In 2016, warring superhero factions, a zombie apocalypse, and an epic space opera each took a moment to shine in pop culture’s spotlight. Every year, more and more pastimes once reserved for geeks, nerds, and dorks are gaining mainstream appeal. Video games, gadgets, genre TV, and comic book characters are now the foundation of today’s pop culture. Time will tell whether geeks are becoming cool or everyone else is getting geekier. For now, only one thing is certain: there has never been a better time to publicly reveal your inner nerd.
The following list is ranked chronologically and consists of geek-friendly events that dominated 2016’s pop culture conversations. In order to qualify, each entry had to attract an exceptional amount of media coverage in its field or captivate an audience outside of its normal fan base — think politicians referencing Pokémon Go. Whether you spend your free time reading tech blogs, going to movies, or binging on Netflix, chances are your interests will converge with at least a couple of entries on this list. Here are 15 Geek Events That Dominated Pop Culture In 2016!
15. Deadpool – February 12, 2016
In early 2016, Deadpool quickly went from sleeper hit to one of the year’s biggest hits, period. Fox used a clever viral marketing campaign that sold moviegoers on the film’s unique tone. Deadpool’s quirky advertising created awareness among general audiences and generated buzz among hard-core fans. The marketing campaign paid off and people flocked to see the R-rated superhero comedy. Audiences left theaters satisfied with Deadpool’s funny, irreverent, and surprisingly charming take on the superhero genre. The film’s extraordinary word of mouth push helped Deadpool break a few box office records.
Armed with an unfavorable February release date and a modest $58 million budget, Deadpool brought in nearly $800 million at the worldwide box office. Deadpool exceeded expectations at every level and proved itself a critical, financial, and cultural success. Fox immediately greenlit a Deadpool sequel and the Deadpool character is now one of the most recognizable superheroes in pop culture. Topping off the film’s stellar year, Deadpool earned a pair of Golden Globe nominations: Best Musical or Comedy and Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Ryan Reynolds.
14. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – March 25, 2016
Batman v Superman is one of 2016’s most controversial blockbusters. Batman v Superman opened strong at the box office before ticket sales took a nosedive. Bad reviews, poor word of mouth, and online fan backlash contributed to the film having one of the steepest box office declines ever. Negative reactions to the film were so strong that rumors began circulating which claimed Warner Bros. had mandated that upcoming DC movies lighten up their tone. Despite its divisive reception, Batman v Superman still pulled in nearly $900 million at the worldwide box office.
Whether comic book movie fans loved or hated Batman v Superman, the film was a huge deal. Warner Bros. used the film as a launching pad for their upcoming shared universe DC movies. Batman v Superman is the first live-action film to portray DC’s three most iconic characters; Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Warner Bros. tasked the film with planting the seeds for the studio’s upcoming team-up movie, Justice League, while also leading directly into Suicide Squad. Whether people loved or hated Batman v Superman, they were certainly talking about it.
13. Captain America: Civil War – April 27, 2016
For nearly a decade, Marvel’s cinematic universe films (The MCU) have delivered hit after hit. Captain America: Civil War is arguably the studio’s most successful film yet. Civil War earned a staggering $1.1 billion at the global box office, is a consensus hit with critics, and wowed comic book movie fans and general audiences alike.
Every Marvel movie rollout is targeted at a wide audience, however, their team-up movies have the largest potential appeal. Civil War isn’t just a Captain America movie, it’s essentially Avengers 2.5. Civil War is the culmination of eight year’s worth of character evolution, world building, and audience investment, and a can’t miss entry for those invested in the MCU. Civil War reunites most of the MCU’s important characters, lays the foundation for the looming Infinity War saga and introduces characters that will take center stage in their own upcoming films. Add in a superhero battle royal set-piece for the ages plus Spider-Man’s MCU debut and Civil War had all the right elements to fuel best action movie discussions throughout 2016.
