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25 Best Things We Saw at San Diego Comic-Con 2016

From the latest Marvel and DC Universe trailers to a VR ‘Mr. Robot’ experience, the cream of this year’s Comic-Con crop

Some people train for triathlons. For pop-culture geeks — the kind of folks who live for superhero movies, comic books, sci-fi TV and customized Walking Dead action figures — San Diego Comic-Con is their endurance sport. They start about two weeks out, planning their four 16-hours days down to the minute. They obsessively organize their bags, balancing the amount of rations, cameras, and cell-phone power packs they need to carry against all the swag, exclusive toys, and signed books they want to haul home. Each year, they get better at speed walking, weaving through dumbfounded newbies and baby strollers, and calculating the clearest routes from one hall to the next. One of our writers logged 11 miles on his health app on the first day alone, and that didn't even properly account for the extended periods of zombie-shambling on the exhibition hall floor.

The San Diego Convention Center is big enough on its own, but now the side cons, parties, and "activations" (as the PR folks call their off-site promotional installations) are spread more than a mile across in every direction. This year, the event has expanded further into the digital world, with Comic Con HQ streaming certain panels online and Hollywood studios increasing their square footage through virtual reality.

But if you're going to Comic-Con, then you go all-in, no minute squandered, because there's no better personal trainer than the fear of missing out. And that was how we were able to compile this list of the 25 very best things we encountered at SDCC 2016.

(L-R) Writer/director Oliver Stone, actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Quinto attend the "Snowden" panel during Comic-Con International 2016 at San Diego Convention Center on July 21, 2016 in San Diego, California.

(L-R) Writer/director Oliver Stone, actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Quinto attend the "Snowden" panel during Comic-Con International 2016 at San Diego Convention Center on July 21, 2016 in San Diego, California.

Kevin Winter/Getty

Oliver Stone Gets Political (Again) With ‘Snowden’

Every year, a legendary talent makes their Comic-Con debut in front of both diehard followers and a new generation of potential fans. This year was Oliver Stone's turn as he showed up — along with stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley ad Zachary Quinto — to promote Snowden, his upcoming dramatization of the life of the enigmatic government surveillance whistleblower. It might have seemed like an odd fit (a drama about a real-life political provocateur and NSA Public Enemy No. 1 at SDCC?), but the political-firebrand was engaged and passionate, and the panel was one of the more thoughtful we've ever seen here, delving into the very issues that the divisive figure's actions continue to draw attention to. DK

Corey Ransberg

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Other Holmes

"I wanted to be a writer, but basketball got in the way," legendary NBA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told fans as he debuted his first comic book, Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook. Filling in the backstory of Sherlock Holmes' smarter, civil servant brother, the series is a steampunk adventure, filled with weaponry imagined by sci-fi writers from the era and a new character of the author's own devising: Lark Adler, a swashbuckling Native American/African American woman. Jabbar said he's been a huge fan of alternative comics, especially R. Crumb and Heavy Metal magazine, since the 1970s — making him among the biggest geeks, figuratively and literally, at this year's Comic-Con. DM

Warner Bros.

That Kick-Ass ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer

We can't overstate the importance of this movie to the superhero genre — it's the first to be led by a woman, while based on a legendary idea of feminine power and wisdom. We have geek girl friends who literally shed tears when they saw it. Luckily, it looks terrific: Gal Gadot builds on her impressive but brief performance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as she and fellow Amazons Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen bring the fury down upon the German army in World War I. Whether Warner/DC won the Con overall is debatable, but this trailer premiere had everyone buzzing for hours afterwards. DK

Corey Ransberg

Getting Immersed in ‘Mr. Robot’

Last year, Mr. Robot was barely a blip on anyone's Comic-Con radar. This time, the hacker drama starring Christian Slater and Rami Malek was hard to ignore, with ad splashes on buses and pedicabs, as well as a roving band of masked fsociety members. Down a side street, fans could find a vintage computer repair shop. Once inside, a side passage took you to a detailed re-creation of the protagonist Elliot's apartment, where you were handed a Samsung Gear VR headset to watch an exclusive episode shot in 360-degree video. Not to spoil it, but let's just say the future of virtual reality may be getting high with your favorite TV characters. DM

