It’s been a year seemingly full of bad news, bad takes, and bad feelings. But pop culture was still there for us—making us delight at unexpected joys like Baby Yoda, and allowing us to bond over horrors like Sonic the Hedgehog’s freakish teeth. Read on for io9's pop culture highlights (and lowlights) of 2019.
Comic book movies have achieved dominance at the box office for years, but the debate over whether they’re ever going to be seen as serious cinema contenders has been raging ever since The Dark Knight nabbed Heath Ledger a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and just look at all the furor over Martin Scorsese’s opinion of Marvel movies—more on that below, actually).
The 2019 Oscars at least showed a big step for a genre that’s still regularly discarded as empty popcorn fluff. Black Panther may not have won Best Picture, but that it was nominated, and picked up wins elsewhere, proved that films willing to push the superhero genre could achieve prestigious accolades. Into the Spider-Verse winning Best Animated Picture was an equally delightful cherry on the top of a sweet sundae of superheroic validation.
While it may still become a memorable year for cats for a very different reason, Marvel hit a high note with a bit of ginger. Remember when we were a little bummed that Carol Danvers’ cat Chewie wasn’t actually going to be the flerken we got for Captain Marvel’s big-screen debut? All was soon forgiven as Goose lept his way into our proverbial laps. It started subtly with a difficult-to-see cameo in a poster, then came the toys, and if the studio hadn’t realized earlier, Marvel quickly realized it needed to put Goose (aka Reggie, with assists from three other feline thespians) front and center in Captain Marvel’s purr-fect marketing geared toward cat lovers. If anyone deserves their own Disney+ spinoff series, it’s Goose.
Everyone knows that one of the main reasons for the uber-success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is producer Kevin Feige. His vision for this massive, connected universe of films was thought impossible just a decade ago and though he’s had lots of help along the way, he usually gets the credit.
In that time, Feige has never been shy about his love of Star Wars. It’s a franchise he considers as close to his heart, if not closer, than Marvel. So when the news broke in September that Feige would be producing a Star Wars movie, it was easy to get excited. To have the person who so beautifully laid out Marvel’s 10-year, 20-plus film story get his hands on another epic franchise? It could be just the thing to help Star Wars past the Skywalker saga and send it off into a whole other galaxy.
At 2019's San Diego Comic-Con, the Marvel Studios panel was anticipated with epic amounts of excitement. Fans were on pins and needles. The atmosphere was electric. Months after Avengers: Endgame put an end to the Infinity Saga, the studio would finally announce what was next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the panel did not disappoint. For two hours, the president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige (that Star Wars fan we just talked about) dropped atomic bombs of news, from Black Widow footage to tidbits about Disney+ shows and more.
Two of the most memorable panel moments, however, involved additions to the Marvel roster. First up, in revealing that a fourth Thor film, Thor: Love and Thunder, was on the way, we found out that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster would follow in her comic character’s footsteps and become Thor in the film. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, Marvel also revealed that two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali was going to step into Wesley Snipes’ shoes and star in a new movie about the daywalker Blade. Both reveals sent shockwaves of excitement through fandom, not just because they were awesome, but because Marvel Studios was finally showing its own excitement about embracing a diversity that reflects the real world.
In space, no one can hear you act. Students in a drama program at New Jersey’s North Bergen High School made well-deserved headlines earlier this year when they put on an adaptation of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Directed by English teacher Perfecto Cuervo, the production made up for a tiny budget with creativity and ingenuity, boasting some impressive practical effects and a really amazing-looking xenomorph costume. The play caught the attention of Alien fans, Scott, and even Ellen Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver surprised the cast, crew, and crowd by attending a special special encore performance of the show on April 26, the holiday otherwise known as Alien Day.
We’ve all seen Star Wars, but none of us have lived it. That changed this year when Disney opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida. The 14-acre park expansions were gorgeous, immersive, and completely in the canon of Star Wars. That meant no t-shirts that said “Star Wars” on them. When you went into Galaxy’s Edge you were no longer in a theme park. You were on the Star Wars planet of Batuu, smack in the middle of a conflict between the Resistance and First Order.
