SAN DIEGO - With no Batman or Superman or Avengers in sight, there was one title that seemed to be the most anticipated of Comic-Con, but the release of the first teaser trailer for "The Amazing Spider-Man" took some of the wind out of the Sony sails on the eve of this week's event.  They had something to prove with today's panel, and I'd say based on the footage they showed and the conversation with the filmmakers that happened onstage, they may have walked away having turned the opinion of most of Hall H around.

Sony's one of the only studios to throw what felt like a conventional Comic-Con panel this year, with four different films all given the star treatment back to back to back to back.  They were smart to bookend the panel with their two superhero titles because that meant the captive audience sat through presentations they might not have otherwise, and overall, it was a confident display that seemed to accomplish exactly what they set out to accomplish.

The big question for most fans about another "Ghost Rider" film is "why?"  After all, the first one is one of the stranger Marvel misfires, and he's always been a character that is known primarily for how he looks, not for any particular storyline.  I remember talking to Nicolas Cage on the set of "Kick-Ass" about the possibility of a sequel, and at that point, his big idea involved Johnny Blaze going to work for the Vatican as a demon hunter.  I have no idea based on what we saw today whether that's still an element of the film or not, but one thing's for sure.  The new "Ghost Rider" movie is going to be absolutely barking mad.

I confess that I don't get the affection some people have for the work of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.  I thought the first "Crank" was fun for the most part, but skirted being too sleazy to enjoy.  Since then, I think they've surrendered even the pretense of making movies that make sense, and their visual style is so frantic and insane that it does nothing for me.  There comes a point where mania just becomes mayhem, and it's not fun.  Before they even started talking about the film's content, they showed us a special feature all about the way Neveldine and Taylor work as filmmakers.  Both of them are camera operators, and they love to stick themselves right into the midst of whatever action they're shooting.  They'll get thrown around on wire rigs, they'll wear rollerblades and literally get dragged behind motorcycles or speeding cars… basically, they put themselves in harm's way to get footage that I'll admit doesn't look like anyone else's footage.  But to me, getting a cool shot doesn't matter without some fundamentals of storytelling, and that's where they lose me.

The reel about how they shoot things ended with a tag line that pretty much sums them up:  "GHOST RIDER - F**KING YOUR S**T UP IN 3D FEBRUARY 2012."  I laughed, but there's something deeply juvenile about these guys.  Everything they've made feels to me like the product of technically talented 13 year olds who have no affection for logic or physics.  At one point, they explained that they have a deal with the stuntmen on their films that if anyone gets hurt, they'll use the footage in the film.  "So when you see bones breaking in the film, those bones are really breaking!"  Yeah.  Nice selling point.  I wonder if their bond companies ever listen to these guys talk.

The actual 3D footage from the film that they showed us was deranged, complete with Ghost Rider pissing actual flames in one shot.  We got a look at the cast, including Ciaran Hinds as the Devil, Christopher Lambert with white paint all over his head, the smoking hot Violante Placido (last seen in the Clooney film "The American), as well as Idris Elba as "a French-speaking wine-drinking motorcycle-riding warrior monk" and Johnny Whitworth as Blackout.

The thing is, this is still recognizably Ghost Rider.  There's not much you can do to tweak the basics of the character.  Black leather, chains, motorcycle on fire, and a flaming skull head.  What they've done is crank up the horror elements and play down the superhero side of things.  This Ghost Rider is a walking nightmare, and that's exactly what Neveldine and Taylor want.  One major change this time is that thanks to motion-capture, Nicolas Cage is actually playing the demon version of Ghost Rider, something that didn't happen in the first film.  It sounds like that's the thing he enjoyed doing most this time, playing around with the physicality of a possessed spirit creature.  He mentioned something about using a cobra as inspiration, so I fully expect this to be one of those out-on-a-limb Cage moments that can be a lot of fun.

Besides… there's a flaming monster truck from Hell.  I think that means I'm legally obligated to at least see the damn thing.

After a short break, the second part of the panel began, and they brought out Ruben Fleischer came out with Nick Swardson, Michael Pena, and Aziz Ansari to discuss their new film, "30 Minutes Or Less."  I actually saw the film last week, and I'll have a full review for you closer to release.  I'll just say that the panel today was a nice representation of what people can expect from the movie, with the same shaggy comic energy that the film has.

