In late September, Netflix released Hwang Dong-hyuk’s nine-episode series Squid Game. It didn’t take long for the show to catch on; by October, social media couldn’t stop talking about “Red Light, Green Light,” and people who’d previously never pictured themselves watching a brutal South Korean survival-horror show had begun plotting out their numbered-sweatsuit Halloween costumes. A sensation thanks to its careful and suspenseful plotting, characters who kept revealing surprising new layers, shocking violence, and instantly viral plot points—we all know what dalgona candy is now, umbrella-shaped or not—Squid Game broke Netflix records and reminded us that sometimes, the best entertainment can appear seemingly out of nowhere, with no big Hollywood names to hype it up, and become the thing you just can’t stop binge-watching.
The Spine of Night
Directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King had dabbled in film before The Spine of Night, but never in animation, never together, and never with such incredible results. The Spine of Night is a stunning animated fantasy, bursting at the seams with decades of sci-fi fantasy fandom and filmmaking confidence. The story spans generations, weaves in all types of creatures and characters, and gives any type of violent anime you’ve seen in your life a run for its money for pure gore alone. Gelatt and Galen-King want their audience to know they have arrived—and they’ve brought their own brutal, cruel, fantastical world along for the ride.
At the start of 2021, Kathryn Hahn could do no wrong as she dazzled and delighted in Marvel Studios’ first crack at the Disney+ whip in WandaVision. First, she charmed as the comical neighbor Agnes following along with Wanda and Vision’s suburban antics—then she transformed into the camp, cackling, singing villain of the piece, revealed as Agatha Harkness in the song of the year. The year 2021 really was Agatha’s all along, and now that she’s getting her own spinoff, there’s going to be years to come that will be hers to take, too.
Speaking of the series that brought Agatha into our lives: WandaVision wasn’t originally intended to be the first of Disney+’s Marvel shows, but an unforeseen twist of events here in the real world led to Wanda Maximoff becoming everyone’s introductory guide to the MCU’s strange, new fourth phase. Uneven as WandaVision’s plot became as the series progressed, from the very first episode, it stood out as being one of Marvel’s bolder, more risky bets on a high-concept story, and one taking the time to properly turn two of the studio’s slightly less-popular characters into icons for the fandom to obsess over. Wearying as the Marvel hype cycle can be when it’s in full effect, WandaVision was a reminder of how genuinely exciting the studio’s projects can be when it manages to strike that perfect balance between mystery, intrigue, and quality storytelling.
The star of Kamikaze Douga’s short “The Duel” arguably became the face of Lucasfilm and Disney’s bold Star Wars Visions initiative in the run up to release, a mysterious figure that represented what was possible when Japanese creatives got their hands on the freest reigns to guide the Star Wars galaxy we’ve seen in years. But it wasn’t just that the Ronin starred in a pretty great little short, he grew and flourished as one of the fascinating characters expanded upon in the Visions novel Ronin, by Emma Mieko Candon, which took the world briefly glimpsed in “The Duel” and offered a stunning, philosophical, and utterly fascinating lens on the worldview of what Star Wars is, and can be. In a year where Star Wars has had some ups and downs as we wait to see what’s to come, Visions, and its wandering Sith swordsman in particular, was a bright centre in the galaxy.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation
It may not have stuck the landing, but Masters of the Universe: Revelation started as strong as He-Man himself (and that’s very strong). Kevin Smith defied the odds by somehow making a sequel to an extremely goofy, childish, cartoon from the ‘80s that felt true to the original series while telling stories that satisfied the now 40-year-old fans of the franchise. While some of the show’s choices were divisive among those fans, Revelation: Part One’s boldness made it one of the best and most surprising animated series of the year… Part Two, not so much.
A huge factor in Yelena Belova’s explosion into the larger pop culture lexicon this year is squarely on the shoulders of actor Florence Pugh. Sure, the character was based on the one from Marvel’s comics, but Pugh—who we already loved thanks in no small part to Midsommar—just knocked her Black Widow performance out of the park and quite rightly stole the show. Yelena’s interactions with Natasha were still squarely in the teasing-younger-sister realm despite them not having seen each other for years and the humor gleaned from that was absolutely priceless. (Nothing like discussing the value of pockets during a life or death situation, am I right?) As an added bonus, Yelena graced us with a 2021 appearance beyond Black Widow, thanks to the Disney+ series Hawkeye.
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