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‘Dr. Strange’ Blows Minds

Meet the Sorceror Supreme! An exclusive clip and brand new trailer were unveiled for this long-awaited origin story, which delves into the mystical and supernatural corners of the Marvel Universe for the first time. The incredible cast — Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen and Benedict Wong — as well as director Scott Derrickson were all on hand for the new trailer, which makes this film look more trippy and colorful than anything else we've seen yet from Marvel. Strange magic, indeed. DK

Corey Ransberg

‘Archer,’ Live on a Cruise Ship

The ensemble cast of FX's raunchy animated spy show assembled on the top deck of a cruise ship docked next to the convention center to perform the show's popular bottle episode, "Vision Quest," set in a jammed elevator. But it was the delightfully offensive digressions that made the night: lead actor H. Jon Benjamin belted out Archer's "Mulatto Butts" song; Amber Nash, who plays Pam, emulated Arnold Schwarzenegger performing fellatio; and Aisha Tyler coined the term "lobster nachos" to describe female genitalia. The surprise guest was Christian Slater, who read out the stage directions, while Tyler confessed that he's her go-to masturbation fantasy. DM

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‘Luke Cage’: The ‘Wu-Tangification’ of Marvel

Netflix's latest superhero series, Luke Cage, represents the "Wu-Tangification" of the Marvel Universe — that was the term showrunner and Vibe music writer Cheo Hodari Coker used shortly before debuting a teaser set to the staccato piano of Ol' Dirty Bastard's Shimmy Shimmy Ya. Set in Harlem, Luke Cage has the character earlier introduced in Jessica Jones reluctantly colliding with the criminal underworld; the clip showed him literally busting down doors and shrugging off gunshots. The creators are keenly aware of the significance of a "bulletproof black man" in the age of Black Lives Matter, with star Mike Colter telling us that his character's hoodie is an homage to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. DM

Warner Bros.

A First Look at ‘Justice League’

There was speculation that Warner Bros. /DC would light up its marathon Saturday morning panel with a first glimpse of the upcoming Justice League movie, and the studio didn't disappoint. Although the members of the League did little more than come out and wave, the nearly three minutes of footage more than made up for it. Both DC and director Zack Snyder have apparently listened to the complaints about the grim Batman v Superman: there's a slightly lighter — dare we say Marvel-esque? — tone to the proceedings here. And judging from Ezra Miller's smart-ass take on the Flash in the clips, he's likely to run away (sorry) with the MVP title of this DC Universe battle royale. DK

Corey Ransberg

Action Bronson Puffs and Stuffs

To drum up an appetite for his Viceland travelling food show F*ck, That's Delicious, hip-hop star Action Bronson filled fan's bellies with pulled pork barbecue, while his crew filled the new network's party bus with clouds that smelled an awful lot like … nevermind, we plead the Fifth. The school bus spent the rest of the con driving from one hotspot to another, handing out rolling papers, lighters, eye drops, and white mints in prescription pill containers, while picking up guests like the Suicide Girls, comedian Doug Benson, and Workaholics star Anders Holm. DM

Putting the ‘Con’ in Conan

Conan is the Oprah of Comic-Con, if only because audiences at his Spreckels Theatre live tapings walk away with extremely valuable Funko dolls (collectors were offering $120 for one out the door). On Saturday, Conan gave away a doll of himself painted like the Joker since his guests were the cast of Suicide Squad — all 11 of whom broke into an impromptu dance party every time it cut to commercial. Also planted in the audience was Mister Fantastic, who was manspreading his elastic legs from the mezzanine to the theatre floor. The best laughs though were drawn by faux audition tapes of Jodi Foster, 50 Cent, and Jeff Goldblum trying out for the role of Young Han Solo. DM

(L-R) Director Luc Besson, producer Virginie Besson-Silla, actors Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan attend the "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets" panel during Comic-Con International 2016

(L-R) Director Luc Besson, producer Virginie Besson-Silla, actors Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan attend the "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets" panel during Comic-Con International 2016

Kevin Winter/Getty

Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City’ Panel

If you think that title sounds mind-boggling, wait until you get a look at the movie. Based on the 49-year-old French comic Valerian and Laureline, director Luc Besson's gargantuan, batshit-insane space opera is equal parts The Fifth Element, Mad Max: Fury Road, Heavy Metal magazine and steroidal Star Wars outtakes. Making his Comic-Con debut, the director unveiled some choice first-look footage in the cavernous Hall H, and the truly cosmic scale of the thing — from a giant floating city and some 200 different alien species to what looked like thousands of spaceships in battle — made it the instant dark horse success of the Con. DK

