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The pop culture stories that defined 2022

Here are the 25 stories that blew up the group chat this year

The most jaw-dropping twists of 2022 weren't in the movies. They played out in the real world of pop culture news, which was riddled with juicy behind-the-scenes gossip, studio infighting, box office bombs, and drama that would be too absurd to write into a script. These were the culture stories that defined the year … for better or worse: 

25. 'Stranger Things' gives 'Running Up That Hill' a new life

Kate Bush hasn't released a new studio album in over a decade, but she still had the song of the summer. 

Gen Z fell in love with Bush's 1985 hit "Running Up That Hill" after it was used effectively in the fourth season of Stranger Things when Max (Sadie Sink) listens to the song to help her survive against Vecna. Thanks to the show, "Running Up That Hill" shot up the Billboard global chart to become the most popular song in the world — and Gen Xers got to tell the youths they liked the track before they were even born. 

24. Kim Kardashian wears an actual Marilyn Monroe dress to the Met Gala

It was not a good year for respecting the memory of Marilyn Monroe. On top of Netflix's controversial Monroe film Blonde, Kim Kardashian also stirred up controversy when she showed up to the Met Gala wearing the actual dress Marilyn wore in 1962 when she sang "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy. Making matters worse, there were soon allegations that she damaged the dress, which she has admitted didn't originally fit herthough Kardashian, and the museum she got it from, denied that. 

Still, in a year filled with Kardashian gaffes and blunders — including her infamous quote that it "seems like nobody wants to work these days" — this is the 2022 moment she may not soon live down. 

23. Twitter obsesses over 'Barbie' set photos 

Is it possible the most iconic movie of 2022 was one that won't be released until 2023? Because details about Greta Gerwig's Barbie had us all enraptured this year, perhaps more than any film that actually came out.

The mania started with the head-turning reveal of Ryan Gosling playing a bleach-blonde Ken shirtless with a denim vest. But it continued when set photos and videos showed Gosling and Margot Robbie rollerblading around California in bright neon outfits, leaving Twitter utterly captivated and trying to figure out what the heck this movie is going to be about.

After the trailer was released, we … still don't really know. But if it were possible to give Best Picture to an actual picture snapped during the filming of Barbie, that would have our vote. 

22. 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' completely takes over TikTok

Disney's Encanto technically came out in 2021. Yet when Google released its annual "Year in Search", the top trending song in the U.S. for all of 2022 was "We Don't Talk About Bruno."

It was in late December 2021, spilling into January 2022, that the song from the film really became an utter phenomenon, taking off on TikTok after the Christmas streaming debut. By the end of January, it was just the second song in Disney history to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with the first being "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. Yes, it was actually more popular than Frozen's "Let It Go."

The song was so insanely massive that the Academy even found a way to shoehorn a live performance of it into the Oscars, even though it wasn't nominated since Disney didn't submit it — though the performance was so terrible, it threatened to kill the public's love of the song for good.

21. Bruce Willis steps away from acting

Jokes about Bruce Willis' straight-to-VOD movies — including the Razzies' introduction of a whole new category about his worst performances — didn't age well after March 2022.

Willis shared the sad news that month that he's stepping away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia, "which is impacting his cognitive abilities." The Los Angeles Times later reported his health raised concerns on film sets for years. Willis received an outpouring of support, and the Razzies even rescinded their award making fun of his recent performances. "If someone's medical condition is a factor in their decision making and/or their performance," the parody award show said, "we acknowledge that it is not appropriate to give them a Razzie."

20. 'House of the Dragon' successfully revives 'Game of Thrones'

It sounds silly now, but when 2022 began, it wasn't at all clear that HBO's gambit to expand the Game of Thrones franchise wouldn't crash and burn.

After all, many fans were still bitter about the controversial ending to the original series, so would there be much interest in a prequel, House of the Dragon? It turns out, the answer was a resounding yes. House of the Dragon was a ratings success for HBO, and in terms of buzz, it seems clear the network was the winner of its autumn showdown with Amazon's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

So we may remember 2022 as the year HBO got the green light to officially turn Game of Thrones into its own Star Wars — and the year that book readers grew more resigned to the idea that The Winds of Winter will probably never come out. 

19. Ewan McGregor defends 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' co-star Moses Ingram against racist backlash

Racism in the Star Wars fan base is nothing new, as anyone who followed the sequel trilogy could tell you. But 2022 was the year Lucasfilm really started pushing back on it in a major way.

After Moses Ingram faced racist backlash over her character in the Star Wars show Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor released a video saying anyone sending her such abuse is "no Star Wars fan in my mind." Meanwhile, the official Star Wars Twitter account also pointedly tweeted, "There are more than 20 million sentient species in the Star Wars galaxy, don't choose to be a racist."  

