Best of 2021 Part II

Geeklings, to the delight of many of you I assume, 2021 is on life support. It’s strapped to the hospital bed and it’s ready to say goodbye before the plug is pulled. My only hope is that the spirit of 2021 doesn’t inhabit the body of 2022 which I can only assume is what happened at the end of 2020. This has been an endless cycle of strange times and honestly, I think we could all use a break. A little bit of normalcy maybe. A year where it doesn’t seem like the world is ending. I’m not asking for much here, just some calm.

Please.

Granted, not all of 2021 was a wet dog shaking off in our living rooms. In fact, I Am Geek celebrated its best year yet, something I’m incredibly thankful/grateful for. One of the best aspects of the year has been this outlet and this community with you. I Am Geek is home and every time I’m writing new content here, everything just feels right. I’m excited to see what 2022 brings with it, but this site wouldn’t be anything without your eyes Geeklings. I appreciate every time you stop by to see what’s going on and start a conversation. You really are the best and have made 2021 very memorable for this little site.

As 2021 heads out the door, I Am Geek is here, as is tradition now, to discuss all the pop culture goodies that helped us survive the year. Could you imagine if there were no pop-culture goodies this year? Another year without Marvel? Further delays on television shows and movies. No Fast and the Furious?! I don’t think that I could’ve handled another year like that and thankfully the universe worked its magic so we wouldn’t have to. 2021 provided a ton of comfort watches/reads, music, and games that provided the much-needed escapism that prevented us from pulling out our hair and eating it while staring into the mirror.

So, strap in Geekling as it’s time for the I Am Geek Best of 2021 Part Two! If you head over to our Facebook feed, you’ll see that all the Honorable Mentions were uploaded the other day, and be sure to check out I Am Geek Best of 2021 Part One before moving forward

As per usual, we’ve split the Top Ten into two parts. Today is all about the Top Five with some craftiness that you’ll see and probably roll your eyes at too. Making choices is hard, Geeklings!

So, without further ado let’s break down the rest of 2021’s greatness…

5. The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie- I get to cheat a little bit on this one because I spent a nice chunk of 2021 reading allllll of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series (outside of the short story collection which I saved for next year) which lead up to this final book in the Age of Madness trilogy… but hopefully not the final book of the First Law. Honestly, with that ending, there’s no way, right?! RIGHT?!

So, while this entry kind of serves as a celebration of the entire saga thus far, I will focus on the final book since it was actually released this year. There are rules. And for those who are looking for reasons to jump into this series, please be sure to check out Kyle Hurford’s piece on it. He’d been telling me for years to read these books and I’m sorry it took this long to do just that.

Anyway, man, these books deliver on the high fantasy. Yes, you get elements that are familiar to Game of Thrones fans, like the point of view chapters, but Abercrombie not only finishes the stories he begins but he constructs and treats his characters differently. George thinks the worse thing you can do to a character is kill them, and Abercrombie proves that there in fact worse things. I’ve spent so much of this story pining for different outcomes and being crushed, in the best possible ways mind you, with the reality of the story.

A story that has spanned over thirty years (in-universe) and sees the conclusion of a number of arcs close for our new characters and some legacy characters as well. Abercrombie delivers emotional resolutions, some quite painful some quite interesting, as he sets the board for whatever is to come next to the First Law saga. There were so many times where I was talking to the book as events unfolded, whether in disbelief or predicting what was about to happen or just sadness.

Everything falls into a grey area. Not every victory is a win and not every defeat is a loss. Abercrombie weaves through this narrative filled with rebellion, redemption, political strife, and war effortlessly and delivers a character-strong novel that has me ready for so much more. Cause, I need more. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this universe… I miss my friends.

4. Star Wars The High Republic- If you were looking for new live-action Star Wars stories, 2021 was not the year for you. The most we got was the first season of the Bad Batch, which was highly enjoyable and further proved how animated Star Wars is telling some truly tremendous stories, but alas there was no Mandalorian season three, and Book of Boba Fett dropped so late it might as well have been 2022. So, where were eager Star Wars fans to turn to get their fix on new stories?

