In the 21st century, geek properties have come to define our entertainment culture to the point where some say comic book nerds are now our cultural overlords. Despite false alarms of impending genre fatigue, superhero films dominated the 2010s right up until the end of the decade. In 2019, geek-chic gave way to peak-geek, with saga-ending pop culture behemoths like Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker roaming the earth and indeed ruling the worldwide box office. However, “geek” is a broad term that could encompass not only sci-fi/fantasy but also the work of auteurist directors, whose filmographies inspire the same kind of brand-name loyalty among cinephiles. What the term really implies is a certain devotion.

We’re all movie geeks. For some fans, a new Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film, especially one that served as a bittersweet career culmination, might be no less an event than a Disney+ premiere or a Game of Thrones finale. Throw in Joker and a few other wild cards — including the sale of 21st Century Fox and HBO’s live-action sequel to Watchmen, the greatest comic book story ever told — and it starts to feel like the deck was pretty stacked this year. In all honesty, there may never be another year like this again, entertainment-wise.

With the real world in shambles (“We’re in the endgame now?”), looking back on the escapist highs and lows of 2019 only serves to hammer that home with thundering clarity, like a powered-up Captain America laying the smackdown on any notions of a competing convergence of franchise farewells. Yet amid the perfect storm of geekiness that was 2019, new industry trends also emerged to create a picture of the future landscape of film and television.

The film industry has been undergoing a paradigm shift for years. As far back as 2013, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — the movie brats who invented the summer blockbuster — were predicting the industry’s imminent “implosion.” What seems to be happening now with television is a similar breakdown of the old model, with channels giving way to streaming services, each of which offers its own exclusive shows and digital library. I can’t speak for everyone, but the four most recent shows I’ve watched — Watchmen, Castle Rock, The Mandalorian, and Servant — were all on different services (HBO, Hulu, Disney+, and Apple TV+, respectively.) All but one of them were essentially remixes based on existing properties, which just goes to show that that phenomenon has spread to television now, too.

With this movie and TV yearbook, we’ll dig back through the highlights of 2019 and examine their implications for the 2020s. There are twelve months in a year and while we won’t be hitting every month here, we will be taking a chronological look at twelve larger-than-life events that defined the peak-geek year. Spoilers and allusions to spoilers are fair game, so skip a section where needed … and be prepared to venture off-the-beaten-path here and there. Glass and Dark Phoenix might not be the first movie titles that come to mind when you think “peak-geek,” but while these two superhero films drowned in a puddle of bad reviews, they brought the genre full circle to its modern inception in 2000. That was the year of the first X-Men movie and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable—a film way ahead of its time.

January – Glass Half Full or Empty?

Inert though it may have been, Glass presented an interesting case study for the New Year. Climaxing with a suicide mission, the first big movie of 2019 played like Shyamalan’s own cinematic self-immolation, as if he just sat down in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and set his legacy on fire like a misunderstood monk. It’s a work that nakedly reflects his weaknesses as a storyteller and the moribund state of a movie industry where corporations control the narrative and super-powered talents like Scorsese are confined to Netflix.

For years, Shyamalan had languished in director’s jail, a prisoner, perhaps, of his own unwavering self-belief. Between The Village and The Visit, his filmography entered a kind of catatonia not unlike the state feigned by the titular Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), with whom he indubitably shares a mastermind complex.

Split’s resounding comeback success, two years prior, allowed Shyamalan to make a short-lived escape, leaving the backdoor open to a surprise sequel where he would show the world how there was a conspiracy to stifle its superheroes (here rendered as a metaphor for creative people). It’s a message he so desperately wanted to bring to the world that he was willing to self-finance the film and use it to enact his own dimestore Thor: Ragnarok—killing off beloved characters and dismantling his superhero mythology.

Back in January, if you watched Glass as a straight superhero film, then it might have seemed pointless for it to spend so much time trying to convince its characters they weren’t superhuman. What Shyamalan really wanted to say was there in that line, “Belief in oneself is contagious.” Glass might not have made it past the anticlimactic parking lot puddle, but with its viral-video riff on Rorschach’s Watchmen journal, it entreated the viewer to unlock his or her own inner superhero. Shyamalan quickly moved on from there to Servant, which helped Apple TV+ enter the streaming wars in November. It wasn’t the only web television show we saw this year with episodes around half an hour long (more on that later).

