'The Rings of Power' is Amazon's 'most-watched show.' Great news for one of my favorite shows of 2022.

I've never read the 'Lord of the Rings' books, but I love everything about this show. PLUS: 'Black Adam' fades to black, Cecily Strong talks 'SNL' exit, and Tom Cruise promises the 'biggest stunt.'

'The Rings of Power' is Amazon's 'most-watched show.' Great news for one of my favorite shows of 2022.
Morfydd Clark in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. / Amazon Studios

I’m not what you’d consider a J. R. R. Tolkien person.

I failed to read The Hobbit during Battle of the Books in middle school. I’ve never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, I’ve have watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy several times, but who hasn’t? (I didn’t see them until they were on DVD, though.) I’ve also watched the Hobbit trilogy, but not as many times as the originals.

Why did I wind up loving The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power then?

The series, which takes place thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings, is based on the appendices for Tolkien’s work. We’re not talking actual narrative works. These appendices are glorified lists of historical events, genealogies and examinations of the languages of Middle-earth.

I think this is why this show interests me.

While I haven’t read the actual Lord of the Rings books, I have found myself clicking through Tolkien wikis, following names and events down various Hobbit-holes. The process of creating a paracosm, a world that Tolkien had been crafting his entire life, fascinates me.

Robert Aramayo and Benjamin Walker in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. / Amazon Studios

The first season of The Rings of Power cost $462 million to produce — and it shows. (The orcs in this one are people in costumes instead of bad CGI!) This series is not only the biggest investment in television history, it’s the make-or-break show for Amazon Studios. It’s Jeff Bezos’ big bet.

Rings of Power became the show I most looked forward to while new episodes were coming out. If it was Friday, this is what we were watching first after putting our daughter to bed.

Showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay did a fantastic job evoking the familiar feel of the Lord of the Rings movies. (They even got original trilogy composer Howard Shore back to record the theme for the opening credits.) Watching Rings of Power every week was like hanging out with an old friend. A comforting friend. A friend who didn’t need to rely on traumatic birth scenes for shock factor. (Oh wait, I haven’t hit the House of the Dragon section yet …)

I adore Morfydd Clark as Galadriel. I want a Funko Pop of her in my office, but it turns out Amazon Studios didn’t secure merchandising rights for this show. (Yes, you can buy Pops of the Ozark characters, but not ones of characters from the most expensive show ever made.)

When it comes to determining whether Rings of Power is a hit, that’s been another question.

The show had the misfortune of releasing at exactly the same time as another major franchise returned: The Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon.

Rings of Power and House of the Dragon aired almost simultaneously, exchanging new episodes every Sunday and Friday. House of the Dragon was the talk of social media as it aired. If you were on Twitter, you hopefully weren’t behind on the latest episode. Tweets about Rings of Power were harder to find, and if you did find them, they were likely tweets comparing the two shows.

Beyond both being based on popular fantasy properties, Rings of Power and House of the Dragon are very different shows. Correct me if I missed it, but Rings of Power skipped the uncle/niece romance at the core of House of the Dragon

Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy in House of the Dragon. / HBO

While HBO wasn’t shy about boasting over how many people were watching House of the Dragon, Amazon Studios has been pretty quiet about how successful Rings of Power was after releasing the ratings for the show’s first two episodes.

Amazon Studios finally pulled back that curtain this week, with Vernon Sanders, head of Global TV for Amazon Studios, revealing to Collider that Rings of Power “is, by far, our most-watched show, first-season scripted series, by far.”

“After we finished releasing episodes, we saw a new surge of people come to the service to start the show,” Sanders told Deadline. “We’ve already released the fact that we’re over 100 million, and the number has gone up since then, it’s millions and millions beyond that.”

Charlie Vickers and Morfydd Clark in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. / Amazon Studios

It turns out that the show even lead to a spike in the sales of Tolkien’s books.

