Heroes From Real-Life and Fiction Who Had a Great 2021

Heroes From Real-Life and Fiction Who Had a Great 2021
Some people get to count 2021 as a win, outside of making it to the end of it. (Image: Netflix, NHK, and Lucasfilm.)

It’s been a year of highs and lows, but some — whether they were the fictional stars of our favourite stories this year, or the real-world figures behind them — made the most out of the wild times in which we live to make 2021 a highlight. Here’s a few of Gizmodo’s select 2021 heroes, fictional or otherwise, who can count the past year as personal bests.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Image: Warner Bros. Image: Warner Bros.

So he had to drop out of Furiosa due to a scheduling conflict. So what? We’re still quite confident that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who’d earned a place in genre fans’ hearts prior to 2021 thanks to HBO’s Watchmen, will have no trouble seeing his star continue to rise. Earlier this year the charismatic actor turned in a commanding performance as an artist who embraces the horrors of the past a little too much in Candyman; before 2022 gets here, he’ll be a new incarnation of Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections. Next year he’ll star alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and, presumably, some major explosions in Michael Bay’s Ambulance, as well as a little DC sequel titled Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. It’s prime Abdul-Mateen time and we are glad to be living through it.

Free Guy

Photo: Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Photo: Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Living as a NPC in a video game can get pretty monotonous. You literally do the exact same stuff, every single day, forever and ever. So the fact that in 2021, Guy, a character in the game Free City, became self-aware and got super powerful — eventually falling in love and saving every single person in his game — is a pretty kickass turn of events. Bonus that he got to use powers from both the Marvel and Star Wars universes. You can see all this in the movie named after him, Free Guy.

The Heroes of Star Wars: The High Republic

Image: Lucasfilm Image: Lucasfilm

OK, sure: so maybe the heroes of The High Republic spent most of 2021 having their fictional lives turned upside down, but in general, Lucasfilm’s new publishing initiative across comics and books has had such a strong year that it almost feels impossible to realise that the era–set 200 years before the Star Wars prequels–only really kicked off at the very start of 2021. Since then, across dozens of novels and multiple ongoing comic series, the creatives behind this newly revealed slice of Star Wars history have built a fascinating pocket of the galaxy far, far away that carefully weaves the familiar aspects of the saga that make it so enduring with thoughtful, exciting, and inventive interpretations of what it means to be Jedi, what the Force is, and what the Republic’s role in the galaxy should be in the first place. As everything seems to trend towards disaster as the High Republic begins an unwary descent into darkness going into 2022, its quality is anything but falling.

Simu Liu and Shang-Chi

Image: Marvel Studios Image: Marvel Studios

Both the character Shang-Chi, and the actor that plays him, Simu Liu, had (mostly) great years. The character went from being known only in comic book fan circles to having one of the highest-grossing films of the year, helping spread diversity and inclusion, while also overtaking his father’s powerful rings and becoming a potential Avenger. Almost a total zero to hero transformation. For Liu, it was kind of similar; the actor instantly became a household name as the star of Marvel’s biggest 2021 hit. The dude even hosted Saturday Night Live before the year was out. It was an excellent year for the man and the character, for sure.

Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi attends the premiere of Last Night in Soho at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association, Getty Images) Taika Waititi attends the premiere of Last Night in Soho at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association, Getty Images)

There are several creators out there who just don’t sleep (cough Guillermo del Toro cough). They can’t possibly with the amount of work they’re churning out! Taika Waititi is one of them but has the added weight of being an actor, director, and producer. Just this year he was writing and directing his Marvel superhero sequel Thor: Love and Thunder, cast as the dread pirate Blackbeard, seeing his New Zealand-set What We Do in the Shadows spin-off with co-producer Jemaine Clement (Wellington Paranormal) land in the U.S., filming a gross-yet-hysterical corporate synergy commercial with Ryan Reynolds (with both of them in their Marvel getups),and co-starring in Reynolds’ Free Guy. Oh, also, his Flash Gordon project might shift to live-action, he had a cameo in The Suicide Squad, he executive produced a unique and reflective sci-fi dystopian tale from first time director Danis Goulet, and last but not least: Waititi is adaptating Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud’s (aka Moebius’) comic book, The Incal. And that’s probably not even all of it. We hope Waititi is sleeping for the entire month of December.

