In a year full of all kinds of bad real-world news, pop culture still managed to poke its head up periodically to remind us that not everything sucks. Of course, this being 2020, that same realm also managed to leave a few steaming piles for us to step in, too. Here are our picks for the year’s highlights and lowlights.
In a year without physical conventions, the best digital version by far was DC Fandome. The free online event packed in the type of diversity, excitement, and news fans have come to expect from conventions, wrapped up in a well-produced, flashy, and fun package. DC revealed new images and footage from movies that are still years away from release—like The Batman, The Suicide Squad, and Black Adam—while providing attendees with chances to interact with creatives, show off their fandom, and so much more. More than the other conventions this year, DC Fandome realized what fans want and gave it to them, with a perfect presentation that felt live even if it wasn’t and looked way better than a basic streaming video. —Germain Lussier
In a year that saw almost every would-be blockbuster movie delay, delay again, and eventually postpone to some far-flung release date when perhaps large gatherings will be safe again, a few 2020 films originally intended for theatrical release changed their tactics entirely. Without having to leave our social bubbles, or even our homes, we got to stream titles like Palm Springs, Bill & Ted Face the Music, and even Disney’s live-action Mulan (a movie with its own separate problems, as we get into below). The early adaptors set the stage for more to follow; the Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max is just a preamble to a 2021 that looks to bring even more movie magic straight to living rooms everywhere. Some Hollywood bigwigs and theater owners are raging about this concession to the pandemic, and we do hope the big-screen experience will be able to make a comeback one day. But in the current moment, our movie-hungry eyeballs are grateful there’s an alternative. —Cheryl Eddy
From the first time John Boyega’s Star Wars character dramatically popped up on screen in the trailer for The Force Awakens, the actor has dealt with a bombardment of racism. Finn being one of the coolest additions to the franchise in ages didn’t quell that of course, because, well, racists gonna racist. But with The Rise of Skywalker’s release in December 2019 came a newfound vocal streak many folks in active contracts with Disney don’t usually have. That started early in the year when the actor posted about plotlines and started replying more frequently and honestly to “fans.” Let’s be clear: Boyega’s notifications were constantly filled with horrible people and he had every right to clap back at them.
But as the year went on, more and more people became outraged about the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and more outspoken about social justice causes as a whole. In the UK, Boyega attended anti-racism and anti-police brutality protest and eventually made an impromptu speech in support of Black Lives Matter. Lucasfilm itself and Kathleen Kennedy eventually supported the actor publicly and had further discussions with him surrounding Hollywood and race. Whether they would have done the same if the actor was still filming Star Wars movies is certainly something to think about, but I think we can all agree Disney should provide support for marginalized actors before the mobs get to them and speak up loudly and frequently that they don’t want the money of some “fans.”—Jill Pantozzi
It was the moment Clone Wars fans had been waiting for, ever since the show’s return for one more season was revealed: Ahsoka Tano and Bo-Katan united, teaming up to take back the world of Mandalore from the clutches of Darth Maul’s coup. You would think a moment that anticipated couldn’t live up to fan expectations, considering their minds were already filled with the perfect version of it after years of teases, concept art, and dreams of what could’ve been. But fans need not have worried.
Kicking off the final four-episode run of season seven, “The Siege of Mandalore” was Star Wars’ big-screen ambition realized in the TV format. Incredible animation matched razor-sharp storytelling as the timeline of the series didn’t just clash with that of Revenge of the Sith’s climax, it also powerfully interwove itself to bring a layer of nuance and tragedy to Anakin’s downfall that could only come through the lens of Ahsoka Tano herself. Congratulations to The Clone Wars for making the best Star Wars movie since The Last Jedi. —James Whitbrook
Has there ever been a video game release with better timing than Animal Crossing: New Horizons? The slice-of-life island adventure came out right when we needed it most, as the novel coronavirus pandemic started to spread across the United States and world. We visited each other’s islands, traded turnips with strangers, and even held remote birthday parties and weddings with our animal friends. New Horizons was sweet, innocent, and a big fluffy ball of kindness—just the ticket to help us through a really difficult transition into what can only be described as Pandemic Life. And now that we have a vaccine, here’s hoping a brighter tomorrow is just over the “new horizon.” —Beth Elderkin
Readers of io9 will know that I did not grow up with The Next Generation as my cultural lexicon for Star Trek, so the nostalgia pull of Patrick Stewart’s return as Jean-Luc Picard for his own self-titled series was less of a fan delight for me and more of a critical intrigue (that, uh, ultimately did not pay off, alas). Voyager was the Trek of my childhood, so the news this year that Kate Mulgrew would once again step into the Starfleet-issue jumpsuit of Captain Kathryn Janeway—O Captain, my Captain!—for Star Trek: Prodigy, the upcoming Nickelodeon series, allowed me to feel the same joy as TNG did seeing their hero return.
