “celebration of the popular arts,” is at its core really about one thing: money. By buying a pass to Comic-Con you are essentially paying money to be marketed to (on top of the panels themselves, literally everything at Comic-Con, from the baggage claim at the airport to the interiors of the hotel elevators, is an ad) and to buy things.
This is, to put it mildly, weird. It is particularly weird if you are a woman, because if you are a woman – and as far as I could tell, around half of the people at Comic-Con were – most of the studios don’t seem to understand that you exist. Since people functionally exist as buying power at Comic-Con, the merchandise available becomes very telling. It was predictable, of course, that most of the movies being promoted in Hall H on Saturday were starring white men – depressing, but not exactly a massive shock. But it’s really remarkable that so many of the massive corporations that dominate the convention aren’t better at capitalism. As many people have said before, it really seems like they would rather not sell anything than sell things to girls.
To illustrate this point, us go back to Marvel, because Marvel movies – in particular, the Captain America movies – are the movies that my friends and I really care about, and the reason that I was there, aside from simple anthropological fascination. I wanted to spend money on Marvel stuff – and it is a really weird feeling, let me tell you, to be desperate to give a massive corporation more of your money, and then to discover there is no avenue by which you can do so. Marvel was selling three articles of clothing in a women’s size, only one of which was promoting anything any of their immensely popular movie and TV properties, from their merchandise booth. This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.
“Really,” my friend said, and, resigned, bought a water bottle and a mug instead.
In spite of my general internet proclivities, I never imagined I would wind up at Comic-Con, except in a professional capacity, and in fact I did wind up coming as press, sort of. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like lines, and I don’t like watching celebrities interact with fans. While I was tweeting in agony during the Q&A portion of the panel for the MTV show Teen Wolf, my friend Gav tweeted, “I can’t believe @MLDavies, a person whose worst enemy is audience Q&As, is voluntarily at Comic Con, queuing for audience Q&As.” The irony was indeed choice.
But because I went to do some writing, I got in for free, with my hotel room included (though this meant a night of sleeping on the floor, on top of the night on the ground). I was going to be in southern California anyway, and my curiosity got the better of me. I decided to just say yes to everything, including camping out overnight to watch celebrities talk and show movie trailers, because it was all part of The Experience.
There is no way to describe or explain with any level of accuracy the feeling in Hall H when the moment everybody had been waiting for for over a day finally came. Marvel started off their panel with a montage of footage from their previous films, and I’m glad I’ll never see it again, because although it was very well-done, it was only a montage. And yet, as it was happening, and my friends and I were screaming at the top of our lungs and clapping so hard our hands hurt, I experienced one of the weirdest, most intense feelings of euphoria I have ever felt in my life. If that sounds like hyperbole, I can assure you it isn’t. The whole situation – the sleep deprivation, the protein bars, the massive crowd – makes you temporarily insane, and of course the simple fact of the matter is that I love those movies. I wasn’t just annoyed about the merchandise situation for reasons of principle: I really fucking wanted a Captain America shirt, and couldn’t buy one.
But being a fan is a complicated endeavor, particularly being a fan of films made by Marvel, possibly the most dominant studio in Hollywood right now, and certainly the most fascinating from an outsider perspective. My euphoric high rapidly dissipated when studio head Kevin Feige brought out the creative team of the upcoming Ant-Man, which is a disaster too complicated to discuss at length here (suffice to say: most of the creative team, including writer-director Edgar Wright, has turned over in the past few months, and despite shooting starting in two weeks, they don’t seem to have a script), but nobody cared too much about that beyond a certain morbid fascination. After all, we were really there for the cast and footage of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which will be released next spring.
Our enthusiasm was revived when the actors starring in that film came onstage shortly after, ushered out one by one by resident bandleader Robert Downey Jr. Some of them seemed less enthusiastic than others, but they were all managing fine – that is, until Chris Evans walked out, hands in his pockets, rictus grin firmly in place, entire body radiating nervous energy.
“Oh, no,” my friend said in tones of abject horror. And all of the euphoria that had been running through me – all the joy, all the excitement – vanished entirely, just as quickly as it had come, leaving me almost off-balance. Its sudden absence was just as weird as the way it had suddenly burst forth in the first place.
I covered my mouth with my hands, but I didn’t stop staring. It was like watching a train wreck: you couldn’t look away.
Here is the thing about Marvel: they make pretty good movies. Some of them are very good, some of them are mediocre, and a few of them (ahem, Iron Man 2) are flat-out awful. None of them are great (STRONG DISSENT REGISTERED – Ed.) Kevin Feige, who as the head of the studio manages what is known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Marvel’s three major interlocking franchises that come together in the Avengers movies, and which is set to expand starting this week with Guardians of the Galaxy – is clearly some kind of mad genius. But there’s a strange sort of pall over the studio, too. They are, for instance, notoriously cheap. They also have a tendency to hire (inexpensive) directors who won’t mess with the studio’s very bland house style. (Wright, who has a very distinct way of doing things, quit Ant-Man – or, one might infer from the sequence of events, was encouraged to leave – after Disney, Marvel’s parent company, insisted that his script be rewritten substantially.)