Sure, the opening wasn’t the smash hit most had predicted and the lands had their fair share of detractors. But for many of us, Galaxy’s Edge gave us a chance to actually do something we’d only dreamed of: live inside Star Wars, even if only for a day. We could build our own lightsaber, fly the Millennium Falcon, drink blue milk, or hang out in a cantina. If you’re a Star Wars fan, the park truly offers a one-of-a-kind experience.
We counted down the days to the Disney+ launch for one reason: The Mandalorian. There was so much pre-release hype for the highly anticipated first live-action Star Wars TV show, starting with the casting and creative team reveals, followed by a stream of intriguing images and some killer trailers. When the show finally debuted on November 12, it lived up, widening the canvas of that galaxy far, far away while introducing the taciturn bounty hunter at its center and giving us delightful amounts of Werner Herzog.
But the final moments of the first episode shared a surprise that changed not just our perception of The Mandalorian, but of Star Wars itself: Baby Yoda, probably not his actual name (the show itself prefers “The Child”), but that’s what instantly stuck. The adorable infant sparked a pop culture tidal wave wrapped up in a tiny, mischievous package, with thousands of memes and countless frenzied demands for merch trailing in his wake.
Movie announcements are generally mundane. You read about them on the internet, maybe follow some casting news, and eventually, there’s a trailer. That was not how Sony and director Jason Reitman chose to reveal their new Ghostbusters film, though. Mere hours after news broke that Reitman, son of the original film’s co-writer and director Ivan Reitman, was bringing the franchise back, a teaser for the film was released. Of course, it was barely a whisper, featuring footage that’s probably not even in the movie itself (we’ve got a full trailer now). But seeing the Ecto-1 in a barn, under a tarp, was so alien, it sparked the imaginations of Ghostbusters fans everywhere. That was how you announced a movie.
After the first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer single-handedly destroyed the internet, director Jeff Fowler promised his team was heading back to the drawing board for a full redesign. This decision raised some red flags. Jim Carrey, who’s playing Robotnik, wasn’t super thrilled with the choice and cautioned that social media shouldn’t have that kind of sway over how a film is made. In addition, some folks wondered what kind of pressure a total redesign would put on the special effects team. But thankfully, Paramount delayed the movie three months to help with the process.
In the end, it seems like things worked out pretty damn good. In November, Sonic made his second debut in a trailer that showed off a much more fitting character design. Instead of horrifying, it’s now fun and lively—partially thanks to Sonic the Hedgehog veterans like Tyson Hesse coming in to help out on the project. Jury’s still out on whether the film, which looks like a pretty standard kids’ movie, will be worth all the time, effort, and money. But at least Sonic doesn’t have those teeth anymore.
Last year, conservative activists targeted Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 director James Gunn with a manufactured campaign, largely because of his criticism of Donald Trump. Their ammunition? A series of Gunn’s old tweets joking about sexual assault and pedophilia. The tweets were inexcusable and Gunn apologized for them, but the damage was already done. Disney immediately removed Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, put that film’s production on hold, and terminated their partnership with the director...for a little while anyway.
In March, it was revealed that Gunn was back on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. In fact, he’d apparently been re-hired months before the announcement, following extensive talks with Walt Disney Studios president Alan Horn. It was a welcome relief but didn’t come without reflection. In a later interview, Gunn took responsibility for his actions and said he’d learned from the experience, noting that Disney had every right to fire him for what he’d tweeted in the past. Production on Guardians Vol. 3 is expected to begin once Gunn has wrapped on DC’s The Suicide Squad, which the director signed onto while on hiatus from Disney.
Because queer people are still drastically underrepresented in genre media —despite the fact that they people make up a significant portion of genre fandoms—more often than not, people end up having to read between the lines when it comes to their favorite films and television shows if they want to see romances and relationships like their portrayed on screens big and small. Good Omens’ Aziraphale and Crowley aren’t at all depicted as sexual beings, but the intimacy of their millennia-long friendship is often read as much more than platonic in a way that felt genuine and heartfelt, and really spoke to audiences.