*looks over at the collection of Tolkien books I bought after watching Rings of Power*

The second season of Rings of Power likely won’t premiere until 2024. It’s an understandable wait for a show that requires this much detail. Maybe I’ll read the books while I’m waiting …

Publishing note

Popculturology will be off this Monday, Dec. 26. I’ll talk to you all again on Thursday and hope that you have a Christmas, if that’s your thing.

Happy Thursday, and thanks for reading Popculturology. I love writing about pop culture, and I hope you enjoy reading this newsletter. If you do, please subscribe. It’s the easiest way to make sure you get every edition of Popculturology. Tapping the 🖤 at the bottom of each post also helps the newsletter. Now let’s get to the news.

The News

Cecily Strong: ‘Ready to go, but I’ll always know home is here’

The announcement that Cecily Strong was leaving Saturday Night Live came as a surprise, with the show tweeting about it just hours before last weekend’s episode was set to air. Was this a sudden decision?

“I'm sorry I've been a little quiet about it publicly,” Strong posted on Instagram on Monday. “I didn't want the extra pressure on something already so emotional for me. And I'm so grateful I got to have these wonderful past six shows to help me ease into it and get to meet and laugh and probably overly hug [Molly Kearney], [Marcello Hernandez], [Devon Walker] and [Michael Longfellow], who I think are not only brilliantly funny but really great humans.”

Strong had missed the first three episode’s of SNL’s 48th season while performing in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Here’s a wild stat about the current state of SNL’s cast: The gap between when Kenan Thompson started and when the next most senior castmember joined the show? Thirteen seasons. Thompson’s first season was the show’s 29th, and Mikey Day didn’t come along until Season 42. That’s what happens when you ignore an entire generation of the cast

Black Adam cuts to black

DC Studios’ hierarchy of power? Turns out it doesn’t include Black Adam.

The long saga of Dwayne Johnson’s push to not only bring the character to the big screen but also “control a piece of DC” in the process came to an end on Tuesday when the actor announced that “and Black Adam will not be in their first chapter of storytelling” under James Gunn and Peter Safran.

As The DisInsider’s Skyler Shuler said, “The Rock’s statement is a nice way to say he's done with Black Adam.”

It’s cute that Johnson added that “DC and Seven Bucks have agreed to continue exploring the most valuable ways Black Adam can be utilized in future DC multiverse chapters.” I can’t imagine Gunn and Safran have any interest in letting a production company that pushed its weigh around and went over the heads of the previous regime to pull Henry Cavill back into the fold as a promotional tool for Black Adam have any say in how they reshape the DCU.

(Oh, so I watched Black Adam. Head to The Playlist section to read my thoughts …)

There were also some rumors swirling over whether Zachary Levi would remain in the role of Shazam. The actor took to Twitter to state his confidence in the role.

I hope he’s right. I like Levi in the role. I’d be worried, though, that DC Studios isn’t going to cut an actor who still has a film on the calendar. Shazam! Fury of the Gods still has an entire promotional push ahead of it. Levi has to do stuff like go on The Tonight Show and play games like “Waffle Slap Fight” with Jimmy Fallon. We’ve seen this kind of thing before — remember when the poor cast of Dark Phoenix has to promote the end of a doomed franchise after Disney purchased 20th Century Fox?

So what’s the Dial of Destiny do in Indiana Jones? Is it time travel? (And what happened to Shia LaBeouf?)

Even before the real of the title of the next Indiana Jones film, there’s been a lot of speculation over whether we’re going to see time travel in the movie. De-aging Harrison Ford for this one was already enough to get the theories going, and once we found out the full title is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the time travel rumors really took off.

“I can’t, because I don't want to give the movie away,” director James Mangold told Entertainment Weekly when asked what the dial does. “But is there a relic in this movie that possesses a kind of power, or may possess a kind of power? And is it based on history and scientific speculation? Yes.”

Mangold also revealed that with the fifth Indiana Jones movie, fans “find out what happened” to Mutt Williams, the son of Indiana Jones played by Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The director also took to Twitter on Monday to push back on rumors that the movie was undergoing reshoots or working on alternative endings.