Because of the nature of their creative project (long franchises that overlap with each other) they contract actors for a lot of movies – often, again, for not a lot of money. Their press tours are long and grueling – not unusual, these days, for movies like this – but they seem to be particularly regulated. Most of the actors have made weirdly similar jokes in interviews about Marvel snipers waiting to take them out if they say the wrong thing or give too much away, and while promoting Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Jimmy Fallon this past spring, Chris Evans explained his ridiculously vague description of the film by saying, “That’s what Marvel makes you do, you have to just dance around it!” He waved his hands around theatrically. “It’s good for the whole family. It’s happy and sad and good and bad!” Consequently, the studio is not exactly known for its high rate of actor satisfaction. (My friend Gav, mentioned above, did an excellent write-up of the rumbling among the ranks here.)
Evans seems to be particularly burdened by his lot. Even in promoting the first Captain America movie, he was grimly talking about the length of his contract with Marvel (six films, of which Age of Ultron will be the fourth) and discussing the fact that he had hired a therapist immediately after signing up for the gig. (Vulture recently compiled a timeline of his disillusionment with fame, which is bleak but illuminating reading.) By the time the sequel came out this spring, three years later, he had gotten to the point of saying, in a long and evidently regrettable feature article in Variety, that he wanted to quit acting altogether and direct films instead. (His debut feature, Before We Go, premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.) Almost immediately after the article ran, he gave an interview “clarifying” his remarks, a sequence of events that read disturbingly like a celebrity hurriedly apologizing after making a racist remark. “This was a big thing!” he says somewhat manically and definitely bitterly in the video clip. “I gotta watch what I say.”
Of all the inherent tensions of being a fan of Marvel’s movies, perhaps the greatest one is the knowledge that the people onscreen often do not want to be there, whether “there” means literally there on that day or “there” in the broader sense of the franchise. Acting, even the weird, hyper-truncated acting of an action film, is at least still acting: press is its own particular tedium, or nightmare, depending on your personality. Usually, though, as an audience member or fan you do not have the physical reality of that publicity machine staring you in the face.
And it is definitely a machine. At the Marvel panel at Comic-Con, each actor answered just one question. They had all been asked these questions many times before. If you were a person who was willing to sleep overnight on a small strip of grass in the middle of San Diego in order to attend the panel, it was very likely that you had already heard those same questions asked and answered in other interviews. The day’s other panels – even the behemoth Lord of the Rings panel earlier in the day – were much looser and more casual. You got the idea that if anybody stepped too far out of line they would be hurriedly escorted offstage, or perhaps tackled to the ground.
In a way it almost doesn’t make sense that watching all of this happen in person would be so much more disturbing in person: it’s not like I haven’t seen it before. Being a fan of a movie or TV show these days generally means seeing a lot of photos, videos, and/or gifs of actors engaged in the act of promoting that thing on the internet. A good part of my March and most of my April seem to have been spent staring compulsively at increasingly bleak gifsets of promotional interviews for Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Tumblr. It’s of course possible to consume this constant stream of content without thinking about it critically, but this is not how I generally do things. As Gav said to me recently in an email, “we are like sports commentators for marvel. two old men in a sports bar having a VERY involved discussion about the finer points of team management.”
I was, relatively speaking, close to the stage in Hall H, but I wasn’t that close, and it wasn’t like anybody up there could see me. There was no dialogue, no exchange. But it does make a difference to have somebody’s body in front of you. You can extrapolate a lot from photographs and interviews, but bodies speak very clearly, even from afar – and so, of course, does actual speech. It was quite clear that Jeremy Renner was barely even pretending to be enthusiastic. Paul Bettany was just waiting to go home. Mark Ruffalo, by contrast, did seem to actually be enjoying himself. I have no idea what on earth was going on with James Spader. And Chris Evans looked like there was literally nowhere in the world he would like less to be than sitting on that stage with over six thousand people screaming at the sight of his face. As my friend pointed out, he got easily the biggest roar from the audience of anyone in the cast, and he clearly wanted it the least. But that’s what happens to you when you get famous: your life doesn’t belong to you anymore.
A note about Chris Evans: he is from my town.
It is a very weird thing, to have a celebrity from your town, when your town is small, and boring. The likelihood that the two of you have some sort of minute connection is high, and the level of people’s interest in the celebrity in question is also high, because the town is small, and boring, and nothing ever happens, and nobody else interesting has ever been from there (except, in the case of Sudbury, Massachusetts, They Might Be Giants, improbably enough.) Chris Evans has said before that Sudbury is his favorite place, which makes me sad, both because – god, Sudbury, and also because if there is one place in the world that he is likely to get recognized literally everywhere he goes, that is it. He is a household name everywhere in America, now, not to mention a lot of other places across the world, but he was a household name in every home in Sudbury long before Captain America came along.