12. Overwatch – May 24, 2016
Overwatch is one of the most impressive video games released in 2016. The game’s developer, Blizzard Entertainment, is a studio with a track record of creating classics. Overwatch’s open beta drew in nearly 10 million players who tallied over 81 million hours of play across 37 million matches. Overwatch also received overwhelming critical approval upon release, amassing a 91 Metacritic score. Additionally, Overwatch’s delicately tuned combination of gameplay balance and strategic nuance landed it recognition as a certified e-sport. Overwatch finished the year strong by beating out tough competition such as Uncharted 4 and Inside for game of the year at The Game Awards.
Many players find Overwatch’s mythology as intriguing as its gameplay. The beautifully designed characters each received back stories which are hinted at in their personalities and revealed through cinematics. In the months since Overwatch’s release, some of the game’s characters have developed their own cult followings. With its easy to pick up and play yet difficult to master gameplay and compelling backstory, Overwatch has the makings of a series that people will continue discussing for years to come.
11. Game of Thrones – April 24, 2016 (“Battle of the Bastards” – June 19, 2016)
Game of Thrones is unlike any other program on television; it’s a prestige drama with a massive budget and mainstream appeal. Week after week, Game of Thrones‘ showrunners combine their series’ unrivaled production values with the source material’s deep mythology to craft epic stories with a cinematic feel. For ten episodes last spring, Game of Thrones’ morally complex and emotionally gripping stories kept fans glued to their screens.
During season six, Game of Thrones’ story surpassed the source material it’s based on — finally creating an equal level of shock and awe for those who have and have not read the books. Season six’s plotlines also reunited separated characters, answered long-standing mysteries, and provided comeuppance to some nasty villains. If there was one standout moment in a season loaded with them, it would be episode nine, “Battle of the Bastards”. “Battle of the Bastards” is the rare hour of television that possesses enough action, intrigue, and impressive visual effects to rival Hollywood films. Shortly after airing, “Battle of the Bastards” became the highest rated episode of television ever on IMDb. The episode currently sits at 9.9/10 based on 133,386 votes.
10. Pokémon Go – July 6, 2016
Few pop culture events had the broad mainstream reach of Pokémon Go. For a brief period during July and August, it was nearly impossible to walk through highly populated areas without seeing people on their phones hunting Pokémon. The augmented reality app quickly became the talk of every game and tech blog before crossing over to local news broadcasts and daytime talk shows. The game’s install base numbers were staggering: 500 million users, 20 million active daily users in the United States with nearly 80% of users between ages of 18-34. Over 85% of Americans between 18-65 say they’ve heard of Pokémon Go.
A large part of Pokémon Go’s appeal was that it was most user’s first hands-on experience with augmented reality (technology that makes virtual objects look like they’re in the user’s environment). Many players tried the app out for the novel tech experience. Even though lots of casual gamers abandoned the game, Pokémon Go’s user base is still too large to qualify as just a passing fad. Factor in the recent addition of new Pokémon to hunt as well as cross-promotional events with major brands and Pokémon Go may just be getting its second wind.
9. Stranger Things – July 16, 2016
Netflix sci-fi/horror series, Stranger Things, is the ultimate example of geek culture crossing over to the mainstream. The show is a love letter to 80’s geekdom and audiences couldn’t get enough of it. The story focuses on a trio of Dungeons & Dragons playing kids who stumble into a supernatural adventure. Stranger Things endeared itself to its audience by recreating the feeling of watching beloved films without being a flat-out remake. The show is reminiscent of classic movies like E.T., The Goonies, and It, while still retaining its own distinct voice.
It didn’t take Stranger Things long to go from unheralded Netflix original to the undisputed show of the summer. Between July and September of 2016, theories on “The Upside Down” became the new standard for watercooler conversations and “Where’s Barb?” memes popped up all over the web. Netflix didn’t hesitate to throw their support behind the show, they officially renewed Stranger Things before the summer was out. Eager for any inkling of what next season will bring, fans have already begun studying Season two’s episode titles in hope of deciphering clues.
