Geek Moments of the Last 15 Years That Shook Pop Culture

Den of Geek turns 15 in 2022 and what a 15 years it’s been! Here are the moments from the past decade-and-a-half that have helped shape entertainment as we know it.

Pop Culture Moments illustration
Photo: Jessica Koynock

Can you believe Den of Geek has been around since 2007? That’s practically the olden days. And a lot has happened in pop culture since we launched. Superheroes certainly weren’t as pervasive as they currently are, the Oscars has made some serious shifts, major trends in gaming appeared (and sometimes disappeared), Disney has taken over the universe, Game of Thrones was a thing and we had our first female Doctor. And that’s not all…

We’ve taken stock of the major geek events of the last 15 years to take stock of how far we have come.

The Birth of the MCU (2008) 

When Iron Man was released on May 2, 2008, few would have imagined that a movie about a (at the time) second-tier Marvel Comics character would become ground zero for the most successful multimedia franchise of all time. Over a decade later, what has come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe now spans 28 feature films (so far), multiple TV shows, and a level of pop culture saturation and box-office dominance beyond most studio executives’ wildest dreams. But the formula for that success was clearly laid out in Iron Man: a likable, charismatic lead; blockbuster action; a self-aware, lightly comedic tone to break the tension; and the constant awareness that there’s an even bigger world to be explored if the audience wants to come along.

Iron Man spawned two direct sequels, and star Robert Downey Jr. went on to play Tony Stark in a total of 10 films, with each entry not only upping the stakes on screen, but also at the box office, with other studios now measuring their own blockbuster success against that of Marvel Studios. The story of the MCU that began with Iron Man has now become so sprawling that it can only be understood in “phases,” with each set of movies all building up to payoffs in ever-larger scale. It’s a completely new way of looking at serialized storytelling on the big screen, and a “shared universe” code that Disney and Marvel’s competitors have yet to crack. Iron Man may be gone, but his legacy is still going strong. 

Ad – content continues below

The Dark Knight DOESN’T Get a Best Picture Nomination (2009) 

Rarely is a thing that did not happen worth recording in the annals of history, geeky or otherwise. And yet, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences omitted Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight from its short list of Best Picture nominees in 2009, the awards season world changed forever. Viewed in retrospect by the industry as the culmination of a decade-long shift away from populist entertainment (read: big earners at the box office), The Dark Knight snub was all the more remarkable since the brooding superhero epic had managed to be recognized by most of the industry guilds, whose members also spill over into the Academy.

But come nomination time, The Dark Knight’s presumed spot was taken by The Reader, a relatively poorly reviewed Holocaust drama produced by Harvey Weinstein. The fallout from the snubbing was immense. In the following year, the Academy returned to nominating 10 pictures for the top award for the first time since 1944. The Dark Knight’s cold reception arguably paved the way for movies such as District 9, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, Get Out, Black Panther, and Joker finding room on the Oscar stage.

Minecraft Arrives (2009)

Minecraft started as a technical exercise/passion project that likely would have been lost to history if it wasn’t for its determined developer and a dedicated group of fans. In 2014, it became the best-selling PC game of all time. In 2019, it became the best-selling game ever. Sales aside, Minecraft changed how games are promoted, talked about, and played. Many people heard about it via YouTube, and many learned how to play it from one of the legion of digital influencers who can trace their careers back to Minecraft. Simply put, it’s the most socially impactful game of the last 15 years, and its current popularity suggests it isn’t going anywhere.

Prestige TV Gives Way to Franchise TV (2010) 

October 31, 2010 is a date that holds special importance: it’s when AMC first premiered The Walking Dead. At first glance, the Frank Darabont-run series seemed like an attempt to bring the sensibility of “prestige TV” such as Mad Men and The Sopranos to the zombie drama format. Eleven seasons and several spin-offs later, however, it’s clear that what AMC wanted with the Robert Kirkman comic adaptation was its own Marvel-esque franchise. Though prestige-quality TV shows still live on, the prestige era has slowly given way to the franchise era. Whether it’s the Arrowverse, Star Trek, or even Marvel itself on Disney+, franchises are the way forward for TV.

