SAN DIEGO — With great power comes great responsibility, and maybe that’s why Andrew Garfield’s expression alternated between somber and seasick an hour before he faced the spotlight glare of Comic-Con International.
“We all know how big a deal this is,” said the 27-year-old British-bred actor who will wear the mask in “The Amazing Spider-Man” next summer as Sony Pictures tries to reboot the franchise that has earned close to $2.5 billion at the box office. “We don’t need to talk about it. We know what is at stake. We know the fans are everything.”
That’s the potential burn — and signature sizzle — of Comic-Con, the annual four-day San Diego pop culture expo that concluded Sunday. Dating back four decades, the event has grown from its scruffy comic-book swap meet beginnings into an extravaganza attracting 120,000 people, and Hollywood has come to view the event as the world’s single biggest megaphone to promote the visual-effects movies that pay studio bills.
When Garfield finally faced fans in Hall H, the 6,500-seat room in the San Diego Convention Center where Sony was previewing footage from the film, he won over the crowd by standing in their ranks to deliver an emotional speech while wearing an endearingly low-rent Spidey costume.
“I wouldn’t be able to stand here if it wasn’t for Spider-Man. I’m living out every skinny boy’s fantasy of being stronger. We all wished we had the courage to stand up for ourselves, for the people we loved,” said Garfield, perhaps best known to moviegoers from his role in “The Social Network.” “This is the coolest moment of my life.”
That was one of the firecracker moments at this year’s event. Although there were notable absences — Disney and Warner Bros., for instance, did not host panels in Hall H, and neither did Marvel, the studio behind the current releases “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” and that last year created a stir when it brought out the ensemble cast of its 2012 film “The Avengers.”
But there were big names. Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and a demi-god to fantasy fans, flew in from New Zealand, where he is working on filming “The Hobbit.” He was there to support Steven Spielberg in promoting their collaboration “The Adventures of Tintin,” which will arrive in U.S. theaters in December. (Spielberg directed, and Jackson produced.)
It was Spielberg’s first visit to Comic-Con, but he recognized its DNA from afar. “I feel I am one of these fans,” he said off-stage. “All the filmmakers you see at this event are people you would have seen in the crowd too (in their earlier years).”
Passions can become professions in the realms of comics, science fiction and fantasy at the heart of Comic-Con, a fact proved by speakers such as Guillermo del Toro (director of “Pan’s Labyrinth”), Joss Whedon (writer-director of “The Avengers”), seven-time Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker and Jon Favreau (director of “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2”).
“It’s a circle, the past to the present to the future,” Favreau said Saturday after his latest project, “Cowboys & Aliens” premiered in San Diego, the first major-studio world premiere tied into the convention. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who appear in the film, were at the premiere, with 1,200 of the 2,600 fans getting free tickets.
Comic-Con diehards may have noted with a whiff of nostalgia that the premiere was staged at the San Diego Civic Theatre, less than a block from the U.S. Grant Hotel, the stolid old fortress that 41 years ago hosted the first San Diego Comic-Con in its basement. Nowadays, actual comic books are like a small island at the gathering, nearly swallowed in a sea of film, television, toy and video game products.
Even as the heroes of comic books fly higher than ever in film and video games, there is unease in the publishing business with the digital era posing new threats and circulation woes. Although rare old comic books can still sell for thousands of dollars, merchants fret about the limping new-issue marketplace, and creators see their convention shifting away from them.
“It’s really, really quiet this year,” said Mike Mignola, creator of “Hellboy,” a big name who was looking out on a small Sunday crowd in the off-to-the-side area for comics artists to sell original work and autographs.
Over in Hall H and the larger ballrooms, however, it was relentlessly loud. Fans cheered slivers of news and reveals from favorites like the “Twilight” film franchise as well as from TV shows like the long-running British sci-fi cult favorite “Doctor Who,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” and (somewhat oddly) Fox’s “Glee.”
There was less mania but more intrigue around certain original projects. Director Ridley Scott, for instance, beamed in from a movie set in Iceland to pitch the audience on his first sci-fi film in three decades, “Prometheus,” which he said shares “the DNA” of his horror classic “Alien.”
There were auteurs in the house as well: Steven Soderbergh came to tout a mixed martial arts film called “Haywire,” Tarsem Singh discussed his Greek gods epic “Immortals” and even Francis Ford Coppola talked up his horror film “Twixt.”
Cutting through all the noise is a challenge, and getting noticed at Comic-Con is an art unto itself. This year, the wheels of bicycle taxis here were covered with spinning “Captain America” shields while a massive Batman scowled from the side of a local hotel. Heads turned too whenever a big-rig promoting “The Walking Dead” looped through downtown with bloodied limbs jutting from its rear door.
The bazaar of the bizarre puts celebrities within reach in a way no other event does — who expected Hugh Jackman to show up unannounced Thursday at a local parking lot to hand out T-shirts for his upcoming movie “Real Steel”?
But the fans also come looking to share the spotlight. As a portly Superman with Black Fly sunglasses bellowed from a Saturday morning sidewalk, “Look at me, world, I’m a hero!”