Danny McBride couldn't be there because he's neck-deep in the third and final season of "Eastbound and Down" right now, but he sent a very funny video message that managed to smack-talk Ruben and make fun of "sorry I couldn't be there" videos at the same time.  Vintage McBride.  My favorite line was his opener.  "If you are viewing this, it means the apes have won, and mankind has fallen."  He just pours it on, and I can only imagine based on the tape just what kind of massive ball-busting Ruben had to withstand during production.

The clip they showed was the actual bank robbery from the film, and it's a very funny sequence.  The nervous energy of Jesse Eisenberg combined with the insane hyper energy of Aziz Ansari is a very potent mix, and not one I would have necessarily imagined would work.  One thing that's interesting is how this seems like a smaller movie than "Zombieland," and that's unusual.  Most directors don't do that after a hit film, but Fleischer talked about how he wanted to make a smaller movie before finally taking the plunge and going big with his next one, "The Gangster Squad."  He referred to this as a "double-buddy" movie, and he's right.  There are two distinct teams in the film… McBride and Swardson, and Eisenberg and Ansari, and they have such totally different rhythms that it almost feels like two different movies.

The Q&A was fast and ridiculous, and Aziz kept scoring points off the audience members.  Swardson talked about being the weak link on-set, the guy who would laugh and ruin takes, and says he frequently forgets he's in a movie when he's watching someone else work.  At one point, someone asked Aziz if he'd seen the trailer for "Dark Knight Rises" yet, and he casually mentioned how much he enjoyed seeing the first fifteen minutes of the film at the panel earlier in the day.

A hush fell over the room.

As soon as Aziz realized he'd stopped all conversation, he burst out laughing.  "Oh, yeah, they showed it at the end of the panel for 'Inception 2.'  You guys didn't see that?  Man, you missed out."  If anyone in that room had a heart attack, Aziz was to blame.

I forgot until they cleared the stage that Sony was bringing "Total Recall," but sure enough, they paraded out director Len Weisman as well as Jessica Biehl, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Kate Beckinsale, and Colin Farrell.  They're about halfway into shooting right now, and even though Weisman said they weren't really ready to show anything, he put together a clip anyway.

I'm not a big fan of Weisman's work.  I don't actively dislike him, but I don't particularly care about his various "Underworld" movies, and I think his "Die Hard" movie is entirely adequate.  I'm also not a big fan of the original "Total Recall."  Like most Hollywood adaptations of the work of Philip K. Dick, I think it trades big ideas for big explosions, and it dumbs down everything that is interesting about him as a writer.

In particular, there was a scene in an early draft of the "Total Recall" script, back when David Cronenberg was set to direct the film, that always seemed to me to be the hook, the reason you want to do it.  He had someone like Richard Dreyfuss in mind to play the part instead of Schwarzenegger.  In the script, after Quaid wakes up and escapes Rekall, he ends up cornered in an alley, and he stops, gathers himself, and then snaps, killing something like nine cops with his bare hands.  As soon as he does, he freaks out, wondering how he knew how to do that.  It is the first moment in the script where Quaid begins to suspect that he is not who he thinks he is, and if it's someone like Dreyfuss playing that, the audience would be just as surprised as he is.  When Ah-nold kills nine people with his bare hands in a film, that's not surprising at all.  He's Ah-nold.  That's what we're used to.  You can't have someone like that play an ordinary near-invisible guy.  It just doesn't make sense.

Well, in this film, the clip we saw came from the sequence where Quaid goes to visit Rekall.  John Cho is the guy who runs it, and he welcomes Quaid, telling him he can be anything he wants in his memory.  "It feels like real life," he tells him.  "You want to be a crimefighter?  Or maybe a secret agent?"  As they start to hook Quaid up, they warn him that he isn't allowed to use any elements of his real life or identity in his fantasy, because it sets up a sort of a feedback loop that can screw up the whole process.

"It's fine," Quaid replies.  "I don't have any secrets."

Just before he goes under, there's an alarm.  They yank the needle out, and Cho starts cursing, furious at Quaid.  "You're a goddamn spy!"