New Gem fusions have always cause for celebratory alarm when it comes to Steven Universe, but it’d been so long since we’d feed Steven fuse with another human aside from Connie, that no one was really prepared or expecting something quite as wild as Steg multiverse. The concept of fusion had been used to personify and unpack the various kinds of love that different Steven Universe characters feel for one another, ranging from the healthy, platonic sort to the kinds of bonds that form between people in abusive, unstable relationships. But through Steg, Steven Universe depicted the strength of Steven and Greg’s familial bond that’s grown over the course of the series that’s so often focused on how their differences could have easily torn their family apart.
The 1921 Bombing of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma is a pivotal moment in American history that, because of the institutionalized racism that’s baked into the U.S. education system, many people (particularly non-black people) had never heard of before HBO’s Watchmen series. Revered as the original comics are, you wouldn’t immediately assume that a series based on it would so thoughtfully explore elements of American culture that are rooted in anti-black racism. But with each of its nine episodes, Watchmen demonstrated that it could—both because of the brilliance of Damon Lindelof’s initial concept, and because HBO understood that it was crucial that the writing team crafting this narrative needed to be composed of a diverse array of voices, people who could provide nuanced perspectives about the difficult and often painful realities about race and police brutality that Watchmen revolved around.
HBO’s Watchmen thrives on its own audacity. Time and time again the series has made its sharp rise to the top of 2019’s must-watch TV charts with bold twists, big reveals, and some of the most compelling hours of television we’ve seen not just in 2019, but full stop. But yet, there was nothing—nothing—quite like how the fourth episode of the season (titled “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”) bowled everyone over with a figure who has come to be known only as...Lube Man.
The scene: our hero, Regina King’s Angela Abar, dressed in her vigilante gear and on the hunt. She looks across the street, feeling like she’s being watched. And she is…by a man clad entirely in bright, silver Spandex save for a pair of goggles, who just. Starts. Running. Angela gives chase, but our sleek speedster, dousing himself in a distressingly unknown liquid from bottles belted across his waist, is too fast, sliding himself across a street… and into a sewer drain, never to be seen again.
It’s not been explained since. All we know is that, for a few beautiful minutes, we were all collectively losing our shit at what the actual fuck just happened, as was Angela.
The MCU has been long overdue for LGBTQ representation when it comes to big-screen characters who actually have an impact on the story, and this year the studio finally made some official declarations letting fans know that tide is about to turn. At San Diego Comic-Con, actor Tessa Thompson and MCU boss Kevin Feige both confirmed that Valkyrie, Thompson’s character first introduced in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, will be getting an honest-to-goodness LGBTQ storyline in 2021’s Thor: Love and Thunder.
And Marvel didn’t stop there; about a month later, Feige announced that we’ll also be seeing an as-yet-unnamed gay character in The Eternals, which hits theaters in 2020. Here’s hoping the portrayals are handled with care and sensitivity and end up paving the way for even more diversity in the MCU’s stories to come.
In 2003, The Matrix was done and over with. Or so we thought. Hollywood’s gonna Hollywood, after all. It seemed the Wachowskis’ revolutionary sci-fi action series was due for more exploration, and even though there were rumors for years, we never really thought we’d get the news we did in 2019. The Matrix is coming back with Lana Wachowski at the helm and Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity. Is this the real world??
Truth be told, Keanu Reeves has never been on the wrong side of cool—but 2019 was a particularly kick-ass year for the superstar, especially in regards to the geeky, genre side of his ever-expanding resumé. We saw Reeves as motorcycle daredevil Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4, unleashing unholy amounts of bullets in John Wick 3, making a surprise appearance in video game Cyberpunk 2077, and whipping fans into a frenzy with a slew of future projects: popping up as a tumbleweed in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run trailer; dusting off his excellent air guitar moves for Bill and Ted Face the Music; and (deep breath) returning to the Matrix franchise. Hell, 2019 isn’t even over yet, so there’s still time for the actor to announce something or other regarding those long-rumored plans for him to enter the MCU.
