"I'm gonna try not to cry," said the big-eyed brunette fan, quavery-voiced as she approached the microphone.
Forty feet away, the British actor seated at the dais in Comic-Con's Hall H leaned forward and nodded benevolently.
"We'll all try together," replied Benedict Cumberbatch.
Many a genre heartthrob has graced the stage at Comic-Con in years past, but the reaction to the 38-year-old Cumberbatch — who's never made the trek to San Diego until now, despite a Con-worthy résumé that includes Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit — was on a different level than the shrieks that used to greet Taylor Lautner or Robert Pattinson here. This felt personal. The women in this audience, whose crush on Cumberbatch was stoked initially by the BBC series Sherlock, had helped to make him a romantic lead and a movie star almost by sheer force of fervor, and now he had arrived to face his overcome creators at last.
"You exist!" he said to his fans as he took the stage to a cavernous ballroom lit up by raised iPhones. Mere minutes later, his name began trending on Twitter.
Cumberbatch was there at Comic-Con to promote, uh, the animated film Penguins of Madagascar. Sure, we'll go with that. Rumor has it that Marvel will announce his casting as Dr. Strange during the studio's Saturday panel, and Cumberbatch coyly fanned those flames of speculation when a fan asked him what superhero he'd like to play. "Nurse Normal," he said, to crickets. Then, "That was a joke on Dr. Strange."
But for the most part, he talked Penguins. (Moderator Craig Ferguson warned the audience in advance, "Any questions at the end of this about Sherlock, Comic-Con is canceled.") In the film, spun off from the popular Madagascar series, Cumberbatch voices a wolf that recruits our titular birds to fight John Malkovich's selfie-taking, villainous octopus.
Did he do any research for the role? Sure, joked Cumberbatch: "I worked undercover in Yellowstone Park as a wolf for a while. I was accepted right off the bat quite quickly, but it got pretty hairy — no pun intended — when I became the alpha male." That notion prompted the woman next to me to let out a brief, guttural noise as Cumberbatch continued, "About a month into it, I realized that two of the other wolves were Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis."
The panel went mostly in that fashion, with Cumberbatch wafting complicated jokes through Hall H (whilst saying the word "whilst") and discussing the notion of extraordinary rendition as he promoted an animated movie for children. Occasionally, the actor would say something vaguely sexual — when asked about taking live-action roles, he murmured, "I like to use my body, yeah" — and if you listened closely, you could hear Tumblr collapsing somewhere in the distance.
At one point, a fan asked Malkovich and Cumberbatch a suggestively worded question about the difference between films for children and, well, "adult movies." Malkovich gamely went off on a tangent about how forbidden sexuality can be in most movies, and how verboten it was to show something onscreen as innocent as "a thigh or upper arm." Cumberbatch misheard the latter. "Other arm?" he asked quizzically, and lasciviously. The joke dangled.
But with questions about his more fan-friendly properties mostly banned, the women in the audience were at a loss for what to ask Cumberbatch — only that they had to ask him something, lest they lose their big chance. The third time a nervous, grinning girl queried Cumberbatch about the difference between live-action acting and voice roles, Ferguson shot her question down on the grounds of redundancy.
"Oh, poor girl," murmured Cumberbatch into his microphone. "Do you want to ask another question? Ask what my shoe size is."
"What's your shoe size?" asked the fan, to more shrieks.
Cumberbatch grinned. "It's a whole other arm."