Books and comics of course! We talked earlier this year about how the best Star Wars stories were happening in the books and comics and these stories were so good, it made our Best of 2021 list, most specifically, The High Republic.

With a handful of novels to burn through, a number of comic series, and one super fun audio drama, The High Republic era of Star Wars has been an absolute blast! Taking place about two hundred years before Episode I, the High Republic is the very height of the Jedi Order. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jedi are spread throughout the galaxy looking to bring peace and balance to the Republic.

Granted, a peaceful galaxy, while the aim, would make for a pretty boring read. No, we need conflict and the High Republic has plenty of that. For those looking for the Sith, you’re not going to find them here… yet. The Dark Side of the Force is very present but there has been no Sith activity as of yet which makes sense since they would be in hiding at this point of Star Wars history. Instead, we get the Nihil, a group of space pirates who use hyperspace lanes to rob, kill, and destroy planets. These guys are really no good and have a leader in Marchion Ro who makes for a pretty stellar main villain. This guy seems to be one step ahead of the Jedi at all times and has a deep understanding of the Force and weapons needed to defeat our lightsaber-wielding heroes. Look no further than the end of The Rising Storm to see what I mean.

As if space pirates weren’t enough, the High Republic has also introduced a species of plants set on universe domination. The Drengir are a vicious species that were introduced/freed in the Into the Dark young adult novel and have been the main antagonist for the majority of Marvel’s High Republic comic run. Think hive mind plants who don’t have a problem eating you. And since they’re plants, they spread pretty quickly. Good times!

But villains are only as good as their heroes and the High Republic has introduced some fantastic Jedi to the Star Wars canon. Avar Kriss (kind of the head Jedi), Elzar Mann, Keeve Trennis, Loden Greatstorm, Reath Silas, and Stellan Gios are just a handful of Jedi who jumps from the pages and have you wanting to grab a wrapping paper cylinder and wave it around making lightsaber noises.

Oh, Yoda is also around somewhere although we see him mostly in passing.

Phase One of the High Republic era ends on January 4th when the latest novel, The Fallen Star is released. Things are looking kind of bleak for the Jedi Order at this point after the events of The Rising Storm and all the previews have this book giving off some serious The Empire Strikes Back vibes. Hype levels are high and I can’t wait to see what 2022 brings for this new era of Star Wars as it certainly made 2021 very enjoyable.

3. Ted Lasso (Apple TV)- Season one of Ted Lasso was this unexpected gem that fell into my life at the precise right moment. Needless to say there were some pretty high expectations for season two with a dash of fear for the dreaded sophomore slump. It can be very difficult to continue on with what made a show initially so popular and oftentimes, shows try to duplicate the magic instead of progressing the story/characters forward. Well, I’m here to tell you that season two of Ted Lasso was just as much a delight as season one, if not maybe more so.

I’ve said it from the start, Ted Lasso is a hug for your soul and boy did that continue with these new episodes. There’s just something about this series that inspires you to be better. To do better. All the while making you feel good inside. In a time where things can be a tad bit bleak, it’s wonderful having shows like Ted Lasso to brighten everything up a bit. To provide us with some optimistic levity to the world around us.

Part of that comes from Jason Sudekis’s transformative performance as Coach Lasso but please don’t look past the gruff exterior of Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent. Roy is more than just a character who may or may not represent your spirit animal, he’s a role model. Someone to aspire to and look up to. Underneath all the f-bombs is a man who wants to do right by others and isn’t afraid to search his feelings… or admit that he eats too much ice cream and poops himself.

The themes tackled this season are heavy. We explore everything from alcoholism, suicide, death, love, father/son relationships, to friendship. The strength of Ted Lasso isn’t just showing us ways to better understand or cope with these concepts but letting us know that it takes time. No one is perfect and the best first step to understanding something is understanding yourself. The show gets deeply personal and deeply moving (episodes like “Man City” and “No Weddings and a Funeral”, where Hannah Waddingham just shines, are major standouts in this area).