March – A Glimpse of Us Untethered from IPs

If horror acts as a release valve for troubled times, that may be why we’ve seen so many great horror movies like Us coming down the pike in recent years. Based on an original screenplay untethered, so to speak, from any surefire intellectual properties, Jordan Peele’s sophomore hit was a strange and beautiful anomaly. Made for $20 million, the film recouped its budget and then some with a $255 million global haul. In doing so, it showed that all hope was not lost when it comes to exciting new writer-directors thriving in the franchise-clogged film industry.

Filmmakers like Shyamalan and Tarantino have become brand names in and of themselves, but we’re a long way from their original ‘90s heyday. It feels like the next Shyamalan or Tarantino might have a harder time breaking through now to commensurate big-screen success. Peele had a leg up on the situation in that he was already famous as one half of the sketch comedy team Key & Peele. You wouldn’t necessarily expect an entertainer with that resume to cross over into directing horror films, but here we are, and the lives of horror geeks are better off for it.

Us was the sort of sophisticated, high-concept crowd-pleaser that might have left some filmgoers scratching their heads even as it kept them riveted to their seats. Lupita Nyong’o gives a phenomenal turn as a young black matriarch and her scissor-wielding doppelgänger, and Winston Duke is a much of a joy here as he was in Black Panther. With this home invasion thriller (which is oh-so-much more than that), Peele took a more arthouse approach to horror, cementing his nascent auteur status after winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his first feature, Get Out. To be sure, Us offered a more abstract piece of social commentary than Get Out. When I sat down to watch it, I was intrigued and entertained and I thought, “Now, that’s a movie,” but the meaning of it all eluded me on a first viewing.

So what is Us about? Well, it’s about “us” versus “them” and how they, them, whoever they are, whichever tribe, are really just our doppelgängers: dark reflections of us and the lies we tell. Hands stretch across America in a wall of Republican red, but what really matters is the shifty-eyed motorist who wears the mask of your family member. Where is this stranger driving you? If you saw the movie and were confused by anything, I highly recommend reading Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson’s exploration of Us and its themes. Let’s hope Us wasn’t just a fluke and there are more challenging original movies like Peele’s in the 2020s.

Mid-April to May – A Losing Game of Thrones

It’s amazing to think that the biggest, most heavily pirated TV show of the decade unfolded its final season while the highest-grossing movie of all time was enjoying its theatrical run. Peak-geek, ladies and gentlemen: that’s it right there in a nutshell. Premiering in April, the eighth season of Game of Thrones reached its midway point the same weekend that Avengers: Endgame stormed multiplexes. If nothing else, the overlap between these two pop culture phenomena would ensure 2019 a place in the annals of geek history.

As I wrote in my series review, the best and worst aspects of Game of Thrones serve as a time capsule of the 2010s. Equal parts controversial and critically acclaimed, the show dominated pop culture discussion for seven straight seasons, only to come in for a spectacular crash landing in its eighth. That’s not so much a knock against its storytelling — which admittedly did get sloppier toward the end — as it is a recognition that there was a huge backlash against the show for not sticking the dragon landing as well as it could have. Fans have such a high standard now that it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see more pitchforks and petitions to rewrite shows coming in the 2020s.

Every season of Game of Thrones holds a Tomatometer rating of 90% or higher … all except the last season, which plunges to 58% like a winged terror dive-bombing King’s Landing. The audience score for the last season plunges even lower to 31%. That’s pretty remarkable and pretty unfortunate but as the boss says in The Irishman, “It is what it is.”

America put out a hit on Game of Thrones after its series finale. In May, after “The Iron Throne” aired, a fractured toe led me to hunker down at home and — over the course of about a week — rewatch all of seasons 6, 7, and 8 along with scattered clips from the first five seasons. I came away feeling that Game of Thrones might hold up better in the future for viewers who watch it all the way through on home media, without long breaks between episodes or seasons. With so many streaming services out there now, the Home Box Office network, HBO, is hardly unique anymore; but its subscribers have the return of Westworld to look forward to in 2020. As for Thrones, it may well be the last show of its kind, a must-see event every week that was able to cut through the noise and grip a global audience as part of the same communal TV viewing experience.

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