When historians look back at the launch of the Disney+ streaming service, they’ll remember it by one word: Maclunkey.
Minutes after Disney+ launched on November 12, news began to spread that the infamous Han and Greedo scene from Star Wars: A New Hope had been changed. Again. This time, before shooting Han, Greedo said “Maclunkey.” Why? To this day, we still don’t know for sure. But in the hours and days that followed, Maclunkey-mania took over the world. People reveled in glee at this weird, seemingly unfathomable addition to the Star Wars lexicon. The internet became an NBA Slam Dunk contest with everyone in the world trying their best to make fun of the scene more savagely than the next person.
In the end, it turns out the addition came from George Lucas himself. Years before, the Star Wars creator remastered his films in 4K and, for some reason or another, added “Maclunkey.” Now, it serves as the ultimate reminder that the original Star Wars trilogy may never actually be “the original Star Wars trilogy.” And to that we say...what else? Maclunkey!
For one month in 2019, Spider-Man was in exile. Earlier this year, news broke that Sony Pictures (which owns the movie rights to Spider-Man) and Marvel Studios (the Disney-led company which helped bring Tom Holland’s version of the character to prominence) were fighting. Sony was no longer going to let Spider-Man appear in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe films because of a money issue. And fans. Went. Apeshit.
For a month, all anyone could talk about was Spider-Man. What was going to happen with his movies? How were his stories going to wrap up? Could the two companies come to an agreement? Conflicting reports spread like wildfire discussing what the companies wanted, who was to blame, back and forth ultimately ending in reconciliation and a return to the status quo. Spider-Man will continue to appear in MCU movies, at least for the time being. But the whole ordeal revealed so much of what’s wrong with the movie industry today. Studios using the press to fight battles in public. Rumors being misconstrued and reported as fact. It was a whole lot of nothing being treated like something.
It’s truly been the year of the trailer that shall live in infamy. In July, the first look at Cats delighted and horrified audiences with its CGI cat-people and oversized furniture sets. But that didn’t hold a candle to April 30, the day the first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer dropped. It dominated internet discourse thanks to a realistic approach to the film’s Sonic design, which was so completely and unequivocally nightmarish that social media could not stop screaming. Screaming about eyes, screaming about hands, screaming about fur, and my god, the teeth, the screaming about teeth. It was all understandable: this did not look like Sonic as the world knows it, it looked like an aberration to the lord while also simultaneously proving that lord could not possibly exist in a cosmos that created this thing.
Sonic’s design was so groundbreakingly bad and so catastrophically poorly received it literally forced Paramount back to the drawing board, delaying the movie into 2020 in a redesign process that likewise brought forward questions of employee crunch and the actual labor cost of undergoing such an unprecedented overhaul. Thankfully, the new design is much, much better (as referenced in our highlights section). The jury’s out on the film, though.
One of the unfortunate side effects of becoming a star in the comics space is that, eventually, the nerds will come for you with a whole mess of nonsense that’s rooted in unhealthy concept of what it means to participate in genre discourse. Take Tom King, writer of Batman and Vision comics who in a previously life worked for the CIA, something you would think would endear him to the spy-obsessed people that engage with these kinds of books, for example. Though King didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, an onslaught of softminded idiots drove the writer to restate that he was very much in the military and that he had nothing he was trying to lie about.
In early 2019, the world waited with bated breath to find out what was going to happen in Avengers: Endgame. Marvel Studios and Disney took extra care to “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” by limiting early screenings and having stars create videos asking fans to keep the film’s secrets to themselves. But all of that kind of blew up when pirated footage of the film made its way online. The footage, shot in an authorized screening, showed many of the film’s biggest moments out of context. Its aim was simple: spoil the film for people and make them angry. And many sites ran the footage, or descriptions of the footage, making money off the disappointment of others. The fact that the footage got out was news for sure, but people willingly spoiling something for others, just for their own personal gain (or enjoyment) showed us a tiny slice of what’s wrong with humanity.