Like Gunn, it’s refreshing to see these creatives openly address their projects.

Also in Harrison Ford news …

While talking with The Playlist about 1923, the upcoming Yellowstone prequel series, Ford was asked about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Hey, look, I’ve done a lot of things,” Ford told them. “I now want to do some of the things I haven’t done.”

When asked if one of the thing he hasn’t done is motion-capture (since we’re assuming Ford will at some point transform into Red Hulk while playing General Ross, the actor “ simply smiled and replied with a ‘zipped-lips’ sign.”

Wolverine will mess with time too

Isn’t Wolverine dead? That was the question most of us asked when the news broke that Hugh Jackman would reprise the role of Wolverine for Deadpool 3. Turns out being dead isn’t an issue now that the MCU has multiple timelines.

“It’s all because of this device they have in the Marvel world of moving around timelines,” Jackman told Variety. “Now we can go back because, you know, it’s science. So, I don’t have to screw with the Logan timeline, which was important to me. And I think probably to the fans too.”

There had been a rumor that the Deadpool characters were going to show up in a Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness credits scene, but it looks like that leap is being saved for the third Deadpool movie itself. Any agencies in the MCU tasked with checking in on time variances?

‘Best for the story and best for the DC characters’

James Gunn returned to Twitter on Monday to pull back the curtain on the future of DC Studios a tiny bit more. The co-chair of DC Studios addressed the reactions from some fans over the decisions he and Peter Safran have already made, saying “disrespectful outcry will never, ever affect our actions.”

After talking about how the story and characters would be the focus of their version of the DCU, Gunn reiterated that “our choices for the DCU are based upon what we believe is best for the story and best for the DC characters for nearly 85 years. Perhaps these choices are great, perhaps not, but they are made with sincere hearts and integrity and always with the story in mind.”

I’m a fan of what Gunn is doing with the DCU. His heart is in the right place, and if they have to make some major changes to get things right, let’s do it.

Another interesting story earlier this week was that Todd Phillips was Warner Bros. Discovery’s choice to run DC Studios before they went with Gunn and Safran.

“The whole town turned the job down,” a source told the New York Post. “It was almost Todd Phillips. They begged him.”

The Joker writer/director joins producer Dan Lin on the list of people WBD tried to recruit to be there Kevin Feige. (And they may have even asked Feige too.)

Television Academy attempts to solve the variety series issue

The Television Academy announced on Tuesday that it was shaking up the two Emmy categories that cover variety series honors. Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Variety Sketch Series will become Outstanding Talk Series and Outstanding Scripted Variety Series.

Yes, take a moment to reread that sentence.

Over the past few years, the Television Academy has run into the issue of having barely enough eligible shows for the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category, with SNL and A Black Lady Sketch Show being the only two nominees for the past two years. Before that, those two shows were joined by Drunk History.

With the sketch category suffering, the Television Academy hopes this will solve the problem — but it may actually introduce even more confusion. From Variety:

Whether or not this will resolve that debate is unclear. Programs like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon could fall under either category: It features unscripted interviews, but it also includes plenty of loosely scripted improv, musical numbers, monologues, comedy stand-ups and sketches. But it would likely mean that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which has dominated the variety talk category since 2016, would move over to scripted variety series, where it would now compete with the likes of Saturday Night Live instead of Jimmy Kimmel Live or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (The Daily Show also contains a hefty scripted segment in addition to its talk segment.)

Um, this seems worse. Last Week Tonight against SNL? Why?

Honestly, what the Television Academy needs to do is separate the late-night shows that air four or five episodes a week from the ones that only air one episode a week. Why is Last Week Tonight on a seven-year winning streak against true late-night shows? (And why isn’t Late Night getting nominated and winning this category every year?)

Timothy Olyphant in Justified: City Primeval. / Entertainment Weekly

Will Boyd Crowder be in the Justified revival?

Timothy Olyphant will once again don Raylan Givens’ iconic hat when Justified returns to TV in 2023. Justified: City Primeval showrunners Dave Andron and Michael Dinner talked with Entertainment Weekly about the upcoming revival, addressing why they would bring the show back.