Police break into the room.  They open fire on Quaid, who is already on the move.  "I'm nobody.  It's a mistake.  I'm nobody."  He starts to panic, and as they close in on him, everything slows down. In one shot, the camera moving quickly from place to place, Quaid moves through the room and kills every single policeman with his bare hands.  It's only when he's done that he realizes he's taken someone's gun and killed everyone else, and he drops it, deeply freaked out.  The rest of the sequence shows him reacting almost automatically to threat after threat before he's finally able to break out of the room and escape, and through it all, Farrell sells the idea that Quaid has no idea how he's doing what he's doing.  There were a few quick shots from other sequences in the film, ending with Farrell asking the question that is at the heart of the story:  "If I'm not me, who am I?"

As the lights came up, Cranston made the joke, "That looks so good I should read the script."  Cranston is playing the Ronny Cox role in this one, Cohagen, and he's playing him as a dictator who really believes he's doing the right thing, no matter how many people he has to kill to do it.  Cranston was the MVP of the panel, landing one great joke after another with a very dry sense of humor.  I get the feeling he's enjoying his career so much right now that he's unflappable.

The film is not a new adaptation of the story, which honestly doesn't have much to do with the original film, either.  This is very much a remake of the Paul Verhoeven film.  The characters are the same, the premise is the same, and it looks like they're adding some twists but in a way that definitely references the original.  At one point, someone asked Farrell to describe his character, and he called him "an Austrian ex-pat who rises through the world of bodybuilding before launching a career in Hollywood that eventually leads to an unlikely career in politics."  Nice.  What really drew him to the part was the notion of Quaid as a guy who is living in a dream, suspicious that not all is as it should be in his life, and he gets this rude awakening.

All of that and Kate Beckinsale making a very naughty "Basic Instinct" joke, too?  Mark this one as a win for Sony.

Finally, the big event of the panel, the reason most of the people were in Hall H.  If the teaser trailer had not just premiered a few days ago, this would have been our first look at "The Amazing Spider-Man."  I don't think I've really written anything about the trailer, but I'll say this… seeing it on the big giant screen in 3D allowed to spot a few new details, but it didn't change the problems I had with the trailer initially.  I think it's a very dour, overly serious 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and it looks like they're following the Nolan model of the superhero film as closely as Raimi followed the Donner model for the first film.  I don't know if that's really what the film is, but that's what the trailer looks like, and it didn't do much for me.  That POV rooftop run at the end of the trailer also looks incredibly fake when blown up that big, and I hope that's not an indicator of the overall visual style of the film.

Before they could start the panel, someone stepped to a mic in the crowd and started to talk.  It turns out, of course, to be Andrew Garfield in a very cheap Spider-Man costume, and… well… watch for yourself:





Listen, I understand the cynical response, that it's all a calculated stunt and that it's just an actor selling a movie, but watching him, listening to him… I don't think so.  He strikes me in this moment as someone who is almost overwhelmed by how strange this experience is, and how it's one of his life-long dreams actually coming true.  It seemed to me to be a very sweet and human moment, and I think it won the crowd over to Garfield, if not the movie.  "This is definitely the coolest moment from my life, and thank you for being here to share it."

With that, they brought out Matt Tomack and Avi Arad, producers on the film, Marc Webb, the director, and Emma Stone, the new Gwen Stacy, and Garfield joined them onstage.  They jumped right in to talk about their approach to the material, and Webb spoke about wanting to get the Gwen Stacy story right, about the durability of Spider-Man as a pop culture figure, and about how relatable Peter Parker is.

Of course, footage speaks louder than just telling us what you intend, and so they showed us a fairly dense clips package, and you could tell just how raw and unfinished it was.  Even so, if anything made me walk away feeling confident about the film, it was this batch of material.  The beginning of the footage was a few scenes of Peter being bullied, and finally lashing out at another student to fight back.  His uncle is called into the school to talk to the principal, and there's a conversation in a hallway where Uncle Ben really pokes Peter's conscience, asking him if he feels good about what he did.  As they're talking, Gwen walks up in the background, and Uncle Ben recognizes her from Peter's computer at home, an embarrassing fact he makes sure to share with her before he walks away.  As Peter tries to play it off, the chemistry between Garfield and Stone was very nice.  They're both a little old to be playing high school, but what they get right is the emotional side of it, that awkward feeling of barely being in control of yourself and the world around you.  It was nicely played by both of them, and it's promising in terms of what else they might share in the film.  It reminds me of the chemistry in "500 Days Of Summer," and I'm sure this is one of the reasons Marc Webb got hired for the movie in the first place.