Craig Zobel’s violent satire The Hunt was meant to be edgy from the get-go, with a script (by Watchmen’s Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof) said to offer a Most Dangerous Game-style tale that made rich liberals the hunters and kidnapped Red Staters their human prey. But The Hunt, which Zobel said was intended to target “both sides of the aisle” with its subject matter, ended up courting the wrong kind of controversy when the ramp-up to its September 27 release coincided with multiple real-life mass shooting tragedies, making the film’s trigger-happy marketing campaign feel particularly distasteful. (It didn’t help matters that President Trump, urged along by conservative press reports, also felt the need to tweet about The Hunt’s divisive storyline, even though neither he nor anyone in the media had actually seen the film.) All the negativity convinced Universal to shelve The Hunt, and there have been no updates as to whether or not it’ll ever the light of day.
It has been a frustrating year for LGBTQ representation in genre movies, with less in the way of actual groundbreaking moments and more promises of what’s to come that we just have to hope don’t end up as empty as the past promises we’ve been given. But one of the most frustrating moments of all came in the days before the release of Avengers: Endgame, when directors Anthony and Joe Russo began championing to media that, after a decade of movies, Endgame would finally bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe its first openly gay character, a watershed moment for studio and its powerhouse franchise.
Fans began speculating who among the movie’s vast cast could be the MCU’s first out hero. Even though it had taken 10 years, people were finally glad that Marvel had taken such an important step forward. Then the movie hit theaters and it turned out the MCU’s first gay character was…Joe Russo? Appearing in a minor cameo, Russo played an unnamed man at a support group attended by Captain America for people who survived Thanos’ snap in the climax of Infinity War. On screen for mere moments with a handful of lines, the civilian briefly discussed how he’d gone on a date with another man and was beginning to find a way to move on from the seeming apocalypse…and that was it. Gone as quickly as he appeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
That the moment was inconsequentially minor, or that was even one of the Russo brothers self-inserting into their movie, wasn’t really the issue: it was that they went to the press touting this as a major moment, something to be lauded—and they were lauded, initially, without people knowing the context—for what should be the bare-minimum for letting a queer character, minor or otherwise, exist on screen in 2019. That Marvel would go on to argue it never wanted to be lauded for it afterward only made things that much more disappointing. The studio has to do better, and hopefully (there’s that hope again!) with Eternals and Thor: Love & Thunder, they’ll actually bring some prominent, openly queer heroes to our screens soon. It’s taken far too long already.
The conversation surrounding Todd Phillips’ Joker was a carnival this year. From Joaquin Phoenix getting flustered and walking out when asked by a reporter about the film’s subject matter, to the U.S. military issuing warnings to troops about screenings of the DC film, it seemed there was no shortage of questions to be asked once it came time to premiere the movie. But as the day approached, Warner Bros. decided to curb further controversy by canceling all red carpet interviews at the big event, a staple in Hollywood. It was a bad look for the studio at large, not to mention Phillips and Phoenix, who later went on to try and speak more thoughtfully about the topic, to varying degrees of success.
Despite that fact that The Punisher’s co-creator Gerry Conway has openly expressed his disdain for police officers who liken themselves to the character, and Frank Castle himself has told cops that they’re nothing like him in Marvel’s comics, members of law enforcement continued to wear his skull logo proudly this year, sending a chilling, horrific message to the public. So long as Marvel continues to look the other way while people sell unlicensed Punisher merchandise—like versions of the logo done up with Thin Blue Line/Blue Lives Matter imagery—cops are going to continue to buy the stuff and walk around implicitly telling civilians that they, like Frank Castle, won’t hesitate to torture or kill people simply because they believe they have the authority to do so with impunity.
