We’ve been counting down the 100 most important moments in pop culture all week in honor of io9’s 10th anniversary. And at last, we’ve reached the end: The top 20. These are the biggest, most monumental events, decisions, releases, and more that have left indelible marks (usually for better, sometimes for worse, and some remain to be seen) on nerd culture since January 2, 2008.
We loved The Force Awakens because it felt so much like classic Star Wars. It was familiar. The Last Jedi works because it’s not. After two years of speculating who Rey’s parents were, where Snoke was from, and what Luke was going to do with his lightsaber, like Luke, writer-director Rian Johnson tossed it all off a cliff. He made Star Wars shocking again. Watching The Last Jedi felt like it must have felt to see The Empire Strikes Back when it was first released, and being blown away by watching Han get encased in carbonite, or Vader’s paternal revelation to Luke. The Last Jedi challenged what we believed about Jedi, the Force, good, evil, and much more. By doing so, he forced fans—not always willingly—to come to terms with the fact that Star Wars is no longer beholden to the original trilogy, and that, finally, the saga of the Skywalkers is nearing its end. Whether you love that or hate it, after The Last Jedi, we’ll never look at Star Wars the same way again.
As superhero fare has dominated the Hollywood ecosystem, one of the biggest criticisms of the genre has been its reliance on the same formula. Deadpool didn’t give a damn about any of that. We didn’t see Wade Wilson struggle to accept the changes that happened to his body or grapple with the right thing to do with his powers. The Merc with a Mouth loves being a randy, potty-mouthed engine of destruction and, in turn, audiences loved the unpredictable meta-aware romp that Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller, and crew delivered in 2016. It felt like a movie that did whatever the hell it wanted and that R-rated energy propelled Deadpool to become one of the biggest superhero successes of all time.
Rowling swore she was done with Harry Potter’s story after Deathly Hallows was published in 2007. In 2015, she called backsies, and announced Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a surprising new installment that would come in the form of a... play? A two-part play? In London? It was a shock to say the least, if a bit frustrating for fans who had come to terms with the end of Harry’s story—not to mention those who didn’t live in the UK. The rehearsal script, which focused on the children of Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and others was released in book form, but since it was penned by screenwriter-playwright Jack Thorne it lacked that Rowling magic. Some people even compared The Cursed Child to—gasp!—fan fiction, since it retread old plot devices and stories, and despite creating a time travel nightmare it didn’t amount to very much in the end. But we strongly suspect Harry’s story still isn’t over.
When Zack Snyder was hired to direct the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel, it didn’t feel like a huge deal. We knew that WB was looking to make its own cinematic universe to compete with Marvel’s, but this seemed like a simple first step. Little did we know! Soon after its release, Snyder announced he would also be making Batman v Superman, and then Justice League. Warner Bros. had given him the keys to DC kingdom, and a filmmaker with a decidedly masculine, dark vision became the person most responsible for creating the DC movie universe. His superhero movies were derided by some fans and critics, but also made a lot of money—just not as much as Marvel’s superhero movies, to the WB’s dismay. Snyder left during the filming of Justice League; it remains to be seen if he’ll return to make another DC film. Still, whatever films DC makes in the future will be set in Snyder’s universe.
In 2014, the ex-boyfriend of a video game developer named Zoe Quinn wrote a blog that accused her of, among other things, sleeping with members of the press in exchange for positive coverage. That claim was later disproven, but the vitriolic backlash that resulted is still being felt. In the wake of the blog post, an online movement called Gamergate was born. It claimed to be about ethics in video game journalism, but it mainly served as a front for harassment campaigns against progressive video game developers—along with any journalists or fans who showed support for them. It eventually spread to other mediums, like comic books and movies, treating works with increased representation and diversity as problems that needed to go away. While the movement itself no longer exists, its effects still linger all though the most toxic levels of fandom. Online harassment campaigns—including rape and death threats, doxxing, “swatting,” threatening family members, and other forms of abuse—are now treated (by some) as acceptable forms of public discourse, which we saw with the Ghostbusters reboot, Wonder Woman, and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There have always been awful people in fandom, but Gamergate taught them how awful they could really be, and the world is a worse place for it.