Dave Mass

‘The Killing Joke’ Kills It

There was perhaps no greater controversy among the nerd classes than the Batgirl-Batman sex scene added to the R-rated, animated adaptation of Alan Moore's classic treatment of the Dark Knight. But for those who prefer storytelling over purity, the criticism was mostly unfounded. As writer Brian Azzarello explained, there wasn't enough in the graphic novel to fill a movie, and Barbara Gordon deserved a better arc, where she wasn't just a victimized plot device. The film was screened late night in the convention center, leaving fans to lay awake in their Airbnbs pondering the biggest hanging question of the DC Universe: Did Batman cold-bloodedly murder the Joker or not? DM

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Surprise ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Footage

Leave it to Marvel to bring us something to look at from a movie that just started filming last month. Comic-Con attendees were granted a fantastic intro to the first stand-alone Spidey film to take place in the Marvel Universe, with star Tom Holland and other cast members were on hand to talk about the footage. The clips showcased a normal day at school for Peter Parker — "normal" being open to interpretation, of course. And oh yeah, we also got a glimpse of the film's official villain: The Vulture, as played by Michael Keaton. DK

Dave Mass

Rocking Out with ‘Steven Universe’

Cartoon Network's Steven Universe is quickly becoming the next Adventure Time, except with a more coherent and emotionally engaging storyline, a subversive yet wholesome treatment of feminism and LGBTQ rights, and a whole lot of catchy tunes. Backed by the full band who records the tracks, the women who play the aliens Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl and the boy who plays their adopted son, Steven, joined showrunner Rebecca Sugar in performing the show's greatest hits. During the Q&A, Sugar brought down the house explaining why children need to learn from cartoons that love isn't just boy meets girl. DM

Corey Ransberg

‘Dirk Gently’ Hits Hard

Based on the late Douglas Adams' lesser known books, BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency promises to be a sort of Sherlock on psilocybin, with Samuel Barnett from Penny Dreadful and ex-hobbit Elijah Wood teaming up to solve dimension-traversing mysteries in which "Everything is Connected." Sporting a rainbow mohawk with matching T-shirt and sneakers, showrunner and Internet star Max Landis maniacally outshined the cast at the off-the-cuff panel at Nerd HQ. At one point, he delivered an extented Micro-Machine-Man style summary of the complicated premise that left everyone simultaneously amped, perplexed, and LOLing in their seats. DM

Dave Mass

Worshipping the ‘American Gods’

Seventeen years ago, Sandman writer Neil Gaiman knocked out the first chapter of his novel American Gods on a train to San Diego Comic-Con. So it's only fitting that he was on hand, flanked by people in bunny costumes, to promote the Starz adaptation of the dark, modern fantasy the revolves around the idea that gods become real when you believe in them. When asked to explain how they were adapting the book to the contemporary political climate, showrunner Bryan Fuller used the opportunity to call out Internet trolls and Republican VP nominee Mike Pence. And as for the creepy bunnies? They were there for the announcement Kristin Chenoweth will play the goddess Easter alongside Ian McShane's Odin. DM

The Insane ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2’ Panel

Marvel's Hall H event was so huge and full of surprises (hello Brie Larson as Captain Marvel!). But they may have saved the best for last, showcasing a hilarious clip and exclusive trailer (not yet online) for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Not only did we find out that Kurt Russell is playing Ego, the Living Planet — yes, a sentient celestial body in human form — but Michael Rooker showed up to harass director James Gunn and the cast in full Yondu gear. Uproarious from start to finish. DK

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‘Aliens’ Turns 30

It's one of the great all-time sci-fi/action epics (not to mention a superb sequel to Ridley Scott's in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream masterpiece) and the 30th anniversary of Aliens got the panel it deserved. Director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd and all the key members of the cast were there, including a stunning Sigourney Weaver and a grown-up Carrie Henn, a.k.a. Newt, who's now a fourth grade teacher (she says parents occasionally pull out a DVD for her to sign). Everyone seemed genuinely happy to see each other, and the hour was filled with terrific anecdotes and memories of the making of this genre classic. It felt like sitting around the dinner table with the gang. DK