The next scene is something we glimpse in the trailer, as Peter goes through his father's attache case.  He tries on his dad's glasses.  He finds his Oscorp employee ID.  He also finds a file in the bag, something that was a secret, and when he reads it, it leads him back to Oscorp, where Gwen Stacy works as an assistant to Dr. Curt Conners.

We jumped forward to Peter waking up after the spider bite, smashing his alarm clock to pieces, accidentally dismantling his bathroom with his newfound strength, and generally realizing that things are not the same for him.  He picks a fight on the subway with a whole group of guys.  We see some early web-swinging in an empty gym.  We see him building the webshooters.  The fight footage we saw had a distinctly Jackie Chan vibe to it, fast, with him using his environment as much as his fists.

But what really did it for me was seeing the wise-cracking fast-talking Spidey, the one I've never seen in a film before.  Garfield is just plain funny as Spider-Man.  He uses it to annoy his opponents, and it's also a nervous thing, a way of dealing with the things he's facing.  It's playful.  It's not dour at all.  And it's the Spider-Man that I always wanted from the Raimi films.

There was a lot to process.  Uncle Ben talks about responsibility.  We see some of the shot-live-on-location web-swinging on the bridge.  We hear Captain Stacy talking about this "threat" known as Spider-Man, vowing to bring him down.  There's a ton of physical stuff, much of it with safety wires and rigging still visible at this point.  Aunt May catches him coming in, beaten up, and she demands to know what he's been doing.  We see Stacy's men ramping up their efforts to find Spidey.  And near the end of the footage, there's a shot of Garfield looking up, tears in his eyes, screaming, "IT'S NOT YOU! THIS ISN'T YOU, DR. CONNERS! STOP IT!"

I don't think the general shape of the film is going to shock or surprise anyone.  It looks like they wanted to tell a different version of the story and so they had to back up to the start to lay all the pieces in place.  I was surprised they didn't include any footage of The Lizard, the bad guy in the film, or even really address his role in the movie at all.

So of course, that's what they were counting on.  As the Q&A got underway, people asked questions about making the characters feel fresh or playing music on-set to set a mood, something Webb likes to do,

Nobody even mentioned it until Ralph Garman, who was moderating the panel, brought up the question of a villain, and Webb finally officially confirmed what has been fairly common knowledge for a while now.  Rhys Ifans is playing Dr. Curt Conners, and, yes, in this film, Dr. Conners finally goes full Lizard.  The footage they showed us was in fully-rendered 3D, and it traces the arc as Conners is introduced with his one arm visible.  Some of the shots actually still had Ifans wearing a greenscreen sock on one arm, but you could see enough finished work to know what it'll look like.  We see him working on his formula to regenerate tissue, and we see what happens on the night it goes terribly wrong.  The short piece ends with The Lizard smashing his way up through the floor of the girl's bathroom in a high school, terrifying two teenaged girls.  He's a big giant CGI creature, very animal, with a nasty tongue and a flat, reptile face.  He's not exactly the version we've seen before, but if I had to name the character, I think "The Lizard" would be entirely fitting.

After the clip, they brought Ifans out to join the panel, and they got back into the Q&A.  Garfield talked a bit about the webshooters and building them.  They talked about the changes in the costume, and how they were looking at the super-skinny build of Spidey in "The Ultimates" when designing Garfield's look for this.  "Yeah," Garfield chimed in, "because how great is it seeing a skinny guy beat the crap out of big guys?"

Webb denied that he's intentionally making this darker than the Raimi films, preferring instead to call this "grounded."  He talked about the drive to build in as much of the humor as possible.   The only person who really didn't have anything to say on the panel was Ifans, who mumbled some half-answer after a fan asked about playing the humanity in a monster like The Lizard.

Near the end of the Q&A, Garfield talked about a conversation he had with Tobey Maguire after he finished shooting, and how hard the entire production was on him.  He was beaming, though, and I get the feeling that no matter how rough it was, Garfield's going to be willing to do this until they pry the costume off his 95-year-old dead body.

And based on today, that sounds promising.

"30 Minutes Or Less" arrives in theaters August 12, 2011.
"Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance" will push your s**t in on February 17, 2012.
Remember to see "Total Recall" in theaters August 3, 2012.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" swings into release on July 3, 2012.