What I love most is that she’s doing so for an audience of kids. Prodigy may not be aimed at me directly, but I cannot wait for a new generation of Trek fans to meet the wonderful, powerful scientist who helped me fall in love with Star Trek with a glimmer in her eye and a cup of coffee in hand. —James Whitbrook
When you finally get to watch Matt Reeves’ The Batman, you’ll probably be two years older than you were when you saw the first trailer. That kind of lead time is simply unheard of. Movies that far out don’t know what they’re going to be yet, let alone what marketing strategy they hope to employ. But Reeves and his team knew the film had to have something at DC Fandome, and so they cut a very slick, complete-looking trailer based on mere weeks of physical production. The trailer was intense, visceral, brutal, and made you think “If this is what the movie looks like only a few weeks into it, imagine what the final result could be.” —Germain Lussier
Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s kiss in HBO Max’s Harley Quinn series was the sort of major moment that’s come to define the show as a whole—but that’s not because the kiss was intended to shock audiences or lay the groundwork for a love triangle between Harley, Ivy, and Kite Man. Over the course of its two seasons, Harley Quinn made a concerted effort to crafting narratives about Harley and Ivy, depicting how both women were people who, despite being capable of love and desiring it for themselves, were patently clumsy in their approaches to it.
Harley and Ivy came to one another accidentally and organically in the way that unexpected relationships often do, and it happened as both women were actively working to be more open with themselves about their feelings and desires. Even after their first drunken hookup, Harley and Ivy still had to muster up the courage to admit what their feelings were, both to themselves and to each other. The fact that they were able to do that work in order to get comfortable with one another suggests that the two of them might make it in the long haul. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
I’ve conducted a lot of interviews over the course of my career, but I have a feeling none of them will ever compare to the one I held back in January with The Witcher author Andrzej Sapkowski. The chat, which was conducted over email, was a painfully honest reprieve from the normal back-and-forth we as journalists come to expect with industry professionals. It might not have been as productive or pleasant as the standard sit-and-chat, but to be frank, sometimes it’s nice to talk with someone who has little time, interest, or patience for the normal (and, let’s be honest, sometimes boring) runaround. The Witcher interview stands out as a highlight of 2020 because it’s one of those moments I cherish, both personally and professionally. It’s just funny to me. In a year full of pain, suffering, and frustration, it was nice to know I had at least one day where I could sit down, read someone’s asinine responses to my equally asinine questions, and have a good laugh about the ridiculousness of it all. —Beth Elderkin
Although I was more curiously optimistic than some, a lot of people went into Lower Decks with a sense of apprehension. Star Trek trying to be funny? Trying to be funny about itself? The idea of a show that looked a little like series lead Mike McMahan’s past success with Rick and Morty irked Trek fans who wanted the show to always champion its cerebrally minded approach to sci-fi adventure. Even when the show began, and took its time to reveal its true highs, people remained skeptical that Trek’s return to animation just wasn’t going to play out well
So it’s pretty cool that we got the best first season a Trek show has ever had, right? Lower Decks might have gleefully poked at longstanding Trek story tropes and references to the franchise’s past, but it did so out of an earnest understanding that part of why we love Star Trek is the inherent idea that exploring space and sciencing it up on strange new worlds and with new civilizations is some of the coolest shit around. We might have expected cynicism, but there wasn’t an ounce of it to be found; instead, we got the most sincerely joyful celebration of Star Trek in years. —James Whitbrook
Despite the fact that both the Scarlet Witch and the Vision have both been proper fixtures within the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Age of Ultron, to say that either of them managed to be much more than supporting characters in already over-bloated ensembles would be very, very generous. When the Disney+ series WandaVision was first announced, there was a certain amount of trepidation about its premise and Marvel’s plan for a mind-bending superhero series that also functioned as a sendup of American sitcoms. But WandaVision’s first trailer made it abundantly apparent that the method to the show’s madness might just lead to brilliance when the show finally premieres in January, and actually give Wanda Maximoff and her synthezoid beau the depth they both so desperately deserve. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ended the series on a high note, with She-Ra and Catra confessing their love for each other. It was not only sweet, it was groundbreaking—as it was the first series of its kind to bring its two main characters together in a same-sex relationship. It was a resolution showrunner Noelle Stevenson had been working toward for several seasons, and you could tell how much love and thought was put into it. They weren’t just haphazardly paired together for the sake of a fandom’s “ship,” they were endgame for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. It would’ve been nice to see more of their actual relationship—beyond a quick dream sequence She-Ra had during a moment of crisis—but knowing they finally found happiness with each other after so much pain and trauma is worth celebrating. —Beth Elderkin