“Well, we wanted to make sure we fucked it up,” Andron told EW. “We ended it so well. Why would we leave well enough alone?”

Justified nailed its finale, completing the story of Raylan and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder. Should fans expect to see Boyd in City Primeval?

“This story is really going to be about Raylan and his demons and his past and trying to move forward at this point in his life,” Andron said. “So we had to create a new foil for him and somebody who's still a little bit of a mirror, but also a big obstacle.”

Goggins (allegedly) won’t be back for City Primeval, but we will meet an older version of Raylan’s daughter, played by Vivian Olyphant. Yes, that’s Olyphant’s real-life daughter.

“They brought their own baggage to it, which was good, and it was interesting to watch,” Dinner told EW. “She would take little polls of who was the crew's favorite Olyphant on the set.”

Concept art from Ember. / Netflix

Netflix kills animated film from Klaus director

It’s rough to be an animated project at Netflix these days. The studio scrapped its adaption of Jeff Smith’s Bone (someday, someone will get this one right) and a film being executive produced by Ava DuVernay.

The latest animated film to meet Netflix’s ax is Ember, a movie from Sergio Pablos, the writer and director of Klaus. Variety reported on Monday that the decision was “creatively driven.” Klaus scored Netflix a nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2020.

When Netflix previewed Ember in June, it described the film as “the epic tale of humankind’s quest for fire is told through the eyes of young Dikika, who embarks on an impossible race to a distant volcano to retrieve the precious spark that will save her tribe.” According to Variety, Pablos will be able to shop Ember around to other studios.

Wanna send me your comments, questions or recommendations? Write to Popculturology at popculturology@gmail.com, and I might run your mail in a future edition of the newsletter.

Trailer Watch

New looks at Loki Season 2 and Ahsoka

OK, so this isn’t a trailer, but Disney released a preview of what’s coming to Disney+ in 2023, giving us our first look at the second season of Loki and maybe an additional look at Ahoska? (I’m pretty sure we saw this clip during Celebration.)

While I’m looking forward to Ahsoka (nice to see Lucasfilm updating the character’s lekku to be closer to the length we saw them in animation), I’m really intrigued by where Loki will go in Season 2, especially now that it’s tell a multiversal story at the same time as the rest of the MCU.

HBO Max previews its 2023 slate

HBO Max also released a highlight reel of shows coming to the streamer in 2023. Among the shows featured are The Last of Us (I need you all to help me convince Caitlin to watch this one), Succession, Winning Time, The Righteous Gemstones, Barry and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Oh boy, I wish all these shows the best of luck. Odds are HBO Max will be called something else by the time they air. And I’m pretty sure that last year’s HBO Max promo is just a giant “CONTENT NO LONGER AVAILABLE” banner now.

Dwayne Johnson in Black Adam. / Warner Bros.

Black Adam

I did it. I watched Black Adam.

Oh boy.

I watched Black Adam.

This is a bizarre movie. Especially in 2022. If you had told me someone wrote this script in 2000, right on the heels of The Mummy movies, I would believe you. Nothing about this movie feels like it was created for 2022, created to fit with whatever the DCEU is.

Black Adam breaks out of his mountain prison and people start firing missiles at him? Superman exists in this world. (They fire at the demon too!) They would know this wouldn’t work.

Dwayne Johnson doesn’t do much in this movie. He hovers. He mentions that Black Adam isn’t a hero. Several times.

I wanted better for this movie. So many people are giving it their all. Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate? Please, please someone give him another chance. He’s so great in this film. I don’t know if it’s in Gunn’s rebooted DCU or if maybe Marvel Studios can throw some money his way to give him a proper role.

Ohmigod, give Brosnan all the money to keep playing Doctor Fate. Aldis Hodge is fully committed too. I like him and he deserves better than this.

Gotta give credit to this movie for making me care more about Doctor Fate, Hawkman and the Justice Society than I did about the Justice League in their own movie.