The thing about Ted Lasso is, despite how heavy the topics being discussed are, it leaves you feeling whole and loved. This might sound like kind of a silly thing, but I strongly believe that there is love not only for these characters in this show but for the people who are watching and relating with them. Ted Lasso doesn’t want us to feel alone but inspired. There wasn’t one episode this season where I didn’t cry. And I don’t say that as a negative, I say that as a testament to the power of this story.  

Ted Lasso is a beautiful show filled with crisp humor and such a delightful cast. It is the show I turn to when I need that pick me up viewing. Such a hug.

2. WandaVision/Hawkeye (Disney+)- Is this cheating? Yes, I suppose it is but we’re going to run with it because this is how I want my list to play out.

There have been numerous times throughout this year where I have waxed nostalgic for the WandaVision era of 2021 because man, what an exhilarating experience that was. With the MCU’s first foray into television, everyone was curious as to what to expect. And WandaVision delivered in spades. The weekly discourse was bananas, and yes somewhat detrimental to fan expectations, but just about everyone was talking Wanda with theories, easter eggs, and Mephisto sightings galore. The whole movement was everything we had hoped for in an MCU television series.

As for the show itself, I was beyond happy to see Marvel get weird with it. The sitcom motif really allowed for some new styles of storytelling that relied heavily on the characters. Elizabeth Olsen gave a standout performance as Wanda and catapulted her way to my top three favorite characters in all of the MCU. She was vulnerable and scorned and angry and really immersed herself in the overall theme of the series… grief.

WandaVision uses the sitcoms as a background to explore real trauma, which seems to be a steady theme in Phase Four thus far and allowed our characters to explore their feelings and how those feelings impact the rest of the world. In this case, Wanda’s Westview hostage situation but also a great deal of introspection and ultimately learning to let go. That we are not defined by our grief but use it to remember those we’ve lost.

Oftentimes spellbinding and mind-melting, WandaVision was everything we could have wanted out of the MCU’s first foray into television. Plus, we got the absolute banger, “It Was Agatha All Along” which just so happened to be nominated for a Grammy.

Hawkeye and all of its Christmas glory rounded out the year of MCU television in spectacular fashion. Instantly capturing the spirit of the beloved Matt Fraction and David Aja comic run, Hawkeye delivered some instantly classic MCU moments and a series that was worthy of being wrapped in a bow and placed underneath a tree.

The series proved that not all MCU installments have to deal with the ending of the world. That sometimes smaller more personal journeys deliver just as much as the massively sprawling epics. Going street level with Hawkeye not only allowed us some much warranted time with Clint Barton but helped introduce us to new breakout characters like Kate Bishop (who is played delightfully by Hailee Steinfeld) while exploring newly introduced characters a bit further with Yelena (Florence Pugh just eats up every scene she’s in) all the way to incorporating familiar faces back to the MCU fold (we see you, Wilson Fisk!).

Even with all that Hawkeye never loses track of who or what it wants to be and delivers a story about family. The good. The bad. The complicated. The uncles who might have had your father killed. While also playing as a lovely eulogy to the Black Widow character. Seriously, some of those moments were the strongest of the series.

But most importantly, Hawkeye just delivered on the fun and heart that can be found in the MCU. A story that didn’t try to do much except put all the focus on the narrative and the characters. What a joy.

1B. Spider-Man: No Way Home- Yes, more cheating. Shall we move on?

At some point in 2021, I kind of hit a wall with No Way Home and it had nothing to do with the movie itself. Excitement levels were extremely high for this third installment into the MCU Spidey franchise. No, my problem stemmed from the internet and allllll the leaks, supposed leaks, potential leaks, and spoilers that were making the rounds starting as early as February. Some of that stuff can be entertaining at times, not to mention informative, but with No Way Home, it came to a point where it no longer seemed like fun. In fact, it seemed that all these “reports” or leaks were being released to ruin the movie for others. That, that’s something I can’t get behind.