After spending four seasons navigating the surprisingly bureaucratic (and frozen yogurt-filled) afterlife, The Good Place’s gang of ethically evolved misfits finally, finally gained entrance to the actual Good Place. The NBC series finale brought the beloved show to a bittersweet ending as the characters confronted one last ethical quandary: What happens after eternity starts to get...boring? The decision to give Good Place residents the option of a final farewell brought meaning back into their lives, but it also set the scene for some incredibly moving moments, both onscreen—Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) poetic “the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, and where it’s supposed to be” farewell speech to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) was a big one—and for viewers, who’d come to cherish the show’s singular blend of earnest philosophy and deliciously cutting snark. —Cheryl Eddy
By thanking the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang region—where some of Mulan was filmed—during the film’s credits, Disney walked right into a massive controversy it presumably wanted no part of. This was despite the fact that news of the Chinese government rounding up Turkic Uighurs and sending them to internment camps within Xinjiang had broken publicly months before the film’s release. To lay things out quite plainly, it is difficult to believe that Disney, one of the most powerful media organizations in the world, was not aware of the ongoing concerns with the Chinese government ostracizing and abusing its minority population of Muslims, and the studio’s decision to film within Xinjiang was patently bad on its face. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
Obviously, we aren’t here to dunk on organizers who were forced to scramble in an unprecedented year, and we don’t want to detract from the devastating financial hits people whose livelihoods depend on huge events like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con had to endure. But technical issues were an unavoidable roadblock when it came to the fan experience; for instance, SDCC’s reliance on prerecorded panels, released in such a way that fans could just scroll through to find the clip or trailer they were after, failed to provide any sense of spontaneous, interactive fun. By contrast, DC Fandom proved online events can still have a pulse, so here’s hoping other cons will take some pointers from its success moving forward—at least until we can all geek out en masse again one of these days. —Cheryl Eddy
Gigantic corporate mergers are something we should all be concerned about. Between internet struggles in rural America to privacy concerns, AT&T being allowed to absorb WarnerMedia in 2018 was a huge deal. We knew the effects would eventually trickle down to Warner Bros.’ subsidiary DC Comics, but the massive layoffs of approximately 600 individuals we saw this year were atrocious. Though Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee affirmed after huge editorial layoffs that publishing comic books was absolutely still vital to the company, we couldn’t help but worry that DC as we knew it was never going to be the same. Not only were the marketing and collectibles sections at the publisher hit hard, but so was Warner’s streaming service DC Universe, which had barely begun to hit its stride, with most of its content being ported over to HBO Max.
Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney Company—which is worth nearly $200 billion—had several rounds of layoffs in 2020 including 28,000 parks and resorts (later upped to 32,000) employees losing their jobs alone. A few months earlier, executives had their full pay restored and just a few weeks ago the company announced a slew of high-profile projects for Disney+ and theaters. Layoffs are never easy, but those rolled out during a global pandemic—especially by companies with deep pockets and rich investors— are particularly egregious. —Jill Pantozzi
Because they’re too young understand the consequences of their actions, babies are prone to getting into all sorts of mischief. The Mandalorian’s resident space gremlin is no exception, as it’s been established that Grogu delights in using the Force to grab what he wants: shiny objects, cookies, and—as we learned in the series’ second season—the delicate eggs of a nice Frog Lady, the last of her line. Mando repeatedly tells Grogu that the Frog Lady’s eggs—which she wants to turn into baby frog-children and raise with her husband—are not for eating, but the kid persists in secretly snacking on them throughout the episode.