This wants to be a 2000s action movie. Whether it’s Zack Snyder’s 300 with its slow motion or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen with its Smashing Pumpkins soundtrack (remember how awesome the “Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” was in that trailer?), Black Adam feels dated to a very specific time.

I can’t get over how edgy this movie thinks it is. Johnson’s Black Adam frying people with his lightning hands or tossing people miles away as Doctor Fate asks to interrogate them. We’ve seen edgier stories in Andor this year. Seriously, watching someone break as they listen to the dying screams of the children of a species carries so much more weight than Johnson punching someone’s arm off. (Ooo, he learns how to do a catchphrase and rips a demon in half.)

I will say that the reveal that Black Adam was not actually The Champion and that it was his son was pretty good. Warner Bros. should’ve leaned into the TINY ROCK! of this movie.

There’s a skateboard kid in this movie? Like, “I skateboard” is his thing.

It’s adorable Johnson and his team made a movie where Black Adam is the ultimate god among the DC pantheon. They even added jokes about him being more powerful than Superman. Has any other credits scene aged this poorly so quickly?

I feel so bad for Henry Cavill. Seeing him again as Superman was my favorite thing about Black Adam. I wish he wasn’t just “a pawn in Dwayne’s failed attempt to control a piece of DC.”

The Links

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Odds and Ends
Tom Cruise shooting a stunt for Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One. / Paramount Pictures

‘The biggest stunt in cinema history’

One of these days, the news is gonna break that Tom Cruise fell into a volcano while shooting Mission: Impossible 10, and we’ll all just nod our heads and say that seems about right.

Here’s Cruise not just executing a massive stunt for Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One but practicing the various elements of the stunt (normal stuff like jumping out of a helicopter or riding a bike off a ramp into a quarry) over and over again.

Why don’t we talk about Christopher McQuarrie as one of the biggest action directors working today? Is it because he’s only directed Mission: Impossible movies over the past few years? He also wrote Edge of Tomorrow and wrote/produced Top Gun: Maverick.

Waitaminute, I’m seeing a trend here …

If Cruise gets to play Superman, would McQuarrie sign on to direct that reboot?

Behind-the-scenes with the new Black Panther suit

I love the suit that Shuri wears as Black Panther in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (There are Funko Pop and Marvel Legends versions of it on the shelf above my desk.) In this new behind-the-scenes clip from Marvel, Ryan Meinerding walks us through how they arrived on the look of the latest Black Panther.

Across the Spider-Verse gets a new poster

After debuting a gorgeous trailer last week, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse got a pretty cool new poster this week.

Oh boy, look at all those different versions of Spider-Man. I cannot wait for this movie. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller also chatted with Entertainment Weekly about the anticipated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sequel.

‘Fusion Scientist’: A deleted SNL sketch

I love when SNL posts deleted sketches. They used to be easier to find when NBC posted clips on Hulu, but they still make their way to YouTube these days. “Fusion Scientist” is a great sketch! It’s probably the biggest role Marcello Hernandez has had outside of Weekend Update.

I’m not sure what I would’ve swapped out during Austin Butler’s episode to squeeze “Fusion Scientist,” which is a good problem for an episode of SNL to have.

Black Adam: I liked it?

I watched Black Adam over the weekend (well, on mute, with a dozing newborn on my lap ) … and I liked it? A lot more than I was expecting?

If The Rock was truly trying for a land grab, at least it was by an actor with charisma who could carry a franchise. And his instincts weren’t wrong: I finished that film eager to see a Superman/Black Adam showdown. — Dan Diamond (@ddiamond)

I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it. (You’re sleep deprived, right?) There’s been the misconception over the past few years that people who focus on the recastings, the leadership changes and the box office underperformances of the DC side of the superhero movie world somehow enjoy those failings. I don’t. I want that side to be just as successful as the Marvel side. I thought Man of Steel was a solid beginning for the DCEU and would’ve loved to have seen that vibe followed through on. I’m hoping this full reset begins to set things right. — Bill

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