Nia DaCosta

Actor Teyonah Parris (left) and director Nia DaCosta on the set of Candyman. (Photo: Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures) Actor Teyonah Parris (left) and director Nia DaCosta on the set of Candyman. (Photo: Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures)

Though audiences might not have known Nia DaCosta by name up until quite recently, in 2021, you truly couldn’t be paying attention to Hollywood and not take note of the director’s rising star in the wake of her debut feature Little Woods. DaCosta was already a talent before the debut of her recent Candyman film that breathed haunting new life into the franchise, but her turn to horror showed the public how flexible and vast her sensibilities as a storyteller were, and why Marvel subsequently tapped her to direct its upcoming Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels. Relatively early into her career as she is, it’s clear that DaCosta has so much more to share with the world, and it’s going to be very interesting to look back at 2021 as just the beginning of what’s next for her.

Owen Wilson

Image: Marvel Studios Image: Marvel Studios

Once a ubiquitous comedic actor — recently less so, but never really out of the public eye (does Lightning McQueen ever take time off?) — Owen Wilson had what amounted to a comeback this year thanks to his appealing turn as Mobius M. Mobius in Marvel’s Disney+ series Loki. Introduced as the Time Variance Authority agent who took on Loki’s rather complicated case, Mobius soon revealed there was more to him than just his job; he was willing to stick his neck out for a (sometimes) villain and consider a whole different version of reality that what he was used to. (Hopefully he’ll finally get that jet-ski in season two.) In 2021, Wilson also appeared in sci-fi romance Bliss and was recently cast in Disney’s new crack at a Haunted Mansion movie.

Emily Blunt

Image: Disney Image: Disney

A Quiet Place Part II. Jungle Cruise. Two of the biggest movies of 2021 starred an actor so startlingly versatile you can only wonder if there’s anything she can’t do, since she’s equally capable in comedy, drama, historical drama, musicals, sci-fi, and (obviously) horror and big, swashbuckling adventures. While we’re most excited for that long-rumoured Edge of Tomorrow sequel to finally come to fruition one of these days, we’d follow Emily Blunt into any genre. Maybe even a combination of all of the genres. Who else could pull it off?

Hideaki Anno

Screenshot: NHK/Prime Video Screenshot: NHK/Prime Video

OK sure, his Ultraman movie with Shin Godzilla partner Shinji Higuchi got delayed from release this summer in Japan, citing the pandemic, but otherwise the Evangelion architect’s had quite the year. Not only did his aforementioned iconic anime series reach its conclusion with the long-awaited release of Thrice Upon a Time, bringing a seemingly final end (for now at least) to one of his most beloved works, Anno himself has also been living the dream with the announcement that he would write and direct Shin Kamen Rider, a new adaptation of one of Anno’s favourite shows of all time, and looking already to be a Kamen Rider nerd’s nostalgic dream.


Image: Netflix Image: Netflix

Masters of the Universe: Revelation had its issues by the end, but you can’t deny that He-Man was a master of 2021. The character was revitalised in not one but two shows — Kevin Smith’s aforementioned “sequel” series to the ‘80s cartoon, and the kid-targeted He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — both of which had their high points and brought the hero back into the limelight. The latter show, especially, looks like it might make a new generation of fans which is no small feat for a show starring a character whose name is “He-Man.” Here’s hoping for more Masters in 2022.

Dune’s Lady Jessica (and the Bene Gesserit)

Image: Warner Bros. Image: Warner Bros.

Paul Atreides may be the main character of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Denis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation of the classic novel, but in both stories, the young Kwisatz Haderach is truly only one of many key power players whose actions are shaping the future of the larger universe. Even more so than Paul himself, Villeneuve’s Dune outlines just how calculating, far-sighted, and acting of her own desires Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit has always been — secretly in the past, but much more openly in the present day. In outright defiance of the Bene Gesserit, Jessica turned the order’s grand plan to solidify its grip on control of countless planets into her plan, and in doing so, laid the foundation for the future that’s set to play out in Dune 2.