The Mandalorian played the entire ordeal for the sort of silly laughs one would expect from Star Wars, but at no point did anyone take the baby aside and explain to him that he was doing something that would be very upsetting to the Frog Lady if she discovered it. While much of the Star Wars fandom balked at the idea that people would take issue with Grogu eating the eggs, The Mandalorian’s been playing with the idea that Grogu’s connection to the Force doesn’t mean that he’s an inherently benevolent creature. Cute as he may be, he’s got no issues gobbling down another person’s unfertilized offspring just because he’s feeling peckish, which is difficult to read as anything but a sign that the baby’s fated for the dark side. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
Some people who make up the comics industry are the best you’ll ever come to know but some of them will disappoint the hell out of you. Comics being a small area compared to book publishing at large means some really bad people get a pass for far too long for a variety of reasons. Be that as it may, this year put Warren Ellis, Cameron Stewart, and Charles Brownstein on notice for unacceptable and atrodicous transgressions. In the case of Ellis, a group of people bravely shared very personal experiences so the public could understand how pervasive, insidious, and long-stretching this issue is and how we can all take steps to make sure it stops. —Jill Pantozzi
In the United States, over 300,000 have died in less than a year because of the novel coronavirus. Countless others face a long and painful road to recovery. This is not an easy thing to say, hear, or write—but it’s the truth. A lot of this is because of government incompetence and corporations putting profits over people. Nowhere is this more clear than with theme parks. In America, theme parks closed during the initial shutdown, a move that helped save lives (although it cost jobs). But as time went on, even though cases continued to soar, companies like Disney and Universal Studios pushed for the parks to reopen.
The pressure didn’t work in California, where theme parks are still shut, but they got their wish in Florida—a state that faces continued criticism for its refusal to issue mask mandates and other safety measures. Florida’s gotten much, much worse over the months; new cases have quintupled since October, now averaging between 8,000-12,000 per day. Theme parks aren’t the primary cause, but no one can claim they’re not contributing to it. The bottom line is it won’t be safe to go back to the Most Magical Places on Earth until the country is safe, and frankly it’s immoral to pretend otherwise as thousands of people die every day. —Beth Elderkin
Netflix has been on a bit of a tear. The streaming platform pulled the plug on dozens of shows this year, including Altered Carbon, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, V-Wars, and Away. A few of them, like The Society and I Am Not Okay With This, were canceled after they’d already been renewed—something Netflix attributed to the novel coronavirus pandemic impacting production schedules. However, one of the saddest cancelations had to be The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which sat in limbo for over a year after its promising first season before Netflix and the Jim Henson Company ultimately confirmed it would not be coming back. It was sad to see such a beautiful and promising series not get a chance to end on its own terms, but the story of Thra continues on in books and graphic novels. —Beth Elderkin
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan makes movies for the big screen. Everyone knows this. But wanting Tenet to be released in theaters during a pandemic became a dark mark not just on him, but the film and Hollywood as a whole. After multiple delays, Tenet came out in August, playing in the handful of indoors theaters that were open. The film quickly tanked and its release strategy pivoted to add drive-ins. It didn’t help. People didn’t want to risk their lives to see a movie, even one by Nolan, and eventually some theaters which had been reopened for Tenet were forced to reclose and make layoffs. Warner Bros. was so shook by the whole ordeal, it eventually it moved its entire 2021 release slate to day and date streaming on HBO Max.—Germain Lussier
It started last year. That’s when President Trump tweeted about this new movie coming out called The Hunt which, he thought, was about liberals hunting conservatives. Universal pulled the film from release and, in early 2020, rebranded it leaning into that controversy. A release was scheduled in early March, just as a global pandemic began to shut down movie theaters everywhere. Eventually, The Hunt became one of the first theatrical films to be released at home. All of this makes it seem like the film was at the apex of several cultural moments, in terms of free speech and theatrical distribution. Alas, it fizzled. Why? Because the movie simply wasn’t that good. It’s not just a movie about liberals hunting conservatives, it’s a movie about how idiotic and selfish people of all beliefs can be. That’s not untrue, but in a time when the world was almost on the brink of self-destruction, it felt dated and stupid. —Germain Lussier
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has spent many recent years putting her transphobic foot in her transphobic mouth for her quiet support of what she believes are “feminist” “gender-critical” beliefs that are, in fact, tantamount to denigrating the existence of trans people in our society. But 2020 was the year she went mask off with her bigotry, defending an openly transphobic researcher for not having her contract renewed (because a court legally ruled that she was advocating hateful discrimination against trans people), mocking trans-friendly language around menstrual health, and in general basically saying “Oh you criticizing my bigotry is absolutely the hate crime here, actually.” Her work on Harry Potter’s future is forever tainted, as fans continue to reckon with loving her past work while knowing her hateful views.
She should be ashamed, as should Warner Bros. for standing alongside her in a statement that was worse than just shutting up and burying their backwards heads in the sand. —James Whitbrook
Correction 12/17/2020, 4:10 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post misstated that The Mandalorian’s Frog Lady was an endangered species. The eggs were just the last of her line. It was still hella gross of Grogu to treat that jar like a pickled egg buffet though.
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