The Year in Movies and TV: 2021
Image credits: Netflix (left), HBO/Keith Bernstein (right)
Tuesday, January 4, 2022
When it comes to steampunk entertainment on the screen, 2021 was largely a tale of two series, one highly anticipated and the other a big surprise. The first was HBO’s The Nevers, which was generally well received by steampunk fans while getting mixed reviews from critics. The second was Arcane, an animated Netflix series that flew in under the radar and scored raves all around.
Among movies, Disney’s Jungle Cruise was probably the year’s biggest release, at least among films with steampunk appeal. But it was far from the blockbuster that Disney hoped it to be.
Here’s a look at these and other TV and movie highlights from the past year.
The Nevers Finally Premieres
Steampunk fans had high hopes for this HBO science fiction series, which began airing in April after production delays imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Originally conceived by Joss Whedon, it tells the story of the Touched, misfits in Victorian London with unusual powers.
Many steampunks responded enthusiastically to the series, but some critics knocked the show for its pacing and character development. Even some fans were thrown off by a major twist in the sixth episode, which capped the first half of Season One.
The producers also faced behind-the-scenes drama, as Whedon left in November 2020 amid allegations of improper conduct on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Justice League. HBO named British screenwriter Philippa Goslett as the new showrunner in January.
Production resumed last summer, and The Wrap reported that the second half of Season One will begin airing in 2022.
More coverage: ‘The Nevers’ Premiere Scores Record Audience for HBO Max (April 16)
An Early Look at The Nevers (March 27)
Arcane Scores With Fans and Critics
For all the anticipation surrounding The Nevers, an animated series from Netflix may prove to be the steampunk hit of the year. Inspired by the League of Legends video game, Arcane scored rave reviews from critics and steampunk fans alike for its visuals, storytelling, world-building, and character development. It was also one of the most-watched series on Netflix for most of November and December.
Just weeks after the premiere, Netflix announced that it had renewed the series for a second season.
Arcane, which serves as a prequel to the game, is set in two rival cities: Wealthy, technologically advanced Piltover, and the seedy underground Zaun. In Piltover, a young scientist develops a technology called Hextech that allows ordinary people to harness the power of magic. In Zaun, a gang leader uses a drug called Shimmer to turn humans into monsters.
More coverage: Netflix Renews Hit Animated Series ‘Arcane’ for a Second Season (Nov. 24)
Tennant Stars in Around the World in 80 Days
This eight-episode TV adaptation of the Jules Verne classic arguably belongs in a 2022 roundup, as it premiered Dec. 26 in the UK and Jan. 2 in the U.S.
Produced by Slim Film + Television and Federation Entertainment, it stars David Tennant as Phileas Fogg, the wealthy English gentleman who bets half of his fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Tennant is joined by Ibrahim Koma as Fogg’s valet Passepartout and Leonie Benesch as Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue, a young journalist who accompanies them on the adventure.
Early reviews have been mostly positive, giving the series a 70 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The producers have already announced a second season, and the companies say they also plan to adapt Journey to the Center of the Earth as a TV series.
More coverage: 80 Days Isn’t Enough: Producers to Double Up on Jules Verne Adaptations (Dec. 2)
Disney to Re-Imagine Captain Nemo
One of the biggest announcements of the year relates to a series that’s still a long way from the screen. In August, Disney announced plans to develop Nautilus, a 10-episode live-action streaming series described as a “re-imagining” of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The series will tell the origin story of Captain Nemo and his famed submarine, portraying the captain as “an Indian prince robbed of his birthright and family,” in keeping with Verne’s description of the character in The Mysterious Island. Nemo will “set sail with his ragtag crew on board the awe-inspiring vessel, battling foes and discovering magical underwater worlds.”
Later, Deadline reported that British actor Shazad Latif had been cast in the starring role. He’s probably best known for portraying starship crewmember Ash Tyler in Star Trek: Discovery. He also played Dr. Jekyll in the third season of Penny Dreadful.
The series was set to begin filming this year in Queensland, Australia. So far, there’s no word on additional cast or when the series will be released.
More coverage: Disney To Produce Live-Action Series About Captain Nemo and the Nautilus (Aug. 24)
Other Notable Series
The Underground Railroad – Barry Jenkins directed this 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed 2016 alternate history novel. The Amazon Prime series drew raves from most critics, though some viewers were put off by gruesome scenes in the first episode. It’s currently up for multiple awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.”
The story is set in the Antebellum South, but in this timeline, the Underground Railroad is a real train with engineers and conductors. Thuso Mbedu portrays Cora Randall, who flees slavery on a Georgia plantation and embarks on a journey that takes her to re-imagined societies in South Carolina, North Carolina, and points beyond, while being pursued by a determined slave catcher.
More coverage: ‘The Underground Railroad’ Set for May 14 Premiere (May 7)
Shadow and Bone – This eight-episode Netflix series is based on Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grisha trilogy. The stories are set in the fictional Kingdom of Ravka, where a teenage orphan discovers that she has a magical power.
Bardugo has described the novels as “Tsarpunk,” meaning “fantasy that takes its inspiration from the aesthetics, culture, politics, and social structure of early 19th century Russia.”
