Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Years in Nerd Time: A Decadal Retrospective

Well, that’s another decade down, with just three more to go before the Endtimes are upon us (less if you live on the coast). And every time a decade comes to an end there are a handful of traditions that should be observed. Chief among these, of course, is mocking the plebes buying into the lie that the decade truly ends because the last digit of the year rolls over from 9 to 0.

In reality, since there was no year 0, the true decade doesn’t change until the 0 becomes a 1. And if you believe that, you’re just another plebe, because you’re still too early. No, the entire "anno domini" counting system wasn’t derived until 525, based on almost certainly inaccurate assumptions about the birth of Christ. Obviously, this means decades change on 5’s rather than 0's or 1's, since we should go by the anniversary of when we started using this calendar, rather than dwell on the digit.

Or that would be obvious to you if you were yet another plebe. In reality, it's still too arbitrary. True decades can only be marked according to the second year in base 8 counting backwards from the prophesied second coming of Sinistar. But by some odd coincidence, that does coincide with midnight on December 31st this year. Well, it does on the Gregorian calendar, at least.

At any rate, such a momentous event calls for some sort of reflection in blog form, which just so happens to be another of the aforementioned traditions marking the transition from one decade to another. Which brings us to this very post.

I actually tried putting together a traditional top 10 movies list, but the results were so boring, I fell asleep on my keyboard. Oddly, my forehead did manage to randomly mash the keys and reconstruct the complete works of Shakespeare. I considered keeping this document for future use, but there were a decent number of typos, so I just downloaded a version from the internet instead.

Rather than do a "top 10" I decided to go year-by-year and pick... something. Could be a movie, a TV series that started, or an episode of an ongoing show airing that year. Could be something else entirely. I'm sort of trying to balance this between my favorite pieces of entertainment and those I think left the largest footprints, so the actual qualifiers for landing a spot on this list are kind of nebulous. This is probably true of most "end of decade" lists, but at least I'm upfront about it.

2010: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
I’d argue this was one of the three most influential pieces of media produced this decade (the others being my 2012 and 2015 picks), and there’s a case to be made this overshadows the other two. I realize that’s a big claim for a cartoon series about colorful talking ponies, but it’s difficult to overstate the impact this has had.

Friendship is Magic accomplished quite a few feats, but the largest and most significant was demonstrating cartoon studios were leaving piles of money on the table by picking showrunners from only one half of the population. Hell, Cartoon Network had never green lit a series with a woman showrunner until… well, wait for my 2013 pick.

The next accomplishment has been a double-edged sword. While the primary audience for My Little Pony was, is, and will always be young girls, Friendship is Magic pulled in fans that surprised even its creators. I refer, of course, to the “Bronies,” a group of adult men (well, mostly men – it gets complicated) who are passionate fans of the show.

I suspect the novelty of the Bronies made them more visible than they’d otherwise have been. Fan communities are nothing new, but grown men watching a show for little girls? That got a lot of attention.

There are some awkward facets to all this, particularly around sexually explicit fan-fiction and art that sprung up. In addition, there’s always a fringe group of fans who try to claim ownership of the property they’re watching in ways that border on harassment of its creators (there’s an episode of the show about this that’s absolutely hilarious). It’s also worth noting that isolating the adult male portion of the fanbase can downplay the significance of the rest. Yes, grown men watch Friendship is Magic, but so do adult women, as well as children of all genders.

But regardless of your opinion of Bronies, their existence is incredibly significant. Properties aimed at children have long picked up nerdy adult fans of all genders (Transformers, DC/Marvel Superheroes, Star Wars… hell, 90% of the stuff I talk about on this site basically), but these have always been properties aimed at boys. To my recollection, Friendship is Magic was the first series aimed at girls to pull in large numbers of male fans.

It wouldn't be the last. Steven Universe, Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and DC Superhero Girls have all sprung up in its wake. The old gender divides have been significantly weakened, and it's largely because of Twilight Sparkle and friends.

But let's not get so fixated on the show's impact we lose sight of the content itself. This is, on its own merits, an absolutely fantastic program. The humor lands no matter how old you are, the characters are fun, and the mythology is engrossing. It’s a fascinatingly complex update on the 80’s show, perhaps the best of its kind (despite countless reboots, Transformers and GI Joe have yet to see one stick the landing the way this has). In short, it’s an inventive fantasy that’s shaped the past decade in televised animation to a degree I don’t think we’ve seen since Batman: The Animated Series.