A couple of months before the film was released, I pretty much muted everything on Twitter that had to deal with it. I wanted out of the circle so I could go to the theater and experience the movie. That’s all I wanted. Spider-Man is my guy and I was going to be damned if the internet ruined this movie for me.

And it worked!

No Way Home was the best theatrical experience I’ve had since Endgame. The crowd I watched the movie with was rearing to go and cheered, gasped, and even applauded multiple times throughout the movie thus enhancing the experience even more. But No Way Home was more than a nostalgia piece, with the surprises really delivering added depth and fun, and I know it’s been a few weeks but I’m still not ready to spoil this so I’ll be vague. This was a movie that revolved around Peter Parker.

The strength of No Way Home is how beautifully it captures the essence of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The writing team knows what makes Spidey tick and uses it as the driving force behind this story. It helps that Tom Holland gives his best performance as Peter Parker/Spider-Man thus far in the MCU capturing all the little moments that resonate so loudly.

No Way Home is exciting, emotional, and stupid amounts of fun from start to finish and not only explores what happens when a teenage superhero has his identity outed to the entire world but confronts the choices one makes to keep those around him safe. The sacrifices that need to be made in order to do that. This might be the most emotional Spider-Man movie I have ever seen as it propels the character to uncharted areas in the MCU moving forward.

Anchored by strong performances from Zendaya and Willem Dafoe, No Way Home delivers not only one of the best Spider-Man movies but one of the best movies in all of the MCU. I’m itching to see it again… once I organize my feelings and find the tissues.

1A. Midnight Mass (Netflix)- Of all the stories that I read, watched or listened to this year none of them moved me the way Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass did.

The art of excellent horror stories is the message that’s being hidden underneath all the fear and gore and Midnight Mass never loses track of the themes it aims to explore. All these months later and I don’t want to go into the twist because it’s so splendidly crafted and such an integral part of the viewing experience as well as a gateway to exploring the show’s larger themes, so I’ll talk around it.

Midnight Mass is a story about faith. About redemption and guilt. About how religion can be used as a weapon and what becoming a fanatic can do to people and relationships. It’s a story about love and loss. And most importantly, it’s a story of hope. Each theme is explored so deftly and beautifully that many episodes leave you not only speechless but breathless.

Flanagan has created something so deeply personal with Midnight Mass that it’s hard not to see different aspects of yourself in this narrative. While I was watching I ran the gambit of emotions. From the loss of my father to the idea of what religion is to a forty-year-old former altar boy to the idea of does life continue after death. These themes are heavy and the tears that welled in my eyes or rolled down my cheeks as I wept at the finale, came from a certain degree of understanding. Or at the very least, applying my life experiences to what was being explored on screen. Midnight Mass is so vulnerable in its beauty. It is a show that was unafraid to bare itself to its audience.

Yet this story would be nothing without its cast, a number of repeat Flanagan performers return to give some of the best performances of their careers. It is clear that everyone involved in Midnight Mass was all in and understood the assignment. I still hear the echoes of that monologue from Kate Siegel’s Erin. Samantha Sloyan’s Bev was the scariest aspect of this show and explores what happens to people who interpret religion as black and white and use it as a weapon. Rahul Kohli shoots straight fire with his breakdown of Islam and the world after 9/11. And then there’s Hamish Linklater… who steals every scene he’s in with a masterfully captivating performance. Stunning. The show is such a spoil of incredible performances that I have carried with me since watching the series back at the end of September.

Midnight Mass uses the small-town environment, which has been key to a number of Stephen King stories, and uses it as a microcosm of the world. There are scares and twists and holy shit moments galore but not once does the story betray its message or its characters. It is a work of art and I won’t soon forget it.

Well, that’s going to do it Geeklings. The Best of 2021 is officially in the books which means it’s up to you to tell me what you thought. What were your 2021 standouts? Feel free to let me know in the comments or throw me a line over on Twitter @iamgeek32. I look forward to hearing what made 2021 awesome for you.

Happy New Year Geeklings! I’ll see you in 2022!

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