This might seem like a silly thing to complain about, but didn’t 2019 feel like the year it officially became impossible to keep up with every TV show on your watchlist—and still function like a normal human who needed to work, sleep, and occasionally enjoy the outdoors? All the new streaming services (like Disney+ and Apple TV+), whether they offered their fare in single-serving or binge formats, only added to the floodgates already gushing forth content from places like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, DC Universe, and even ye olde networks like NBC (we will always make time for The Good Place).
Viewers have had to become more selective than ever, and it’s a skill they’ll need to keep sharp; the barrage isn’t going to let up anytime soon, with HBO Max launching next year, Disney+ prepping its various Marvel series, all of CBS All Access’ incoming Star Trek projects, and so, so much more.
Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese could do without Marvel movies, something he wasn’t shy about sharing in an interview with Empire magazine. His comments, which boiled down to “that’s not cinema, it’s a theme park,” incited enough ire that he took to the pages of the New York Times, penning an opinion piece that fleshed out his remarks with more careful wording. Franchise films, he wrote, are “perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption” that have taken over the movie business; with a bit more context, it became clear his beef with Marvel is really more of a beef with how Hollywood has transformed into an industry way more focused on blockbusters than artistic expression.
That’s an undeniable truth. But it’s also true that there are still plenty of film fans who were equally as excited to watch Midsommar or The Lighthouse, for instance, as they were Avengers: Endgame, and there’s no reason for anyone, even a show biz legend, to discount the joy that big, loud, and yes, silly superhero movies can bring to their fans.
Around the beginning of the year, allegations of sexual misconduct began surfacing against anime voice actor Vic Mignogna, resulting in Funimation and Rooster Teeth removing him from upcoming projects. In February, io9 published an investigation into several allegations—with women sharing stories of sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of inappropriate behavior.
But the story didn’t end there. Mignogna later filed a defamation lawsuit against Funimation and two of his former co-stars (along with one of their fiancés) who’d accused him of sexual misconduct. The lawsuit was largely funded through a GoFundMe campaign, which had been set up by a YouTuber with a presence in alt-right online communities. The legal battle went on for months, resulting in legal filings that gained notoriety for claims like saying someone is a “piece of shit” is defamatory because humans aren’t made of feces. All the while, the defendants, along with several others connected to the situation, faced harassment from some of Mignogna’s supporters.
Mignogna lawsuit ultimately failed, with all the charges being dismissed. And, because of Texas’ anti-SLAPP laws, he’s on the hook for almost $250,000 in defendants’ legal fees if he doesn’t continue with an appeal.
Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animations Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter was ousted in 2017 after multiple instances of sexual harassment were reported by women who worked at the company. Just over a year later, Skydance Media hired Lasseter to head Skydance Animation, a newer branch of the company that’s set to start releasing films in 2021. The decision was met with immediate and justified backlash from Time’s Up and others in the industry. The general consensus was that it was way too soon for Lasseter to be given oversight of an animation studio after what had happened—especially without giving employees a say in whether they’d be comfortable working with him.
The tragedy of the toy giant formerly known as Toys “R” Us continues. Last year, Toys “R” Us closed the doors of 800 stores across the country after private equity firms had saddled the company with millions in debt after a buyout. The company ultimately had to file for bankruptcy and auction off most of its assets, except for global licensing rights. About 30,000 former employees were laid off in summer 2018 without any severance or benefits. They went on to file a lawsuit and ultimately received a $20 million severance fund in November 2018. It seemed like the days of Toys “R” Us were over. But the corpse has been brought back to life.
Toys “R” Us opened two new stores (one in Texas and the other in New Jersey) during the holiday season as part of an attempt to keep the brand alive. The stores lease out space to brands to promote and sell their goods, and customers are directed to the store’s website for most purchases—except the website is powered through Target, meaning most of the toys and other items are actually being sold through Target. It’s sad to see Toys “R” Us sink this far down, thanks to the destructive machinations of private equity. Goes to show that private equity firms never have the best interest of the companies they acquire at heart. Ever.
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