Game of Thrones Rocks the World (2011) 

“Winter is coming.” Just over a decade ago, these innocuous words became charged with dark foreboding—and unadulterated excitement. That’s because Game of Thrones came to HBO and changed television forever. The first long-form series with spectacle that could compete with cinemas, and arguably the last of the “watercooler shows” where everyone seemed to treat it as appointment viewing, Thrones defined the TV landscape for nearly a decade. Despite the toxicity of the “discourse” after its final season, for most of its run, this was an elegantly crafted ensemble that drew on George R.R. Martin’s even richer novels. The performances, the twists, the deaths, the one-liners, and even those damn dragons remain with us still, long after our watch has ended.

Dark Souls Ushers in a New Era of Game Design (2011)

At the time of release, Dark Souls was best known as that “really hard game” that many assumed would only appeal to a relatively small audience. But over the next decade, it popularized a new genre and changed how games are discussed and designed. Dark Souls’ minimalist storytelling, bold difficulty, and methodical combat inspired gamers to change their expectations and made developers alter their tactics. Those who were impacted by Souls’ innovations sought out anything that reminded them of it; those who despise the game continue to debate its impact on the industry. Love it or hate it, anyone who hopes to understand this era of game design must first understand what made developer FromSoftware’s no-compromises triumph such an unlikely innovator.

Ad – content continues below

Streaming Services Dominate the TV Landscape (2012)

According to FX’s research staff, the year 2012 saw 288 original scripted programs air on television. By 2018, that number grew to 487. That, my friends, is television in the streaming era. No other technological innovation over the past 15 years has affected mass media more than streaming. Starting in 2013 with Netflix’s release of its first original series House of Cards (or 2012 with Lilyhammer if we want to get super technical), the ability to reliably stream original, high-quality TV shows as part of a subscription package completely revolutionized pop culture. 

Netflix led the charge in streaming originals, first with House of Cards, then with other bingeable titles like Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, The Witcher, and more. The streaming giant’s all-at-once release preference upended the traditional weekly viewing model. And its success in doing so also served as a clarion call for other major media conglomerates to get in on the action. From Amazon to Disney to Warner Bros. to Apple to even something called a “Quibi,” every major Hollywood player needed their own streaming service. 

This glut of streaming services has led to a truly overwhelming entertainment landscape but it’s also opened up opportunities for titles previously thought unadaptable. Beloved genre classics The Wheel of Time and Foundation each received their own streaming series in 2021. None other than The Lord of The Rings is next on the docket, set to spend half a billion of Amazon’s dollars to premiere in September.

The Rise of “Elevated Horror” (2010s)

Let us be clear: intelligent horror has been around forever. But the last 15 years have seen, at best, an acknowledgment for a kind of credible horror that people who would otherwise balk at the genre can acclaim. “Elevated horror” has become a catch-all term for the kind of chiller that eschews gore for big themes—see The Witch, The Babadook, Raw, Hereditary, and Saint Maud. The term is divisive—at worst it’s a way for people to look down their noses at mainstream horror—but it has opened dialogue about why the genre is so frequently overlooked at awards season. It has started to break through, too: Jordan Peele won an Oscar for his screenplay for Get Out, and last year, Julia Ducournau’s Raw follow-up, Titane, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It’s a great time to be a horror hound.

Disney Buys Marvel, Then Lucasfilm, Then Fox (2012) 

In 2012, George Lucas sold his movie studio to Disney for $4 billion. Star Wars now belonged to the company that had just months before changed how we thought about superhero movies and cinematic universes with Marvel’s The Avengers. We knew Star Wars would never be the same again, and the franchise’s expansion didn’t stop at a sequel trilogy of movies—the new era of Star Wars embraced standalone films and live-action TV series for the first time. Disney has grown quite a bit since 2012, too. The success of Marvel and Star Wars has led to other landmark deals, like Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox and its partnership with Sony to bring Spider-Man to the MCU. These big moves will continue to change Hollywood for years to come.

The Pokémon Go Phenomenon (2016) 

The Pokémon Go phenomenon of 2016 occasionally feels like a fever dream. Was there really a time when we were all outside hunting AR renditions of Pokémon with friends and strangers? Was there any value to that “Summer of Pokémon Go” beyond whatever memories remain of what now seems like a much simpler time? While there are times when it might feel like Pokémon Go was just a fad, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is the mobile app still doing well, it ushered in an era of mobile AR games that all hoped to recapture that magic. Many have failed, but the success of Pokémon Go has been enough to inspire developers to seriously pursue AR and VR concepts that were once considered a sci-fi dream. If nothing else, those memories of Pokémon Go will always serve as a reminder of the power of gaming.

