With a 2023 Slate Hobbled by Controversial Stars, Warner Bros. and DC Stick to 2022 Titles in Muted Comic-Con Appearance

For most of the 2010s, Warner Bros. cast a massive shadow at San Diego Comic-Con. Between its substantial presence on the showroom floor and a pull-out-all-the-stops presentation in Hall H that could stretch well beyond two hours, the studio was second to none — not even its main rival, Marvel Studios — in its ability to leverage the largest fan convention in North America to its advantage.

This year, the studio took a decidedly different approach. It skipped the show floor completely, including a presence for DC Comics. And while it did use its hour-long panel in Hall H to showcase two of its 2022 releases — “Black Adam” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” — the studio’s biggest DC movies for 2023, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” and “The Flash,” were completely MIA. There was no mention of other DC titles like “Batgirl” (expected to debut this year) and “Blue Beetle” (the first Latino superhero film), nor updates on the future of Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman” and Robert Pattinson’s “The Batman .” (Meanwhile, persistent internet rumors of an appearance by “Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill also proved to be as unfounded as they seemed.)

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Instead, “Shazam! 2” star Zachary Levi bantered with costars Lucy Liu, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer and director David F. Sandberg, while Helen Mirren and Rachel Zegler appeared in a scripted video message in which Mirren celebrated her female costars by saying, “Yay, pussy power!”

It was up to Dwayne Johnson, in costume as Black Adam, to bring the drama, emerging on a raised platform surrounded in smoke and sending a bolt of lightning into the audience — activating blue lights in lanyards handed out to the Hall H audience.

The crowd lapped it up, but there was a palpable sense that they were eager for more: An audience member asked Levi if Shazam would fight Superman (Levi played dumb and then winked at the audience), and Johnson was asked how Black Adam would fare against the man of steel. (Johnson’s eyebrow-raising reply: “It probably all depends on who’s playing Superman.”)

As for “Aquaman 2” and “The Flash,” studio insiders have said those films are too far away on the schedule to warrant a big splash at Comic-Con. But in previous years, Warner Bros. has used Hall H as a launching pad for films well beyond the calendar year. The 2014 panel for the studio included the first-ever look at 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Zack Snyder first announced 2016’s “Batman v Superman” at Comic-Con in 2013; the panel for the film was held in 2015.

Both “Aquaman 2” and “The Flash” completed shooting months ago, giving their respective directors, James Wan and Andy Muschietti, plenty of time to put together some sizzling footage to whip up the buzz commensurate with the characters’ status among the Comic- Con faithful.

“Aquaman 2,” however, costars Amber Heard, who just spent months at the center of one of the ugliest public court battles in Hollywood history against her ex-husband Johnny Depp. A jury found in June that they both defamed each other, but Depp was awarded millions more in damages against Heard, who was also relentlessly ridiculed and excoriated by Depp’s fans on social media. (She filed a notice of appeal on July 21.)

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And “The Flash” star Ezra Miller is facing multiple allegations of abusive behavior, including choking a woman in Iceland and harassing another woman in her home in Berlin, as well as two arrests in Hawaii this year — once in March, for disorderly conduct and harassment, and another a month later, for second-degree assault. (Miller has never commented on the allegations of misconduct against them; a source close to the situation told Variety in June that the actor is privately focusing on their health and healing, hoping to address the allegations at some point in the future.)

The circumstances of Heard and Miller’s situations are quite different. However, in both cases, Warner Bros. is facing down an impossible dilemma without much precedent, even in the #MeToo era: How to promote their escapist superhero franchises when their stars are embroidered in toxic scandals that overwhelm all other conversation about them.

In the case of “Aquaman 2,” Walter Hamada, who runs the studio’s DC unit, testified in a video deposition in the Heard-Depp trial that the studio did consider recasting Heard in the role of Mera opposite star Jason Momoa because the actors “ I didn’t have a lot of chemistry together.”

“Editorially they were able to make that relationship work in the first movie, but there was a concern that it took a lot of effort to get there,” Hamada said. It’s not exactly a rousing endorsement for a movie.

Mera, however, isn’t the central character for “Aquaman,” and promotion for the film could downplay Heard’s presence. That is n’t possible for “The Flash,” which is built around Miller’s performances his as multiple versions of their speedster character, Barry Allen. Though the studio could replace Miller for any future “Flash” movies, calls to reshoot Muschietti’s film with a new actor are financially untenable.

The Flash was referenced during the panel, in the “Shazam! 2” trailer, just not by name; though the character appeared on screen, Miller’s face he did not. (By contrast Aquaman and Batman get a full name-check in the trailer, with Momoa and Ben Affleck’s faces both appearing on screen.)

At some point, Warner Bros. will need to engage the DC fan base about these films and the actors within them. But rather than try to navigate these choppy waters in front of some 6,000-plus superfans at Comic-Con, Warner Bros. elected to avoid them altogether — for now.

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