2011: Community: A Fistful of Paintballs/For a Few Paintballs More
My last pick was a series that has run for nearly the entire decade. This time, I'm going to be far more specific. For 2011, I’m taking the 2-part season finale to the second season of Community.

These episodes center on a campus-wide game of paintball that transforms the school first into the wild west then into, well, a facsimile of galactic war. This is essentially a sequel to the season 1 episode, Modern Warfare, which cemented Community as a series willing to play with genre and convention in ways unheard of on American sitcoms. But as good as Modern Warfare is, these episodes top it in almost every way imaginable.

They’re shot with an astonishing amount of energy and emotion. The gunfights, despite being of course completely nonlethal, have established stakes that inject tension into an otherwise silly situation. Yeah, they’re shooting balls of paint at each other, but friendships and eventually the survival of the school are at stake. This takes character arcs and relationships that have been building the entire season and brings them to a head. In short, it’s fantastic storytelling.

It also got the attention of Marvel Studios, which would go on to hire the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, to direct some of the largest movies in history.

But I honestly care more about this for its own sake. This is TV that feels like an action movie. Frankly, these two episodes might be my favorite action movie ever made.

2012: The Avengers
Does this even need an explanation? It probably does now that hating Marvel movies has become fashionable. No judgement if you're not a fan - I'll be the first to admit these have their flaws, and the "shared cinematic Universe" model isn't for everyone. But love them or hate them, this installment was game-changing on a scale we hadn't seen since Titanic (maybe not since the original Star Wars, to be honest). Sure, not all that influence was positive (looking at you, Batman v Superman), but it's hard to deny this left an impression on the medium.

It's also a wholly enjoyable movie. Again, I'm not saying there aren't flaws, but the focus on personality conflicts over physical ones was an inspired direction, and the movie doesn't get nearly enough credit for increasing the world's power levels in ways that opened the door for more visually inventive stories.

This certainly wasn't the first movie to succeed in bringing a comic book to life, but it made the world of Marvel Comics feel real in a way nothing else had. And even seven years later, it remains one of the most fun films in the expanding MCU.

2013: Steven Universe
It's difficult to describe what makes Steven Universe so revolutionary without at least hinting at spoilers. Suffice to say, the show is among the most unique, innovative animated series I've ever come across.

It's gotten some push back over the years for going in directions some fans didn't appreciate, but I couldn't disagree more. Every time the series subverts my expectations for which lessons and development its heroes are supposed to pick up, I find myself delighted. It uses convention to seamlessly integrate red herrings and false leads, only to turn around and remind you what the themes are and have always been. Every choice the series makes fits the premise and central story, but the story is so far removed from we're used to, it feels shocking and alien in the best way possible.

Of anything I'm picking, I think this will have the most academic interest in decades to come. You could write tomes on what this series accomplished artistically and how it did it. Personally, I'd love for someone to explore its relationship to Transformers - there are numerous parallels between the Crystal Gems and the 80's property, which casts the decision to present all the Gems as coded female particularly interesting.

But academics aside, the series is a revelation to watch. No, not just a revelation: it's an experience.

2014: Paddington
I'm using the UK release date to justify putting this in 2014 in order to avoid having to pit it against my 2015 pick. Maybe that's cheating, but I'd like to think it's also polite.

If you were to push me on my favorite movie of the decade, I honestly think I'd have to go with this (though I'd rather not be forced to choose between this and Avengers). I know I'm in the minority in preferring it over its 2017 sequel (which is still the platonic idea of delight), but this one wins out by a whisker. I'm not saying part 2 is in any way overrated - I just feel like the critics were unfairly ruthless when they gave the first installment a [checks notes] mere 97% Freshness rating, compared with the 100% the sequel received (which still feels a little low to me, to be honest).

Paddington is just... well, first off, it's so damn charming I'm in awe it can exist at all, particularly given what genre it comes from. After all, this a "talking animated animal" movie, technically placing it in the same category as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear, and Space Jam. It feels completely absurd mentioning those movies in the same sentence as Paddington.

There's just so much to love here. Paddington's relationship with his adoptive family, the genuine creepiness of Nicole Kidman's villain, the movie's precision in its use of setup and payoff... the list goes on. But for my money, the moment Paddington solidifies itself as something truly, deeply special comes when Aunt Lucy talks about how British families took in children without a second thought during World War II. Her faith that they wouldn't have forgotten, contrasted with the reality of the situation...

