At the Wizard World Comic Con last weekend in New Orleans, everybody tried to be one or connect to one.
“These two adorable dorks make me smile.” This tweet from this weekend’s Wizard World Comic Con came with a photo Chris Evans (Captain America) and Hayley Attwell (Agent Carter) mugging, and while I get the “adorable” part—they’re both beautiful— but “dorks” eludes me. How did the fan know? Was she projecting, assuming that they were just like she is--but famous? Can you really know a celebrity by the 50 minutes he or she spends on a panel in front of a thousand or so people?
The relationship between fans and stars became my fascination during this year’s comic con’s panel featuring the cast and directors of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War—directors Anthony and Joseph Russo, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, and Hayley Atwell. Their task was thankless in its way as they were called upon to talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their characters as if both are real in a movie that no one has seen yet with an audience far more committed to the MCU (as one fan shorthanded it) and their characters than they are. There moments when genuinely interesting things were said, such as when Joseph Russo talked about how the tone of Civil War and nature of the camera shots changes as the story changes, and how they move to be more in line with the more cosmic scope of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Russo also revealed the possible scope of Infinity War, saying, "We have so many characters we're dealing with. We have a board with 67 characters on it.”
The panel was largely an exercise in riffing and fan maintenance. The actors joked about what good shape Grillo’s in with his 30-inch waist and 160 pounds, and Mackie riffed on the idea that the news in Civil War is that all the heroes come out of the closet as gay. The actors ribbed each other good-naturedly, but for the most part, they provided calorie-free content.
When the audience started asking questions, it became clear that they not only had different relationships to the characters and MCU but to the actors themselves. When they asked questions of Chris Evans, they were talking to a Chris Evans that they had constructed in their head, someone who was a composite of his roles (including The Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm), the person they had seen in similar PR-like situations, and the person they imagined he would be. One fan asked which Hogwarts house each cast member would be in because naturally the Evans, Renner, Mackie, Grillo and Atwell in his head read Harry Potter. (It didn’t sound like any of the real ones had.) Another asked if the onscreen tension between the characters that the movie dramatizes affected their off-screen relationships, inadvertently assuming a complete lack of professionalism on the actors’ parts, little understanding of how movies like these are made, and a belief that the actors are invested in their characters’ stories the way she was.
The awkward corollary to this was how important it clearly was for the panelists to like the questioners. With the exception of the guy who read the lengthy, complicated question that he had composed on his phone, the questioners started with something chummy that hoped for a connection that really isn’t there. The dynamic is the uncomfortable flip side of the comic con experience. A big part of the charm of Wizard World Comic Con is that fans can find their people in a safe environment, and people who likely go through their lives unnoticed can be stars for the weekend through cosplay. One Magneto looked like he had health issues that left him dangerously thin, and he pushed a Professor X wheelchair that he would likely need before the day was over. It is easy to imagine that his life the rest of the year is shaped by all the things he can’t do or has to be careful about—two traits that contribute to facelessness in high school. On the weekend, everybody noticed him.
At an event where so many people make themselves stars for a day, watching them work to forge a fragile, flickering connection with actors who won’t remember them an hour later is uncomfortable. Judging by the tweets from the comic con, the fans themselves don’t see their interaction that way.