Well, not every year can be a winner.
For many of us, 2016 was a time we’d rather forget. Everyone seemed so angry this year. We saw it in the nearly interminable election cycle. We saw it in the constant barrage of protests and counter-protests. Why, the atmosphere was so explosive this year that even smartphones started blowing up.
But it wasn’t all bad. The year had its share of good news, too. So with that, let’s take a look back at the folks who helped make 2016 the year that it was … and the folks who, at least, made it a bit more interesting.
Barb: We didn’t know her all that long. Those who don’t use Netflix or skipped out on the summer phenomenon that was Stranger Things didn’t know her at all. The high schooler lasted just three episodes, and even her scant moments of screen time were terrible. But despite her short television lifespan, the Stranger Things extra inspired staggering loyalty. Hers was the bespectacled face that launched a thousand memes, GIFs and her own hashtag (#WeAreAllBarb). Restaurant owners changed menu names in homage. “I think everyone feels like a Barb sometimes,” actress Shannon Purser told ABC regarding the character she made famous. “I think people also like her strength. She wears what she wants to wear. She doesn’t want to go to the party. She doesn’t need to be popular.” We could all learn a little from Barb, perhaps—though perhaps we’d also wisely avoid being kidnapped by extra-dimensional monsters.
Brangelina: For more than a decade, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were Hollywood’s indisputable “it” couple. Fans followed their relationship’s sordid beginnings, watched as they began adopting children and graced red carpet banquets. And then, just like that, it was over—the death of a relationship chronicled in salacious detail by tabloids and gossip sites. Many suggested that Brangelina’s end marked an end of an era, too. “Brangelina was formed before celebrities were doing their own social media,” author Vanessa Díaz told The Atlantic. “It almost feels like this is the transition from the era of Brangelina to the era of Kimye. Kim [Kardashian] and Kanye [West] are talking to their consumers and fans differently, they’re talking to them directly through social media, and Brangelina has a kind of glamor and mystique that the newer couples don’t have because of the access that we have—or the illusion of access that we have.”
Walt Disney: It’s true that Disney died more than 50 years ago. But the company he created dominated the movies this year like none other before. The House of Mouse owns the year’s top four worldwide movie moneymakers (No. 1 Captain America: Civil War, No. 2 Finding Dory, No. 3 Zootopia and No. 4 The Jungle Book). And keep in mind that another Disney film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is still charging up the year’s rankings and will likely give Disney a clean sweep of the Top Five before 2016’s box office books are closed. And let’s not forget that Doctor Strange and Moana, already sizable successes, are both still counting up their own box-office receipts. Now, if only Disney would reimburse its fans with free tickets to Disneyland …
Dragonite: I can’t say that this is a prime catch in the Pokémon Go universe, but my wife was certainly excited when she stumbled across it. For a few weeks this summer, Pokémon Go became a flat-out obsession for millions of casual gamers who experienced culture’s first real push into the world of augmented reality. The game was a, uh, game-changer, in that it pulled folks off the couch and got them walking, exploring and visiting places they might never have seen otherwise. Sure, most were still far more interested in what was happening inside their smartphones than in the real world, but still. Progress, right?
Jesus: The Son of God was all over the movies this year. No less than four films featured Jesus: As a boy in The Young Messiah, a man beginning his ministry in Last Days of the Desert, a confident prophet in the remake of Ben-Hur (pictured here) and as a mysterious missing person in Risen. Not all these films were technically “Christian” movies, either: Ben-Hur was made in the hopes of becoming a blockbuster, and Last Days is a provocative art-house flick through and through. But all were eminently watchable and, in their own ways, deeply probing, causing even longtime Christians to see their Savior from a slightly different perspective.
Dwayne Johnson: It’s not like Johnson’s the first former professional wrestler to try his luck in Hollywood. But he’s the first who became its king. In a cover story, Sports Illustrated called him “the biggest star in Hollywood,” and it’s hard to argue. Both of his movies this year—Central Intelligence and Moana—hit it big at the box office. He was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive!” for 2016. But while some people would point to the former Rock’s physique as the reason for his success, he owes just as much to his versatility. Even though he started out, and still is, one of the biggest action stars on the planet, he’s perhaps Hollywood’s go-to guy for kids’ movies. Central Intelligence was a comedy featuring flashbacks to Johnson’s supposed younger, geekier, flabbier days. And Johnson’s muscles weren’t on display at all in Moana; here, his voice did all the heavy lifting.
Colin Kaepernick: A year ago, the 49ers quarterback’s career was all but over, and let’s face it: The guy still may not keep his starting job. But no matter. By sitting during the National Anthem during an otherwise meaningless preseason game, Kaepernick became the face of a movement—a self-stated protest against discrimination and police brutality—and the controversial center of a national discussion. Football players around the league (and in high school and college, too) began taking knees. Sports journalists spent more time talking with him about the day’s explosive issues than football. And while his kind words for Fidel Castro and his failure to vote alienated some of even his more vocal supporters, there’s no question that Kaepernick reminded us all that celebrities can influence and even drive important conversations.
Palmer Luckey: In tech circles, 2016 may be remembered as the year that virtual reality officially became a thing. And for that, society must tip its hat to Palmer Luckey. The 24-year-old designed an early version of the Oculus Rift, a VR head display that started the tech world buzzing a few years ago. Soon he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his dream—a campaign that went on to collect $2.4 million, 10 times what he was asking for. And even though many believe that VR technology is nothing more than a gimmick for now, that hasn’t stopped the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets (from the $799 HTC Vive to the $15 Google Cardboard) from becoming must-have tech for many a first-adapter. Now, Luckey’s last name says it all: His net worth is estimated at around $700 million. But he still shares a house with a handful of other gaming enthusiasts.
Prince: The world lost a staggering number of influential celebrities this year, but few gave America more of a shock than Prince. Even though he hadn’t made a Top 40 hit since 1995, The Purple One’s relevance was undiminished, and he was still selling out shows and wowing crowds with his frenetic performances. It’s possible that Prince’s high-energy stage presence may have contributed to his death: An autopsy found that the pop icon died from an opioid overdose—drugs that some say he took to alleviate the chronic pain he suffered because of all those leaping splits he did. In the end, Prince served as a sobering reminder of the dangers of drug use and abuse, and the story of another talent taken too soon.
Donald Trump: Time’s Person of the Year makes our list, too, because how could he not? This former reality star parlayed his name recognition and knack for channeling voter outrage into what some would’ve termed a Quixotic campaign. But even as the world kept waiting for The Donald to fade and let the “real” politicians take over, Trump kept defeating his rivals until he claimed the most powerful job in the world. The campaign itself marked, perhaps, a turning point in American politics. Sober policy statements took a back seat to inflammatory sound bites; debates were waged not so much on television as on Twitter. Many pundits said the 2016 election was more reality show than anything, and if so, the ratings were huuuuge. And even as many in America shook in their boots at the prospect of a Trump presidency, many others had just two words for the guy: “You’re hired!”