When I was in high school, some years after he had passed through, he was sort of laughably famous – C- or maybe B-list famous, Fantastic-Four-is-the-most-prominent-movie-I-have-ever-made kind of famous, I-once-made-a-movie-where-I-had-a-banana-in-my-ass kind of famous. Because we were teenagers we liked to snicker about him to very performatively show how much we didn’t care about him, except that of course we did, because he was famous, and he was from Sudbury. He had escaped, and we did not want to be actors, but we wanted desperately to escape, too: so, simply by virtue of existing, he was an encouraging symbol. Of course, he had escaped to making movies like Fantastic Four, which we viewed (as, apparently, he did as well) as a dubious kind of success, but still. That was better than nothing.
Here’s the thing about a famous person coming from your small town: even if you don’t know him, you probably know some vague trivial thing about him, and probably you do have a connection to him (maybe his sister, for instance, is your brother’s drama teacher), and you can never, never forget that he is a real person who at one point was just a kid who went to the same high school as you did and probably shopped at the same grocery store.
I never thought about this much before Captain America, because before then his fame was a silly kind of fame: but then Marvel made him famous, because they needed to, because that is how fame works. You don’t, despite what teenagers on Tumblr like to tell me angrily and often, “earn” it. It happens because somebody decides it should, and gets you on the cover of more than one major magazine in a single season, or through some other bizarre twist of fate over which you have essentially no control. It is arbitrary.
But people love to love famous people, and so do I: I have spent, now, a truly horrifying number of hours staring at those bleak gifsets of Chris Evans on press tour, and speculating about his psychological state, and watching incredibly, incredibly bad movies he starred in years ago in what can only be described as some kind of horrifically embarrassing additive behavior. (I do not recommend 2011’s Puncture, a film whose dialogue is comprised primarily of endless, unbearably boring discussions of hypodermic needles.) I have even progressed to the point of finding him outrageously attractive, which I never really used to, and which is an extremely uncomfortable state of affairs. I get indignant when people dismiss him as untalented, probably because I, like the rest of Tumblr, have by now watched every second of his performance in both Captain America films in gif form multiple times over. (Look at those microexpressions!)
And I do actually worry about him, to a degree that goes completely beyond logic or reason, because he seems deeply fucking sad all the time, and it seems to me to be the worst thing in the world to want to do something that badly and then to have your love for it slowly leeched out of you to the point where you don’t want to do it at all anymore. And while it wouldn’t be right, exactly, to say that this is fake – the feeling is certainly there – it isn’t quite real, either: I don’t know him. The idea I have of him is based on extremely imperfect knowledge, and I am certainly aware that getting overly invested in celebrities is really just an excuse – or, maybe, a vehicle – to feel things intensely.
But I do care, and I can also never not remember that he is a real person, who exists, and existed in exactly the same context that I did, and had my neighbor growing up for calculus his senior year of high school. And I have never been more disturbed or distressed by the circumstances of his life, or more aware that he is just a guy I’ve never met and don’t actually know, in spite of the strange confluence of our circumstances, than when I was standing in that enormous room watching him visibly struggle to keep himself together.
There is no way to reconcile these two things and no way to turn either of them off, and I don’t really want to – I’d like to maintain my sense of self-awareness, obviously, but talking endlessly about celebrities is pretty much my chief extracurricular pastime, so giving that up would sort of be a bummer, too. And it’s not like I’m not about to stop watching Marvel movies, either.
That, of course, is the whole paradox of being a fan of anything in the mainstream – that’s the whole paradox of Comic-Con, really, because in spite of its reputation, Comic-Con has become the pinnacle of mainstream culture. The geeks, as they say, have inherited the earth. And though there are a lot of troubling things going on at that convention, from the sheer corporate greed on display to the ambiguous position of women, short of rejecting mainstream culture entirely, you are sort of stuck in the system. Capitalism is shitty that way, and Comic-Con is the purest form of capitalism I have ever seen.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: Comic-Con is about capitalizing on people’s love for things and turning that love into a profit, but because the love doesn’t go away and is never going to we keep showing up, digitally or in the flesh, and the money just keeps flowing, and the actors keep struggling through their song and dance routines. In that room full of six thousand-plus people, everyone – the audience, the panelists, and the moderator – are all just cogs in a machine run by the people who control the purse strings. Everybody has a role, and everybody plays it, and that is simply how it is.
But when, at that Marvel panel, we were shown footage of Age of Ultron – which, predictably, looked amazing – and I, like everyone else, stood up to clap, I did so reluctantly. I didn’t want to have to do it in front of him; I didn’t want him to have to witness it – as though that, somehow, would make the weight of all our obsessive love less unbearable, as though it would be easier for him to keep us in the abstract, just like it is easier (though not necessarily better) for us to keep him two-dimensional, or as two-dimensional as possible. I waited a long time – maybe, I thought, some people would stay sitting. I don’t know why that seemed in any way significant – I was clapping either way – but it did. But everybody else stood up eventually, so I finally did, too. It didn’t really matter. There were over six thousand other people in there who were all already screaming. I wasn’t going to make much of a difference.
He took the longest to stand up of the cast, too. When he finally did, he glanced up at the now-empty screen, seemingly baffled, before turning to look out at the crowd, looking slightly cowed and probably also nauseated, as though he just couldn’t understand what on earth we could all possibly be so excited about.