I'm tearing up a little now, to be honest. Hidden behind the whimsy and charm of this near-perfect film is the tragic reminder they did forget, as have we. Instead of compassion, our countries respond to refugees with mistrust and xenophobia. How amazing is it that there's a kid's movie about that? Maybe the next generation will remember.

2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
(Side note before I go on: as of right now I’ve yet to see Rise of Skywalker, and I’d appreciate your discretion in the comments. I’ve been waiting for years to see how J.J. Abrams would screw up the ending, and that’s one mystery box I’d like to experience unspoiled).

While they're not at all similar in content, in some ways the cultural impact of The Force Awakens is best understood by its relationship with my 2010 pick, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Stay with me: this will all make sense in a moment [not a guarantee].

Friendship is Magic started the decade by putting a crack in the barrier dividing content between "boys" and "girls" stuff. It demonstrated the long held assumption that entertainment created for girls wouldn't appeal across age and gender lines the way "boy's stuff" has was baseless.

Star Wars was in a very different place. As a piece of "boy's entertainment," the studio would have assumed female fans would be along for the ride. You don't make a movie as large as this without expecting a decent gender split.

The thing is, prior to The Force Awakens, Hollywood took these women for granted and offered them very little in the form of representation. The rule of thumb was to include one woman in a major role, make her cool enough to placate the girls, then give the men the manly action that drives up box office returns. That's how it's been for decades. Hell, arguably Star Wars started that tradition with Leia, a fantastic character who seemed to be the only important woman in the galaxy.

But instead of relegating Rey to the damsel-in-distress, plucky love interest, and/or tough-but-secondary lead, they put her in the hero role. Again, I haven't actually seen how this all plays out in Rise of Skywalker, but in 2015, she was the new Luke, and that was revolutionary.

Then it became the biggest movie in history. And the toys flew off the shelves so fast, Hasbro didn't know what hit them. Not only did every boy in America want a Rey action figure, every girl seemed to, as well. Not just dolls and outfits: action figures, blasters, and lightsabers.

Because of this, after decades of being ignored, female fans started getting taken seriously. It was like two industries simultaneously started listening. Big budget genre action movies starring women stopped being "too risky" overnight. Fashion dolls and action figures started appearing side-by-side in big box toy stores.

And it all came down to one moment at the end of The Force Awakens, when Rey reaches out and calls to the lightsaber. I remember sitting in the theater, watching that, and feeling like the world had just changed. I've got plenty of issues with the movie as a whole, but that one moment - and the change it inspired - catapults it onto this list.

2016: Stranger Things
Honestly, this is where things get hard. Up until now, I feel relatively secure that this list would be more or less identical if I put it together today or five years from now. But from here on out, we're a little too close for me to have as much perspective.

Honestly, I'm really torn on this one. I enjoy Stranger Things a lot, but is it really the "best" (or at least most important) thing to come out of 2016?

Maybe. The first season took the world by surprise, dominating pop-culture conversations for months. Then the subsequent seasons came out, and...

Once again, I'm in the minority on this one, but by my money the show's progressively gotten better over time.

While the series started primarily as an 80's homage, the characters, iconography, and music of Stranger Things have become widely known to the point it's become it's own thing. Sure, it's still chock full of references and callbacks, but these seldom feel unwelcome. A lot of that comes down to how seriously the show takes its characters' arcs and emotional growth.

I suspect this will be widely remembered as much as a defining aspects of the 2010's as the references date it to the 80's. Someday, there'll be shows and movies selling nostalgia for this.

2017: Wonder Woman
This isn't my favorite movie of 2017 (that'd be Blade Runner 2049), nor do I think it could reasonably be called the best movie of that year. However, this is a case where the movie's cultural significance demands recognition. This is, without a doubt, the most important movie of 2017 and one of the most important of the entire decade.

It took Warner Bros. decades longer than it should have to green light Wonder Woman, one of the three most iconic heroes in the DC Universe. But that's probably for the best, since if they'd done so sooner, the project almost certainly would have been in far less capable hands than Patty Jenkins's.

Let's get this out of the way: the third act is a bit of a letdown. Contrary to most of the movie's critics, I don't think it's bad, only that it doesn't hold up the same level of quality we got in the first two-thirds. But then again, how could it? Acts one and two are damn near perfect. This is what superhero movies should look and feel like.

Audiences agreed, and the movie went on to out-gross Justice League, a film that cost twice as much to produce.

