It's been a fantastic year for the fantastical

San Diego's Comic-Con International is always full of hype and bombast for movies and TV projects designed to appeal to lovers of genre entertainment. But even in the extensive annals of Hall H lore, the 2010 Marvel Studios panel in which the cast of "The Avengers" assembled on a public stage for the first time still holds a special place in the history of the 6,500-seat auditorium.

As the wild crowd cheered stars Robert Downey Jr., Clark Gregg, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, writer-director Joss Whedon departed from the usual script - one in which filmmakers vow that their upcoming movie will be nothing short of awesome - with typical self-deprecating wit.

"I am going to blow it," he said amid the cheers. "I'm not up to it."

He was up to it.

"The Avengers" stands as the highest-grossing film of 2012, having earned more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, and it didn't fare too poorly among movie critics either, many of whom praised Whedon's flair for characters and singular sense of comic timing from rescuing what could have become a plodding superhero hodgepodge - or alternately, the Tony Stark show - and transforming it into a sprightly popcorn delight.

But the release of "The Avengers" was hardly the only major news event in the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies and TV in 2012. Let us recount the ways in which the year has been a gift for discerning fans of fantastic entertainment.

The Dark Knight Returned: If there was a moody, majestic foil to the colorful glee of "The Avengers," it was the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Gotham City triptych. Released in July, "The Dark Knight Rises" saw Christian Bale don the cowl for the last time as Bruce Wayne reluctantly resumes his vigilante ways after years in self-imposed seclusion. He's drawn out of retirement by imposing terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), but the mysterious masked man wasn't the only new character to enter Nolan's world in his third Batman movie: Anne Hathaway inspired plenty of eager spinoff talk with her fiercely feminine take on Selina Kyle.

So did Bilbo Baggins: The hobbit who undertakes an unexpected journey in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" might consider adventures to be "nasty disturbing uncomfortable things" that make one late for dinner, but at the urging of the wise wizard Gandalf the Grey, little Bilbo Baggins nevertheless sets off on an epic quest with Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarfs at arms to help them reclaim their lost treasure and their homeland. The first chapter of that story, "Unexpected Journey" comprises the initial leg of Peter Jackson's return trip to Middle-earth and is set to be followed next year by "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" and "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" in 2014.

THERE ARE GOING TO BE MORE "STAR WARS" MOVIES - AND THEY WON'T BE WRITTEN OR DIRECTED BY GEORGE LUCAS: Rarely does movie news warrant the use of the Caps Lock button, but word that Episodes VII, VIII and IX will, in fact, be coming to multiplexes certainly qualifies. The surprise announcement quickly followed the announcement that Disney had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. Michael Arndt, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Toy Story 3," is writing the script for the next live-action "Star Wars" film, due to reach theaters in 2015.

Princesses got powerful: Maybe it's appropriate given the addition of Leia to the Disney princess canon, but young royal women got a much deserved makeover this year. "Brave's" bow-and-arrow wielding Merida gave the animators at Pixar their first female hero; Kristen Stewart donned a suit of armor for her take on the fairest one of all in "Snow White and the Huntsman"; earlier in the year, Lily Collins also swapped her skirts for some swashbuckling Snow White action in "Mirror Mirror." Even on the small screen, similar transformations were taking place. Ginnifer Goodwin's Snow White on ABC's family-friendly "Once Upon a Time" is a self-reliant elementary schoolteacher, while on HBO's emphatically adult "Game of Thrones," princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is the leader of a race of nomadic warriors who hatches baby dragons, walks through fire and eats the heart of a stallion. Even "John Carter's" colorful princess Dejah Thoris was hardly one to back down from conflict, though, unfortunately, her fortitude wasn't enough to save the doomed Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation.

Speaking of John Carter ... : The movie didn't qualify as a gift necessarily, but the arrival of Andrew Stanton's take on Burroughs' hero was certainly a landmark moment this year, though not the sort that Stanton or Disney originally had in mind. The Confederate soldier transported from the 19th century West to the arid plains of Barsoom celebrated his centennial with the $250-million, effects-laden production starring "Friday Night Lights" hottie Taylor Kitsch. Plainly put, the movie foundered, opening to a lackluster $30 million in the U.S., although it went on to gross $283 million worldwide. Still, that was not nearly enough to pay off the studio's hefty investment.

The Hunger Games began: Just three weeks after the release of "John Carter," the March box office was buoyed by the appearance of determined, resourceful Katniss Everdeen in Gary Ross' big-screen telling of the first book in Suzanne Collins' wildly popular young adult trilogy, "The Hunger Games." Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence starred as Katniss, who to save her sister from a grim fate volunteers to participate in a brutal, televised fight to the death for the amusement of the debauched citizens of the Capitol of Panem.

James Bond turned 50: And never looked more dashing. Ian Fleming's sexy super spy earned some of his best reviews in the Sam Mendes-helmed "Skyfall." Looking to keep the film franchise current, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan settled upon an enemy-within story line that sees Daniel Craig's blue-eyed Bond contending with London bombings, computer terrorism and the machinations of Javier Bardem's menacing villain Silva (sporting a wild blond mane).

So did Spider-Man: Fifty years ago, "Amazing Fantasy" No.15 introduced the character, who had a big year not just in comics but also on Broadway and, of course, in TV and film. Director Marc Webb brought his reverent take on thewebslinger, "The Amazing Spider-Man," to the screen July 3, and audiences responded with wild enthusiasm - the movie is the sixth-highest-grossing title of 2012, having brought in $262 million in domestic box-office receipts. Webb's sequel is due to arrive in theaters in 2014.

The dead walked: AMC's hit zombie series "The Walking Dead" shattered cable ratings records when it returned for its third season in October, scoring some 10.9 million viewers; it went on to become the first cable series ever to win the fall TV ratings in the important, advertiser-friendly demographic of viewers aged 18 to 49 (when DVR playbacks are included).

The Wii U debuted: Nintendo's newest console, the Wii U, launched Nov. 18 with a roster of 23 titles and a price tag of $299.99 or $349.99, depending on the configuration of the machine. There is no questioning the system's ambitions. By replacing one of themain controllers with what is essentially a tablet, theWii U brings another monitor into the living room; it holds the promise of dual-screen gameplay and aims to transform the TV viewing experience with its TVii feature.

© 2012 Knoxville.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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