After The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran was bullied off Instagram with racist abuse, this response seemed to indicate a new level of support from Disney and Lucasfilm for its stars, which will presumably continue when this inevitably happens again. Better late than never, right?

18. 'Black Panther' returns after the death of Chadwick Boseman

Marvel was in an unenviable position after Chadwick Boseman died in 2020, forced to either continue the Black Panther franchise without his character or recast the role.

The studio went with the former option, debuting Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November and (spoiler alert!) crowning a new Black Panther by the end of the film. Rumors suggested the production was messy, and there was drama concerning star Letitia Wright sharing an anti-vaccine video. So it was an impressive feat that director Ryan Coogler pulled together a film that not only performed well at the box office but received positive reviews, with critics praising it as a respectful tribute to Boseman's legacy. 

"Never bet against James Cameron" has become a mantra among Avatar fans, but maybe "never bet against Ryan Coogler" should be added to that equation. 

17. The Lohanaissance and Brenaissance 

If you're into adding "-aissance" to a celebrity's name, this was the year for you.

2022 saw the comebacks of two beloved staples of the 1990s and 2000s, Lindsay Lohan and Brendan Fraser. Lohan made her acting return in the Netflix movie Falling for Christmas, which wasn't anything amazing. But critics were still delighted to see her back on screens, and she even starred in a fun Super Bowl commercial referencing her past tabloid headlines.

There was also the comeback of Brendan Fraser, which is set to spill over into 2023 thanks to the new movie The Whale. He's been getting Oscar buzz for his role as a 600-pound man, and when the film premiered in the fall, one clip after another of Fraser tearing up while getting a standing ovation went viral. Welcome back, you two.  

16. 'Morbius' bombs but sparks a wave of ironic memes

The least surprising but undeniably funniest box office bomb of 2022 was Morbius, the Jared Leto Spider-Man spinoff that received reviews exactly as brutal as expected and only managed to gross $73 million domestically.

But the film might have come and gone if it weren't for viral memes mocking the very idea of anyone seeing it, even spreading around fake quotes like "it's Morbin time." Part of the joke was that no one could verify if that's really in the movie (it's not) since no one cared to watch it. 

The final cherry on top was Sony re-releasing the film in theaters in response to the memes, hoping moviegoers might see it this time ironically … only for it to flop again. But hey, 2023 is ripe for a re-re-release. Third time's the charm, Sony, really! 

15. 'Lightyear' becomes a box office flop 

The most shocking flop of 2022, though, was Disney's Lightyear. Many analysts assumed the Toy Story brand would be enough to ensure this spinoff would rake in cash. Instead, Lightyear became the worst-performing Pixar film of all time with the exception of Onward (which barely counts, since that was released right before COVID-19 shut down theaters). But audiences just didn't understand why they should care about this strange side adventure that doesn't actually star the Buzz Lightyear they know from Toy Story and came with a bizarre "it's the origin story of the human that the toy is based on" hook. 

It also may have provided a hard lesson for Disney: A recognizable IP alone isn't enough to guarantee success. You'd think Solo: A Star Wars Story would have already made that clear, but alas.  

14. 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' becomes a surprise hit

It wasn't the biggest movie of the year by any means. But let's not discount how unusual it was that a movie featuring people with hot dog fingers and a butt-plug-driven action sequence became one of 2022's most talked-about films — and even a frontrunner to win Best Picture.

Everything Everywhere All at Once was a word-of-mouth sensation after opening in March, which helped propel it to over $100 million at the box office. That made it the most successful film in the history of studio A24. It was another breakthrough moment for Asian representation in Hollywood movies, as well as a reassuring sign that a totally original film not based on any pre-existing IP can still thrive.

Plus, if anyone not named Tom Cruise won 2022, it may have been Ke Huy Quan, who quit acting for 20 years after not being able to find roles, only to return in this film and break everyone's heart with dialogue about laundry and taxes. 

13. 'Top Gun: Maverick' becomes a box office phenomenon

We'll cop to the fact that in our preview of the 2022 summer box office, we weren't sure Top Gun: Maverick would be successful at all, floating the idea that it could even be a flop in the same vein as Independence Day: Resurgence

Boy, were we dead wrong. Top Gun: Maverick defied all expectations to become an utter phenomenon: not only the biggest film of the summer and (so far) of the entire year but also the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time domestically. Who could have seen that level of success coming for a Top Gun sequel? Paramount's decision not to drop the film on streaming during the pandemic certainly aged well. 

It was a shot in the arm for theaters and a great sign for the industry that it actually is possible to bring audiences out in droves for something that's not a superhero movie.

12. Taylor Swift's Ticketmaster sale disaster

2022 was also the year every Swiftie you know suddenly became an expert on antitrust law.