But it's the movie's legacy that really catches my attention. Just as studios were reluctant to green light action movies with women in the lead, they were reluctant to put any big-budget project in the hands of a woman director. Over the years, there have been a lot of explanations for this, but it's absurd to think it's any more complicated than sexism.

Wonder Woman changed that. The movie proved there's a massive demand for women's voices in genre entertainment. And if you need more proof, take a look at the most anticipated movies for next year.

2018: Black Panther
Black Panther is easily one of the best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was also one of the best movies of 2018 - touching, thoughtful, meaningful, and engaging. It explored difficult questions about identity and responsibility, and it answered them honestly.

And like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther demonstrated there was a massive audience starving for better representation. No movie like this had ever been made before, and the response was unambiguous: this is the future of big budget movies.

Setting aside what it means for its fans, the movie is a masterclass in elevating the "shared universe" concept to Oscar-caliber film making. The world-building is intricate and layered, and the character work puts every other modern blockbuster to shame. This film introduces dozens of new characters and manages to do so without having any feel superfluous. It takes M'Baku (one of comics' most problematic villains) and turns him into a fan-favorite hero, it introduces Shuri in a way that leaves fans arguing whether she should take over Tony Stark's role, and it gives its villain a fully-realized tragic arc.

All this without feeling rushed or forced, and it still has time to casually introduce the audience to Afro-futurism, an sub-genre of science-fiction most viewers had never even heard of. And, along with everything else, it embraces its comic book roots lovingly.

Black Panther accomplishes everything, sacrifices nothing, and is in many ways the pinnacle of genre film making up to now. I can't wait to see what it inspires in decades to come.

2019: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Cards on the table: I wrote up an entire entry for The Mandalorian having forgotten that Age of Resistance came out in 2019. I then spent an absurd amount of time mulling over whether or not I should change my answer. Part of me felt like it was significant I'd forgotten Age of Resistance, that 2019 may wind up being the year the tide turned against Netflix's long-form-binge model, which can make even the best shows, well, forgettable. I'm not saying we've seen the end of serialized television, but I suspect the pendulum has swung as far in that direction as it's likely to, and it's about to head the other way. If so, The Mandalorian will clearly have been the episodic series that served as a catalyst.

I even started a new intro explaining this and discussing why I was sticking with the Mandalorian. But in that intro, I began writing about the monumental artistic achievement Age of Resistance represented. I started reflecting on how much effort had gone into designing and building the plants, animals, and buildings of The Dark Crystal.

And as much as I enjoyed The Mandalorian, the entire galaxy of Star Wars suddenly started feeling small in comparison - I think everything does. In some ways, despite airing at the end of 2019, I have a feeling The Madalorian is going to feel like the first series of the 2020's, while Age of Resistance will be one of the high points of the 2010's. And which decade am I supposed to be retrospecting, anyway?

Most of the movies and shows on this list got here because they were influential, but Age of Resistance is present because it's a culmination of a philosophy that's been gaining steam over the course of the decade. It represents a level of creative talent and energy beyond anything I seriously imagined possible on the small screen. And that talent was supported with the resources necessary to bring a fantasy world to life.

In addition, I'm skeptical we'll see anything like this again. I haven't been able to find concrete numbers, but the price tag on this series couldn't have been cheap. And while Netflix got a lot of attention and critical approval, the series didn't really stick in the public consciousness (as evidenced by the opening of this entry). This feels like an experiment that was successful artistically but not financially. There are definitely a handful of upcoming projects on various streaming services that are in a similar league - the Amazon Middle Earth series leaps to mind - but it's unlikely any will be succeed in being as spectacular as Age of Resistance.

A lot has happened in nerd and geek culture over the last ten years, and not all of it's good. We've seen an infiltration from right-wing extremists, we've seen social media used as a weapon to harass women and minorities, and we've seen fan communities target directors over plot choices a handful of people disagreed with. At the start of the decade, I proudly called myself a geek. Now, it's with a lot of reservation and more than a little introspection.

But I hope the list above has demonstrated a lot of good has happened, as well. This is the decade when women and minorities got opportunities in front and behind the cameras. Those opportunities are still few and far between, but the astonishing success of those projects has opened a lot of doors.

It's also been a great decade in terms of quality. A lot of us are old enough to remember a time when everything was reality television. Now, you can find great shows in almost any genre. I'm honestly unsure whether this trend will continue - I think it's more than possible we're living in an entertainment bubble that's about to pop. But even if that happens, the content produced this decade will still be available. And, frankly, it would take decades just to catch up on everything great made over the past 10 years.

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