So how to deal with a world filled with hatred, pain, and misery? Watch Steven Universe, and realize that there’s still hope for this world. Steven Universe is perhaps the show that best embodies what the future of animation holds for the next generation of young people who are going to grow up watching Cartoon Network. Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe singlehandedly proved that a show created by a woman that featured a diverse, inclusive cast and crew could be a huge success. Steven Universe brought a kind of emotionally-intelligent, thoughtful queerness to children’s television that would have been unimaginable just a few years back but now feels like a crucial and necessary part of contemporary storytelling. The world is a better place for having Steven Universe in it, and the kids who are growing up watching it will be better people for it.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm didn’t just rejuvenate Star Wars as a blockbuster movie franchise, it brought about one of the most sweeping overhauls of a transmedia franchise in history. The expanded universe of Star Wars games, books, comics, and beyond was legendary, beloved for its continuation of the stories of so many characters (and, occasionally mocked for going absolutely bonkers with those characters). Suddenly, it was gone, swept aside in favor of a lean official continuity—just the movies and animated TV shows—that would be rebuilt from the ground up with new material across different mediums going forward. The decision still remains controversial among some diehard fans, but it was one taken to get a chance to reshape what we know about the galaxy far, far away in some fundamental and fascinating ways. Star Wars was back, and more powerful than we could have possibly ever imagined.
13) DC Superhero Girls and Star Wars: Forces of Destiny definitely proved young girls can be nerds, too
Disney Princesses. Barbie. Bratz. Why couldn’t the DC Comics/Warner Bros. mega-corporation do something that captured hearts and minds (and oodles of parental dollars) in a similar fashion? When the publisher partnered with Mattel to launch DC Superhero Girls in 2015, the initiative’s success exploded the wrong-headed canard that only boys are into superheroes. The books carrying the DCSHG brand have been bestsellers for DC, along with cartoons and toys that let young fans live inside Superhero High to their hearts’ content. Lucasfilm’s clearly paid attention to the rise of DCSHG, having launched the Forces of Destiny animated shorts and comics last year. These moves do a whole lot to make it easier for young girls to find themselves in the fantastic universes that continue to have so much influence on popular culture.
If you’d read all the books before watching the HBO show, you were anticipating the Red Wedding since episode one. If you were none the wiser, the gruesome event—which starts out as a wedding feast and ends with the slaughter of Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn, his wife, his direwolf, and thousands of his faithful troops—was the latest cruel shock in a series known for them. It reminded us (and the characters) that their actions, be they marrying the wrong person or rebelling against King’s Landing, will always have consequences, and that even beloved characters could be killed off at any moment. (And also, if you hear “The Rains of Castamere” playing at a wedding, best run like hell.) But the really amazing thing is that despite millions of book fans knowing this unbelievably shocking twist was coming, they all kept quiet to let the show’s viewers be shocked, too.
These days, when you think of San Diego Comic-Con, the first thing you think of is probably crowds and long lines. It’s not uncommon for people to wait in line for 24 hours or more to get into the biggest panels, usually the movie ones, in Hall H. While the con has obviously always been crowded, Twilight fans took things to a whole new level in 2008. They were the first fans to line up days in advance, hellbent on seeing the stars of the vampire franchise, and unknowingly forced Comic-Con to change how it operated. No longer was the con a semi-casual experience. Now intense planning was needed for everything—parking, hotels, tickets, and especially getting into panels. The possibility of sleeping outside for days and waiting in line and still not getting into a room that holds 6,000 people? It’s real. Those Twilight fans raised the bar when it came to fandom endurance, and Comic-Con hasn’t been the same since.
Before Avatar came into the picture, 3D was nothing more than a gimmick. Films like Jaws 3-D and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over used the technology to hurl awful special effects at the screen in a lazy attempt to get butts in seats. So when James Cameron announced that Avatar would get a massive 3D release, no one understood how that could actually happen. Well, it happened because he literally invented it into existence. Cameron and his team developed a new system of stereoscopic filming, meaning two cameras placed side-by-side, to simulate a more realistic 3D effect. He used this new system not as a cheap ploy, but as a realistic way to show depth and scale in his film. The result changed everything. Avatar, one of the most successful films of all time, also brought about a new era in movies. It’s been called the Citizen Kane moment for 3D filmmaking, due to how much it’s influenced the industry. Nowadays, 3D is a requirement for most Hollywood blockbusters. It’s come a long way since floating sharks, and we have blue alien cats to thank for it.
The Walking Dead is the sort of monstrous ratings giant that network executives have passionate dreams about. At its height, The Walking Dead wasn’t just one of the most popular shows on AMC, it was one of the highest performing series on television as a whole—pulling in nearly 20 million viewers per episode. Sure, some people like zombie entertainment, but it’s amazing that a TV show about people living in the zombie apocalypse could draw a such an incredibly huge audience from week to week. The show has certainly had its ups and downs, but it remains one of the most popular shows on TV, period, as million watch to see what fresh hell its characters will be put through that week.