Taylor Swift's Ticketmaster sale for her Eras tour became an absolute debacle of glitches and errors preventing fans from getting seats, so much so that it sparked scrutiny from lawmakers who argued the company's merger with Live Nation created a monopoly. Some Swifties even filed a lawsuit against the company. 

The drama looks set to continue into 2023, at which point we may learn that the watchful eyes of the Department of Justice are far less dangerous than pure Swiftie rage.  

11. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez get married

Those crazy kids finally made it work.

Nearly 20 years after calling off their wedding, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez confirmed their (second) engagement in April, raising hopes that Bennifer 2.0 would be more successful than the first round. By July, we found out, basically out of nowhere, that they had gotten married in the least Jennifer Lopez way possible: secretly, in Las Vegas (though they did later have a proper ceremony). 

This all came within the same calendar year that Lopez starred in a movie titled Marry Me, so in 2023, we'll be looking to star in a film titled Give Me the Winning Lottery Numbers

10. Tom Brady's marriage falls apart after he un-retires

On the total opposite end of the spectrum, 2022 also brought the breakdown of Tom Brady's marriage after his bizarre decision to announce his retirement from the NFL … and then immediately un-retire.

Brady said in February he was ending his career in the NFL, but we found out just six weeks later he changed his mind. By September, Page Six reported Brady and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, were having a "series of heated arguments" about the decision, and just a month later, their divorce was officially finalized — significantly upping the chances Brady will still be playing in the NFL after most of us are dead. 

9. Bob Iger makes a shock return to Disney

What a year it was for Disney, which seemed to endure one PR snafu after another that all culminated in a shocking plot twist right out of Succession

CEO Bob Chapek appeared on the verge of losing his job for much of 2022 after his unforced errors with Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill that prompted backlash from employees. The Disney board seemed to rescue Chapek, though, by extending his contract another three years in June.

Yet in November, we received the jaw-dropping announcement on a random Sunday night that Chapek had been fired — effective immediately — and replaced by former CEO Bob Iger. Iger is the one who selected Chapek as his replacement, yet he had reportedly been trash-talking him in private, and after returning, he quickly moved to unwind some of Chapek's decisions. The drama at Waystar RoyCo is nothing compared to this. 

8. Netflix loses subscribers for the first time in over a decade

Wall Street realized in 2022 the streaming business model of burning absolutely massive piles of cash every quarter may be slightly unsustainable.  

In particular, it was a rough year for Netflix, which announced in April it lost subscribers for the first time in over a decade, sending its stock tumbling. The streamer quickly revealed plans to boost revenue, including cracking down on password sharing and introducing an ad-supported tier despite years of vowing to never have ads on the platform — though The Wall Street Journal reports this newly-launched plan with ads is so far the least popular option.

If only Netflix had a critically-acclaimed sequel that could have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office with a traditional theatrical run. Oh, wait… 

7. The 'Funny Girl' behind-the-scenes drama

2022 sure did rain on Beanie Feldstein's parade.

The drama surrounding Funny Girl spread far beyond the world of Broadway starting in April when the revival debuted and Feldstein earned brutal reviews for her singing abilities. Famously, Glee star Lea Michele had made no secret of the fact that she wanted the role, so when Feldstein's performance didn't go over well, fans somewhat jokingly suggested Michele was waiting in the wings to replace her.

Except that's exactly what happened, with Feldstein abruptly leaving the show by the summer and Michele being announced as her replacement without any sort of friendly passing of the baton. Michele was even the one to appear on the cast recording, which would traditionally feature the original cast. 

The whole thing at least had a happy ending for Michele, who earned rave reviews, and Funny Girl eventually set a box office record for the storied August Wilson Theatre. If the drama taught us anything, it's that manifesting something into existence can really work out.

6. Ezra Miller is repeatedly arrested, but not fired  

There was a period this year where it seemed not a week would go by without another Ezra Miller arrest.

The actor made constant headlines in the worst way possible. It started with Miller's arrest for disorderly conduct after an alleged incident in a bar and continued when they were arrested again for alleged assault after allegedly throwing a chair at a woman. Miller was also accused of bursting into a couple's bedroom and threatening them, grooming a teenager, running a "cult," and more.

Amid all this, Warner Bros. Discovery faced growing pressure to cancel The Flash, set to star Miller in the title role, yet the film remains on track for a 2023 release. At least Miller mostly disappeared from the headlines during the fall after vowing to seek treatment for "complex mental health issues." On its own, this would be more than enough drama for one studio in a single year. But it wasn't nearly enough for DC …  

5. The nearly finished 'Batgirl' movie gets canceled

DC as a whole seemed to be in almost total shambles this year, and the low point was the virtually unprecedented decision to throw a $90 million Batgirl movie that was already filmed in the trash.