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Walking Dead

From Jeffrey Dean Morgan coming onstage with Lucille in hand (that's the bat he used to beat one of our heroes — still unidentified — to death in the Season Six finale) to Andrew Lincoln blowing a handful of glitter at Norman Reedus and having it backfire on him, this panel was a blast. Sure, we saw a foreboding new trailer that introduced fan-favorite King Ezekiel and his tiger Shiva, but the onstage antics were the best part. Special kudos to Michael Cudlitz (Abraham) and Ross Marquand (Aaron) for doing TWD dialogue as, respectively, Rocky/Sylvester Stallone and Mickey/Burgess Meredith from the Rocky movies. DK

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‘Star Trek’: The 50th Anniversary Panel

Bryan Fuller, executive producer of the new Star Trek: Discovery series coming to CBS All Access in January, is a genuine iconoclast. What might have been a simple stroll down memory lane with cast members from each previous series — William Shatner (Star Trek), Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Michael Dorn (TNG and Deep Space Nine), Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager) and Scott Bakula (Enterprise) — became a discussion of the show's progressive values and why they are still relevant today. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if a villain on the show resembled a certain orange-haired would-be tyrant. Plus got a look at the spiffy new ship, the U.S.S. Discovery. DK

American Horror Story

‘American Horror Story’ Gives Virtual-Reality Gurney Rides

VR was everywhere you looked this year: private screenings of the bunny v. alien animation Invasion at a sushi bar; Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Space Odyssey" at the VR Con space in the back of a hotel; Man in the High Castle's Nazi headquarters heist in the "Amazon Village;" and Batman:Arkham VR in the exhibition hall. Among the best, however, was American Horror Story's entry: You laid down on a plank in a grain shed and an orderly covered you with a paper hospital blanket, then helped you with the visor. Over the next 10 minutes you were pushed around in a body bag by a creepy nurse, burned at the stake by monks, dropped down an elevator shaft, and had increasingly bigger items thrown at your face by an insane clown. DM

IMDb

Corey Ransberg

Fresh Off the IMDb Boat

Throughout Comic-Con, filmmaker Kevin Smith interviewed celebrities on IMDb's yacht docked outside the convention center, and on Friday, they opened it up for a party where guests were handed oversized hockey jerseys as they crossed the gangway. There was dancing and liquid nitrogen ice cream, as well as stars from Teen Wolf and Man in the High Castle. As soon as Stan Lee stepped on deck, the fans swarmed like he was the last life preserver on a sinking ship. It was then we learned that Stan the Man is the great equalizer: even Smith and MythBuster's Adam Savage turned into ordinary fanboys in the scrum. DM

William Gibson

Corey Ransberg

William Gibson Turns Back the Clock

Technology is outpacing science fiction's ability to imagine the future, so that may explain why the godfather of cyberpunk William Gibson has turned to time travel, alternative histories, and UFOs in his first comic book, Archangel. In his first (long overdue) trip to Comic-Con, the author/icon accepted a lifetime achievement award and discussed the comic's plot: a race to keep alien technology in post-World War II Germany from falling into the hands of 'roided up future villains. Publisher IDW also dropped the atomic bombshell that a film is on the way — which makes sense, since Gibson's first draft was a screenplay. DM

Apocalypse

Corey Ransberg

The ‘X-Men: Tomb of Apocalypse’ Challenge Room

No, there's not a new X-Men movie coming out already — this was the first ever challenge room ever installed at Comic-Con in its long history, an obvious development given the current craze for such activities. Fans had to enter the title vault and solve a series of challenges in order to escape; you had to personally unlock Apocalypse's coffin and pull a key from his cold, dead fingers (regrettably, Oscar Isaac was not playing the deceased mutant). DK

Blake Anderson

Comedian Blake Anderson DJ's at the Entertainment Weekly Con-X at Embarcadero Marina Park North on July 22, 2016 in San Diego, California

Dave Mangels/Getty

Funny or Die! Does Both

Comedy website Funny or Die! sponsored an outdoor show in partnership with HBO's upcoming dark comedy Vice Principals. The humor only got darker and deadlier, as headline Kyle Kinane ended his set with a series of groan-inducing mass shooting jokes. "Calm down, psychos, I'm trying to work on material," he shot back, before taking his bow. Blake Anderson, the curly haired omega dog of Workaholics, played DJ to keep the party going, spinning Rick James and lip syncing to Usher. DM