More coverage: Positive Buzz for ‘Shadow and Bone,’ New ‘Tsarpunk’ Series on Netflix (April 23)
The Irregulars – This eight-episode Netflix series offered a major twist on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. The story follows a group of street kids in Victorian London who solve supernatural crimes at the behest of a sinister Dr. Watson.
It scored well with critics and in early audience ratings, but viewership quickly faded and Netflix cancelled the series just weeks after its March 6 premiere.
More coverage: Shocker: Netflix Cancels ‘The Irregulars’ (May 7)
The Case Study of Vanitas – This steampunk anime series is based on a popular manga by Jun Mochizuki. The story involves vampires in 19th century Paris, but in this world, vampires don’t have a need to drink blood or harm humans. That is, unless they’re afflicted by a condition known as Malnomen. Vanitas is a human who aims to cure vampires of this malady.
It premiered July 3 on Funimation, an anime-focused streaming service that has distribution rights outside of Asia. Season 2 is set to premiere Jan. 14.
More coverage: Funimation Debuts Steampunk Anime Series ‘The Case Study of Vanitas’ (July 28)
Chapelwaite – This 10-episode series from Epix stars Adrien Brody as Captain Charles Boone, who relocates his three children to the “seemingly sleepy town” of Preacher’s Corners, Maine in the 1850s after his wife has died at sea.
It's based on “Jerusalem’s Lot,” a short story by Stephen King that’s not to be confused with Salem’s Lot. Given the pedigree, you know that hidden dangers are lurking.
Emily Hampshire plays Rebecca Morgan, the governess who helps raise the family while writing a gothic novel.
The series, which premiered in August, has a 63% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics consensus reads: “Chapelwaite’s drab proceedings are stretched a bit thin over ten episodes, but those looking for an atmospheric whodunit with a few genuine frights could do worse.”
Jungle Cruise Leads 2021 Movie Releases
As with 2020, 2021 was a strange time for movies as the pandemic kept audiences away from theaters for most of the year. One result was that box office performance was graded on a curve—movies that would have been regarded as flops in any other year were hailed as successes, albeit qualified ones.
Among films with steampunk appeal, the year’s biggest release was probably Disney’s Jungle Cruise, a fantasy adventure that premiered July 30 in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service. On Disney+, it was offered at first through Premier Access, meaning subscribers had to pay $29.99 (in the U.S.) to watch the movie. It’s now available to stream on the service at no extra cost.
Set in 1916, the film stars Dwayne Johnson as a riverboat captain who takes scientist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) on a voyage through the Amazon in search of the Tree of Life. As with Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s based on a Disney theme park ride, and the studio hoped it would be the basis for a new blockbuster movie franchise.
The film received mixed reviews, and though it ultimately didn’t break even, Johnson announced in August that Disney had greenlit a sequel.
More coverage: Jungle Cruise to Get Simultaneous Release in Theaters and on Disney+ (May 19)
The King’s Man Finally Hits the Screen
Another highly anticipated film this year was The King’s Man, a prequel to Mаtthew Vаughаn’s Kingsman films. Originally scheduled for release in November 2019, it was delayed multiple times and finally premiered on Dec. 22.
The film re-invents the history surrounding World War I, ultimately serving as an origin story for the Kingsman private intelligence service. It stars Ralph Fiennes as Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, who assembles a spy network as he attempts to avoid the upcoming war. They’re opposed by a mysterious group of villains that includes Grigori Rasputin.
The King’s Man received mixed reviews and currently has a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics generally praised Fiennes’s performance, but many panned the film itself, knocking it as “clunky,” “pointless,” and a “tireless slog.”
In one of the positive reviews, Gary M. Kramer of Salon.com described it as “a dumb bit of fun, a revisionist history of WWI told in a nimble, comic-book style.”
Movie-goers seemed more positively inclined: A CinemaScore audience survey gave the film an average grade of “B+,” and it has an 80% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Cumberbatch Portrays Artist Louis Wain in Period Biopic
Sometimes a period film will capture the hearts of steampunk fans even without sci-fi or fantasy elements. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was a good example, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role as the real-life British artist known for his whimsical illustrations of cats. It certainly helped that H.G. Wells made a brief appearance, as portrayed by Australian musician/actor Nick Cave.
The film, which scored well with critics, followed Wain’s life from the late 1800s through the 1930s. It had many light-hearted moments but also took some tragic turns.
The biopic had a limited U.S. theatrical release on Oct. 22, but most folks probably saw it when it streamed on Amazon Prime Video beginning Nov. 5.
Animated Steampunk Short Finally Sees Light
Though we’ve focused primarily on feature-length films from major studios, one smaller independent project also deserves mention. That would be Cyan Eyed, a 3D animated short released in August by Nezui Films after seven years of development. The eight-minute movie follows a sentient automaton named Grunt who boards a pirate airship to rescue a girl with supernatural powers. But the robot must get past the pirate captain.
The film was written, produced, and directed by Ryan Grobins, a visual effects producer whose credits include The Hunger Games, Shadow and Bone, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and many other science fiction and fantasy projects. He enlisted a crew of more than 50 visual artists, plus sound designers from George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound and a 26-piece orchestra.
More coverage: Video Effects Vet Releases ‘Cyan Eyed,’ 3D Animated Steampunk Short (Sept. 1)
More TV and Movie Coverage
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