It’s hard to imagine that Kamala Khan has only existed in the pages of Marvel Comics for just under four years. She has been an indelible part of Marvel’s ethos since her creation by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Adrian Alphona. Marvel’s first Muslim character made her debut in her own 2013 comic series, part of the post-Captain Marvel wave of female characters getting to lead their own ongoing comics (after the company went years without a single female-led book). But even in this short span of time, it’s hard to deny the overwhelming impact that Kamala, and her excellent comic series, has had—spearheading a new generation of young superheroes that are more diverse and reflective of the company’s new, growing audience than ever. In the way we look back upon the arrival of legendary characters like Peter Parker or Black Panther in the 1960s, future generations will look back at Kamala Khan as a proud inflection point in comics history.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced it would finally be making an Episode VII, set after the events of Return of the Jedi, the entire world of fandom started talking and arguing and theorizing about it, and it didn’t stop until The Force Awakens premiered on December 18, 2015. The release was bigger than anything the movie world had ever seen. It made a staggering $248 million in three days. It almost grossed a billion dollars in the US alone, blowing away the previous domestic box office champion, Avatar. But more that that, it won Star Wars a new generation of fans, it introduced a new set of diverse heroes, and completely rejuvenated a beloved franchise that had mostly been frozen in carbonite for years.
When the CW announced that DC Comics’ Green Arrow was going to be adapted into a television series you could almost hear the collective response from fandom: “Him?” And then: “Why isn’t it called Green Arrow?” Though the show, which turned the emerald archer into a bow-wielding Batman surrogate, got off to a bit of a rough start in 2012, it showed Hollywood that superheroes on TV could work, and not just for kids. A year later we saw Barry Allen return to the small screen in The Flash, and then came Constantine, Gotham, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and just this week, Black Lightning—and that’s just the DC shows. Marvel followed suit with Agents of SHIELD in 2013, which was followed by their Netflix offerings Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Punisher. Happily, this isn’t even a complete list of what’s out there, or what’s to come. The superhero entertainment boom has completely encompassed TV,
Marvel Studios didn’t originate the concept of characters from different televisions or films existing in a shared universe, but it definitely harnessed the full potential of the movie making tactic with the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though Marvel was relatively late to the game when it came to putting out blockbusters based on comics, the studio’s decision to connect its films gave it a creative edge over the competition that’s gone on to change the way Hollywood approaches franchises now. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is more than the sum of its parts and its ability to command millions of dollars at the box office has ensured that Marvel and other studios are going to keep building out their interconnected toybox films for years to come.
It took about four years for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to get Game of Thrones off the ground—but that first glance was apparently so bad, it put the whole series at risk. The showrunners have admitted there were major problems with the pilot, which much more closely followed the book, saying it was boring and too plot-heavy—and yet, also confusing. For example, friends of Benioff and Weiss left the episode not knowing that Jaime and Cersei were related. The showrunners were worried it would lead HBO to pass on the show altogether. In a gutsy move, they chose to rewrite the script and reshoot 90 percent of the pilot, recasting several key characters (like Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark) and putting more of a focus on the Stark family. It ended up being the right call, leading to a series pick-up for what has since become one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Sadly, no copies of the original pilot have been discovered yet, and it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see the episode that nearly killed Game of Thrones.
Gal Gadot’s first appearance as Wonder Woman was a high point in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and inspired tons of fan confidence in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie. But though Diana’s big-screen solo debut was highly anticipated, nobody could have predicted what a total slam-dunk it would be, greeted by critical acclaim and ecstatic fan reactions, raking both in awards and box office receipts. Its success proved that there’s hope for DC movies after all—and even more importantly, that there’s a huge audience for superhero films made by and starring women.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role of Marvel Comics’ Cool Exec with a Heart of Steel. But, back when the company’s cinematic effort was in its infancy, casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man felt like a risky move. The actor’s talent for believably nuanced character portrayals had won him accolades all throughout his career, but one had to wonder whether he might phone it in for a project so far outside his wheelhouse. However, he found a way into the role and went full Tony, making Iron Man a major hit. Had the movie not worked, Marvel Studios might not be making movies any more. But instead, RDJ’s Iron Man—and more specifically, his Tony Stark—became the cornerstone around which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe was built.
Star Wars isn’t just a series of films and television shows or even really just a franchise anymore. Star Wars has become an almost atmospheric part of modern day global pop culture in a way that really can’t be overstated. Regardless of whether you’re actually consuming explicit Star Wars content directly, there’s a good chance that at any given moment you’re just seconds away from stumbling across some sort of reference or indirect connection leading back to the galaxy far, far away. That’s what made it so predictable and troublesome when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012—Disney wasn’t just buying the rights to a franchise, it was gaining ownership of one of the most significant influences in pop cultural history.