8. San Diego Comic-Con – July 21-24, 2016
Since its inception in 1970, San Diego Comic-Con has highlighted geek culture. Way before Transformers, Super Mario Bros., and Iron Man became mainstream, San Diego Comic-Con provided an outlet for fandom to join together in celebration of all things nerdy: Comics, anime, video games, cosplay, genre movies and sci-fi TV series. While it’s the most hard core fans that make the pilgrimage to San Diego every year (over 160,000 annual attendees), the event’s cultural shockwaves are felt all around the world.
Nowadays movie studios, television networks, and game developers often save major announcements for their Comic-Con panels. From Thursday, July 21st until Sunday evening on the 24th, breaking news from Comic-Con dominated television news cycles, blogs, and social media. Whether it’s Oscar winner Brie Larson’s casting as Captain Marvel, a Star Trek commemorative panel, new Justice League footage, or Luke Cage teaser trailers, events at Comic-Con sent online and print media scrambling to stay up to date.
7. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One And Two – July 31, 2016
Harry Potter fans around the globe rejoiced after it was announced that there would be a new Harry Potter story. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One And Two is the “Special Rehearsal Edition Script book” from Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and John Tiffany’s play of the same name. The story picks up where Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows leaves off, with Harry all grown up, raising a family of his own, and sending his child off to Wizarding School.
Nine years had passed since the series’ final entry, and long-time fans were more than eager to dive back into Harry Potter’s fantastic world. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s adaptation proved to be an immediate success. The book sold more than 2 million print copies in North America in its first two days of publication. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child also earned the top spot on Amazon’s Best Sellers for 2016.
6. Samsung Galaxy Note7 – August 19, 2016
The Samsung Galaxy Note7 made its debut in late August. Upon release, the Galaxy Note7 was touted as a solid entry into Samsung’s long-running phablet series. However, shortly after entering the consumer marketplace, reports began surfacing of extreme hardware malfunctions. Samsung issued recalls after numerous reports claiming Galaxy Note7s were overheating, exploding, and catching fire.
While there was only a short window between the release of the Galaxy Note7 and its recall, the product remained out in the wild long enough to capture the public’s imagination. It didn’t take long for the stories of exploding Note7s to gain traction. Note7 warnings were all over the media; news channels and tech blogs released multiple alerts, warning consumers that the Note7 was a potential exploding hazard while airlines issued travel bans on the device. As a result, countless memes and satirical takedowns flooded social media. The Note7’s potential volatility was a joke the internet simply couldn’t get enough of. In the end, the bad PR hurt Samsung’s credibility, forcing them to reconsider how they brand future iterations of their phablet line.
5. Westworld – October 2, 2016
One look at Westworld’s credentials and it’s no surprise that the series was the fall season’s hit show. Westworld’s home, HBO, is one of television’s prestige networks and they backed Westworld with an extensive marketing campaign worthy of a flagship series. Westworld’s $100 million budget, all-star cast (Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton) and top-tier creative team (executive produced by J.J. Abrams) delivered an entertaining show that audiences couldn’t get enough of. Westworld’s premiere was HBO’s strongest debut since True Detective in 2014. Westworld also has the dubious honor of being one of 2016’s most pirated series.
Based on the 1973 film, Westworld, the show took its predecessor’s campy premise and expanded it. The show crafted a richer and more textured serialized story that hooked viewers right from the first episode. Westworld offered a series of unfolding mysteries that left audiences hungry for answers week after week. The show’s ambiguous style drove fans online in search of clues that might reveal future plots. Fans also flocked to social media looking for the missing pieces of the series’ storytelling puzzle. With season one’s final revelations, the showrunners have opened the door to countless storytelling possibilities. Westworld’s popularity should only continue to grow.