It was all a product of the WarnerMedia merger with Discovery, which resulted in new CEO David Zaslav taking over and seeking to brutally cut costs. This also included pulling one show after another from HBO Max, reportedly to avoid paying residuals to the stars, and the cancelation of Batgirl appeared driven in part by the desire to get a tax write-off out of it. For the cast, throwing a film they worked hard on in the dumpster and implying it wasn't good enough to be seen was painful, and it's hard to imagine anyone in Hollywood will forget about the move when considering whether to work for Warner Bros. Discovery. 

And that still wasn't enough drama for DC. Months later, James Gunn and Peter Safran were hired to take the franchise in a new direction, which involved essentially firing Henry Cavill as Superman mere weeks after the old leadership told him to announce that he was returning as Superman. Well, Dwayne Johnson did promise the hierarchy of power at DC would change forever. 

4. Kanye West's antisemitism spiral

It says a lot about what a wild year it's been that a world-famous rapper openly professing his love for Hitler doesn't come in at number one. 

But by the time that happened, it almost seemed inevitable. Starting in October, Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, had a stunning antisemitic meltdown over the course of several months, starting with him threatening to go "death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE" and culminating in him openly telling Alex Jones, "I like Hitler."

Ye lost one business relationship after another, as well as his billionaire status, and his career will almost certainly never fully recover. When Taylor Swift sang that "your nemeses will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing," she was really on to something. 

3. The 'Don't Worry Darling' press tour drama

It started with custody papers and ended with a controversial salad dressing recipe.

The celebrity gossip scandal we couldn't stop obsessing over this year was the ongoing car crash that was the rollout of Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling. The first chapter saw Wilde being handed custody papers from her ex Jason Sudeikis while on stage at CinemaCon promoting the movie in April. In the following months, there were rumors that star Florence Pugh was unhappy with Wilde because she allegedly had an on-set affair with Harry Styles. 

But as the film's release approached, all hell broke loose with Shia LaBeouf accusing Wilde of lying about firing him, Pugh almost completely skipping the press tour and essentially confirming rumors of a feud, and Chris Pine being accused of spitting on Harry Styles at the premiere. There was even a whole week of interviews with Wilde and Sudeikis' former nanny published in parts like they were the Pentagon Papers, revealing odd details about a fight related to salad dressing that allegedly led Sudeikis to throw himself under a car.  

Don't Worry Darling came and went to only decent business, guaranteeing the behind-the-scenes drama will be its lasting legacy. Well, that and we now know Wilde's salad dressing of choice. 

2. The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard verdict

It was the celebrity trial of the century, as well as the trial that made you most want to stay off Twitter as much as possible.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's years-long battle involving dueling domestic abuse allegations culminated in a Virginia court, where an ugly, grueling trial included testimony from both parties. Depp sued Heard for writing an op-ed about being the victim of domestic abuse, and the jury agreed she did defame him, though he was also held liable for a defamatory statement made by his lawyer.

The trial captivated the internet and in particular drew legions of Depp defenders out of the woodwork to viciously tear apart Heard, who by December would drop her effort to appeal. Experts wondered whether the verdict could have a chilling effect preventing other accusers from speaking out, and if Marilyn Manson's lawsuit against Evan Rachel Wood ends up going to trial, we could be in for a sequel on the horizon. 

1. Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Academy Awards

Yes, we're as reluctant to resurrect discourse about The Slap as anyone. But how could the most defining pop culture moment of 2022 be anything else?

Will Smith walking up on stage and slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars was among the most stunning live television moments in living memory. The take cycle in the following days was almost unbearable, with some praising Smith for physically assaulting a man, while others absurdly claimed a simple slap on the face could have killed Rock.

Virtually every public figure had to weigh in, prompting so many "So and So Breaks Silence About the Slap" headlines that we wouldn't blame you for muting the word "slap" on Twitter almost immediately. But like it or not, it's an event that will surely follow Smith around for the rest of his career, or certainly at least for the next decade, in which he'll be banned from attending the Oscars

In another year, CODA winning the Oscar for Best Picture may have very well topped this list. It was a breakthrough moment for the deaf community, not to mention an Earth-shaking development in the streaming wars, as Apple TV+ became the first streaming service to win Best Picture before Netflix. But was anyone really paying attention to who won Best Picture at that point? Could anyone tell you who won the next day? The slap even overshadowed how much of a disaster the Oscars were in general, from the failed attempt to reduce the length of the show by handing out awards before the live broadcast to the introduction of condescending Twitter polls

We'd normally be inclined to call this the most shocking thing that could ever happen at the Oscars. But after saying something similar about the Moonlight/La La Land mix-up, it may be best not to tempt fate.

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