The irony of the annual San Diego Comic-Con, where all of pop culture comes out in force to jam-pack a building nearly a half-mile long, is that in order to get the most enjoyment out of it, you have to suffer a bit. Want a good parking spot? Get there by 9 a.m. at the latest, following what was surely a late night at the previous evening’s programs. Need to eat? Sorry, no time — can’t afford to miss that Pineapple Express panel. Need to hit the restroom? You’d better hope the stranger next to you is kind enough to save your seat, or you’re gonna lose it.

Clay Enos. TM & (c) DC Comics

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Watch out for THE WATCHMEN, coming soon from Comic-Con to a theater near you

At least they have restrooms in the big presentation hall (a.k.a. Hall H) now. A few years ago, all the big movie panels were held upstairs in the San Diego Convention Center’s Ballroom 20, and if nature called, you had to leave the room, then get back in an endless line to re-enter. Even when everything was moved to Hall H, which does have restrooms, it took the Con a year or so to figure out that people were staying in there all day, and thus might be interested in buying food.

Still, if you have any hopes of getting into Hall H, you must get in line an hour early. If you hope to actually get good seats, well … for one morning panel devoted to the hit NBC series Heroes, fans began camping out the night before.

Once they are inside, however, the rewards are ample. Those media observers who view Comic-Con strictly as an oversold PR exercise either don’t get — or don’t care about — the emotional thrill that some of the event’s talent appearances clearly have for its target audience. Showing up unannounced, fresh from shooting his standalone Wolverine movie, Hugh Jackman took to the stage and told fans that “without you, I wouldn’t have a career!” before jumping down into the audience to shake the hand of Wolverine co-creator Len Wein. Sure, some stars may see Comic-Con as a junket-style obligation, but just as many are fans themselves: Seth Rogen did some shopping on the convention floor; Samuel L. Jackson discussed his large collection of Mace Windu action figures; and Dennis Miller was spotted — in an uncharacteristic T-shirt and shorts — at the Star Wars presentation. At the other end of the spectrum was Paris Hilton, promoting her forthcoming whacked-out horror musical Repo: The Genetic Opera. Rather than simply slip in and out the backdoor, as bigger names than her have done, Hilton decided to come and go via the main corridor upstairs, complete with mini-entourage and paparazzi, in turn, forcing everyone in attendance to remain seated until she’d left the building.

Comic-Con’s female attendance seemed a lot stronger this year, possibly due to the buzz surrounding the upcoming movie Twilight, based on a best-selling series of vampire novels aimed at the ladies. At times, it became difficult to hear anything that any good-looking male actor had to say — every word spoken by Keanu Reeves, Mark Wahlberg or Jared Padalecki was met with loud screams of joy from their admirers. Reeves, in particular, has at these presentations a sort of laid-back charm that has rarely come through in his movies; neither doofus nor Zen master, he just seems like a really good public speaker.

So what movies should genre fans be looking forward to? The big one is obviously 300 director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, based on the beloved 1986 comic “maxi-series” about past-their-prime superheroes who might be targeted for death. You saw the trailer before The Dark Knight; we saw a more R-rated version, with big blue Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) exploding his enemies from the inside, Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) about to be raped by the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the Comedian getting his face slashed with a broken bottle, the morphing inkblot mask of vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in action, and — in what Roger Corman has often called the cheapest special effect — Malin Akerman unzipping the front of her costume. It looks like the book, and, yes fans, Patrick Wilson did put on a bit of a gut to play the sexually frustrated Nite Owl II.

Frank Miller’s The Spirit (due at Christmas from Lionsgate) may be based on comics by his friend, the late Will Eisner, but from the looks of things, it’s Miller’s movie all the way, which is, Miller claims, as Eisner would have wanted it. Sexy, slutty women — check. Cartoonish violence — check. Computer-rendered backgrounds sparse on color — absolutely. Plus Samuel L. Jackson in a Nazi uniform (“See? In America, you can grow up to be anything you want to be,” the star quipped).

In the Michael Bay–produced Friday the 13th remake, Jason Voorhees can run. Will this be as controversial a move as James Gunn’s running zombies in the Dawn of the Dead remake? So far not, but stay tuned.

And what to make of Pixar’s upcoming Up, in which a cranky old man ties hundreds of balloons to his house in order to fly to Venezuela? I’d like to have sat in on that pitch meeting.

Ultimately, Comic-Con is all about the fans, many of whom don elaborate costumes (though, in perhaps another sign of our failing economy, not so many this year) to attend. Some of the best kept it simple, like the guy who walked around as a giant replica of his own MySpace page, or the various Heath Ledger Jokers who didn’t even try to re-create the scarred-cheek smile (but kudos to those who did, especially the one guy who also chose to be nurse-uniform Joker). Storm troopers, clone troopers and Boba Fett’s Mandalorian brethren always have a presence, but I suspect it’s a lot of the same guys every year.

Another continuing Comic-Con lure is its exclusive merchandise. At the low end of the price scale this year was a miniature Hellboy action figure for $10, while a $75 Battlestar Galactica toaster that imprints a Cylon Centurion on your bread sold out in the first 20 minutes. The best overall deal might just have been the $16.50 Star Wars figure set featuring Darth Vader and a giant holographic Emperor head; press a button, and the thing lights up and recites the entire dialogue between the Sith Lords as seen in The Empire Strikes Back (DVD edition, with Ian McDiarmid digitally replacing Clive Revill).

Biggest toy-related bummer? Mezco is doing action figures for The Spirit … and not one of them resembles Scarlett Johansson!

LA Weekly