4. Black Mirror – Oct 21, 2016
Black Mirror is a sci-fi/thriller TV series created by Charlie Brooker. The series made its debut in 2011 and the show has grown in popularity as its commentaries on our relationship with technology becomes less of a fantasy. Brooker teamed up with Netflix to drop his mind-bending third season on the public, just in time for Halloween. On October 21, 2016, Black Mirror released a binge-worthy six-episode season on Netflix and immediately sparked philosophical dialogues among the show’s expanding audience.
Whether viewers applauded the series’ nihilistic vision or thought each episode’s message was too on the nose, two things were certain: People were watching the show and they were making their thoughts about Black Mirror known. Countless blogs produced Black Mirror think pieces and social media was flooded with debates inspired by the show. Much of the public conversation focused on the third season’s fourth episode, “San Junipero.” While most Black Mirror episodes end with a dark Twilight Zone-esque twist, “San Junipero” presented the series’ most optimistic outlook yet. “San Junipero” showed Black Mirror’s audience that they can never be certain of what the show may do next.
3. The Walking Dead: Season Six Cliff-hanger/Season Seven Opener – October 23, 2016
The Walking Dead deserves a place on this list just based on its rating dominance – The Walking Dead is the first cable series to beat out its broadcast competition in key demographics (adults 18-49). In addition to its zombie-slaying action, The Walking Dead remains popular for its heightened, comic book style drama. The show’s treacherous villains, love affairs, and pulpy who-done-it plots hook a large number of viewers that would normally avoid the horror genre.
The Walking Dead’s biggest pop culture moment in 2016, was season six’s shocking cliff-hanger ending. The Walking Dead promised viewer’s that when season seven kicked off in the fall, iconic series villain, Negan (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), would kill off a major cast member. Fans endured several months of waiting before the show answered the painful question, “Who will Negan kill?” The conversation surrounding which cast member would die kept The Walking Dead in the public conversation during the show’s off months. When the series resumed, the final reveal proved so controversial that the show underwent a rating slide afterwards, with many long-time fans announcing they have officially jumped ship.
2. Arrow-verse Crossover event – November 28 – December 01, 2016
DC’s cinematic extended universe may just be gaining traction but that’s not the case for their TV shows. For the past couple seasons, The CW’s Arrow and The Flash programs have made their cross-over episodes an annual tradition. Now, with the addition of Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl to The CW roster, the possibilities for shared universe stories have expanded. Beginning on November 28, all four show’s storylines intersected to create a four-episode television event that paid homage to each series’ comic book roots.
Right from the start of the fall season, fans could hardly withhold their excitement for the “The Arrow-verse” crossover. Titled, “Invasion!”, the mid-season crossover event was a flat-out hit; The CW posted their highest week of ratings in six years. While superhero crossovers wreak havoc on a show’s budget, the level of fan excitement and increased ratings guarantee that mid-season, multi-show arcs are a here to stay.
1. Rogue One – December 16, 2016
Last year, the box office smash, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, re-established Star Wars’ cultural dominance. The Force Awakens wiped away lingering ill-will from the prequel trilogy, rekindled interest in the casual fan base, and left audiences hungry for more Star Wars stories. Just as The Force Awakens‘ hype finally started fading, Rogue One stepped in with some buzz-worthy trailers and ratcheted excitement for Star Wars all the way back up.
Rogue One is the first live-action Star Wars movie spin-off. Even though the film’s plot doesn’t focus on the Skywalker clan, audiences were still excited to get a fresh story from Star Wars’ universe. Leading up to Rogue One’s release, demand for advance tickets ran so high that it crashed online ticket retailer, Fandango. Disney also blitzed the public with an extensive promotional campaign, going as far as to park an X-Wing fighter in the downtown Los Angeles. The film didn’t disappoint upon its release either. Critics and fans applauded Rogue One’s diverse cast, gritty war story, and top-notch special effects. By the end of 2016 and after just two weeks in theaters, Rogue One took in nearly $1 billion at the global box office.