Ad – content continues below

PUBG Makes Battle Royale Games a Phenomenon (2017) 

It might be hard to remember now but there was a time when Call of Duty: Warzone and Fortnite weren’t the biggest battle royale games in the world. The roots of the genre stretch further back to survival titles such as DayZ and H1Z1, but it’s really 2017’s PUBG that perfected the winning formula of throwing players onto a massive map and forcing them to eliminate each other until there’s one last survivor standing. PUBG’s winning combination of strategy and adrenaline quickly became popular among online gamers. Four months after its release, PUBG had already logged over 10 million matches played. It may not be the most popular battle royale game anymore, but it’s possible many of gaming’s other big innovations in the 2010s wouldn’t exist without it (or Fortnite, its early big competitor). It’s adoption of cross-platform play, including on mobile devices, was a major turning point for online gaming.

The First Female Doctor (2017) 

Fifteen years. Three Doctors. (Three and a half if we count John Hurt. Three and two halves if we count Jo Martin. Potentially several more if… let’s stop counting for sanity’s sake.) In January 2009, during a special episode of Doctor Who Confidential, David Tennant’s successor was revealed to be relative unknown Matt Smith. He was too young! His face was too confusing! Doctor Who was ruined! Four years later, in August 2013, during a knuckle-bitingly awkward anniversary show featuring One Direction broadcasting live from a pocket universe, the next Doctor was revealed to be Peter Capaldi. He was too old! His face scared children! Doctor Who was definitely ruined! Four years after that, just after the July 2017 Wimbledon Men’s Finals on BBC One, Jodie Whittaker was revealed as the Thirteenth Doctor. She was too girl! Her face was all smooth! Doctor Who was one hundred percent, super-duper, no take backs, double triple ruined. That’s not forgetting the three different showrunners in those 15 years, each of whom ruined Doctor Who in their own special way (too populist/not populist enough/Chris Chibnall). Next up? The return of Russell T. Davies, the 60th anniversary, and Ncuti Gatwa as the brand new Doctor. Bring it on.

Korean Culture Booms (2020)

For some, the global dominance of Netflix’s Squid Game in 2021 was a huge surprise. For fans of K-culture, it was just the latest height of hallyu (a term literally meaning “Korean wave” in Chinese), part of a successful Korean economic strategy to become a global exporter of popular culture that began in the late 1990s following the Asian financial crisis and continues to this day. In 2012, PSY conquered the music world with the gloriously catchy dance track “Gangnam Style,” becoming the first Korean artist to break through into the American market; the music video would go on to become the first to hit one billion views on YouTube. In 2017, BTS won Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards, becoming the first K-pop group to top the U.S. charts a year later. In 2020, Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And, in 2021, Squid Game was the most-Googled show of the year. As we head into the next 15 years of Den of Geek, look for K-culture to become an increasingly large part of the global pop culture conversation.

Black Panther DOES Get a Best Picture Nomination (2019) 

Black Panther continued breaking down barriers a year after its release, when it cracked the Academy’s Best Picture ceiling for superhero movies in 2019. While others had chipped away at industry cynicism, such as Heath Ledger winning a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight and James Mangold and Scott Frank’s nomination for their Logan script, Black Panther was the first superhero film to get a nod for the top prize. Then again, nothing was ever conventional about Black Panther, a movie that even Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter tried to block because his team didn’t think all-Black casts could carry a successful blockbuster. More than $1 billion at the box office and three Oscar wins later, all we can say is “Wakanda Forever.”

The Rise and Rise of Comic Books (Ongoing)

There are two comics stories over the last 15 years that have made the medium what it is today. The first is the superhero story—cape comics, scrambling for relevance 

in the face of a multimedia juggernaut that first co-opted then eclipsed their cultural relevance. The audience for an Avengers comic is a rounding error next to the audience of a movie, forcing comics into increasingly shorter reboot/relaunch cycles to try to maintain relevance in their media conglomerates. While this was going on, though, the comics medium has actually become healthier than ever. There has been an explosion in webcomics in recent years, thanks in large part to the growth of social media. Webcomics invaded cape comics, and after 15 years of chasing the movies, comics finally might have figured out their identity.

Ad – content continues below