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The Best Comebacks of 2017

From Dave Matthews to David Lynch, here are the pop culture icons who triumphantly returned to tight, tie us up again

Ringer illustration

2017 wasn’t exactly a triumphant year, but it did see the unlikely-but-welcome returns of many forgotten icons. Drop the needle on “Crash Into Me” and check out the Ringer staff’s picks for this year’s best comeback stories.


Dave Matthews

Andrew Gruttadaro: This is how Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig described her experience with Dave Matthews Band to The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey: “I really liked Dave Matthews. … I think in a way, as does happen in college, I was informed that I should not like it. … But I think, sometime in my 20s I was like, ‘Hang on a second—I still really like Dave Matthews!’”

As someone who recently listened to the entire two hours and 34 minutes of Live at Piedmont Park, I can relate. And if 2017 is proof of anything, it’s that thousands of others can too. Thanks to Lady Bird’s multiple uses of “Crash Into Me”—perfectly employed as both a cultural signifier and the taste and dumb romanticism many of us have at a certain age—Dave Matthews and his Band were given a friendly reassessment this year. (Matthews also performed on “Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief” this fall, which was hella tight.) Watching Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein weep along to Dave’s nasal-yells hit so close to home. Through that cathartic experience, it seemed that many realized how important it is to cherish the things you once loved, no matter how embarrassed someone—in this case, basically every engaged member of culture—made you feel about it in college. I still really like Dave Matthews! 2017 was the first time in a long time many felt OK admitting that.

Thor

K. Austin Collins: Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) kinda suck. Is that controversial to say? They suck for different reasons, but watching them earlier this year, what struck me is how far the Marvel Universe has come since only five, six years ago. Actually though, for once, I’m willing to admit this isn’t Marvel’s fault. No honest person cared about Thor until he was worth a multimillion-dollar franchise, because he’s boring. So when I say Thor is making a comeback, I guess I mean from way back—like, from the ancient Norwegian Edda. He was basically never cool, in the modern ages, until now. When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, Thor still sucked, and I bet the best thing about electricity at first was finally getting to see the face of the Thor-loving idiot at the local bar when you told him so.

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok changed that. Thor, the character, went from feeling like a complete nonissue, a mere sideshow next to the likes of Captain America and Iron Man—whose franchises are much more fun, overall—to more or less becoming a pretty good superhero. What Waititi seemed to recognize is that the dude is a rock star, and that the guy who plays him, Chris Hemsworth, has a genuine personality behind that godly mane of hair. I’ll admit it—I didn’t see that last part coming, either, but here we are, staring down the barrel of another Avengers movie, and for the first time probably ever, I’m rooting for Thor.

Aubrey Plaza

Miles Surrey: It’s not that I don’t like Deadpan Aubrey Plaza, but her post–Parks and Recreation career didn’t lend itself to anything different. Which is why 2017 Aubrey Plaza was such a delight. She did her deadpan thing (The Little Hours), but also became one of the best performers of the year with a one-two punch of psychological horror.

In Ingrid Goes West—a deeply funny, scathing, frightening satire of social media—Plaza’s titular character goes from zero to 100 in a nanosecond, luxuriating in her newfound friendship with an Insta-famous influencer (Elizabeth Olsen) and the exposure it feeds her own brand. Ignoring every warning sign, Ingrid is pushed to the brink of suicide; Plaza, throughout, makes every absurd moment feel truthful. Then there’s Noah Hawley’s X-Men series, Legion. As Lenny Busker, Plaza is—spoiler alert—not what she seems, eventually revealed as a mutant parasite feeding off of David Haller (Dan Stevens) since birth. Plaza’s performance was wide-ranging; at different times, Lenny was a drugged-out friend, a sinister therapist, and a straight-up monster, like when she literally oozed sludge in the season finale.

Of the many unpredictable pop culture moments of 2017, I never expected Aubrey Plaza to freak the shit out of me—twice.

The Members of One Direction

Kate Halliwell: When One Direction broke up after a tumultuous 2015 that included the departure of Zayn Malik and the surprise fatherhood of Louis Tomlinson, the “Justin Timberlake Debate” immediately began. Which member would survive the breakup and go on to solo success, and which would become the modern-day Joey Fatone? Fast-forward to 2017, and the plot twist no one was expecting: One Direction doesn’t have one standout Timberlake, because every member of the band—from Harry Styles to the ones you couldn’t pick out of a lineup—has had a shockingly successful year.

First, Styles began the year with a stint on SNL, a weeklong residency on The Late Late Show, a critically acclaimed classic rock album, and a Rolling Stone cover. He went on to earn praise for his role in Dunkirk (no big deal) and closed out the year with a sold-out tour that spanned the globe and showed off his wide array of incredible suits. But Harry didn’t score a true radio hit in 2017, and that’s where his other bandmates showed him up. In addition to his own well-received album, Niall Horan had one of the most popular songs of the year in “Slow Hands.” Not to be outdone, Liam Payne briefly took over the radio with the uninspired but annoyingly catchy “Strip That Down.” And to everyone’s utter shock, 1D’s most forgettable member, Louis Tomlinson, scored a few hits of his own this year, including “Back to You” with Bebe Rexha.

No one saw this coming. One Direction may not have had an obvious Beyoncé or JT in their midst, but they may not have a Kevin Jonas either.

Color in Blockbuster Movies

Michael Baumann: One of the worst things about big-budget action movies nowadays is the color palette: Everything’s blue and orange, and not a vibrant Florida Gators–style blue and orange, either: a dull copper set against a blue the color of the water off the Jersey Shore. It’s dark, so it’s hard to see anything, particularly in superhero movies that place fast-paced hand-to-hand action against a backdrop of explosions. Even Wonder Woman, which was otherwise a lovely film, looked like it was shot through a fistful of old pennies. It extends to TV, as well: Watching parts of Game of Thrones last year, I was amazed at what a fortuitous casting choice Sophie Turner was: They’re so committed to the blue-and-orange color scheme, particularly in the North, that they got themselves a blue-and-orange lead actress.

But then the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out and holy smokes! Look at all that red! Vibrant, thick reds, with weighty greens and clear blues, like the colors you’d find on baseball uniforms. And while Thor: Ragnarok was often a little too slapsticky and expressed a Whedonesque pleasure with its own cleverness, it was a great theater experience because it was joyful—and it was joyful because it was colorful. Also, hello Blade Runner 2049.

I can only hope this leads to more of the same. God gave you the entire box of 64 crayons, movie folks, so go use them all!

David Lynch

Alison Herman: Prior to Twin Peaks: The Return’s May premiere, the impending arrival of 18 new Lynch-directed hours of television wasn’t just exciting for the prospect of donuts, owls, FBI agents, or hot coffee. That’s because The Return wasn’t just the first new Twin Peaks in nearly three decades—it was also the first new filmed work of any kind from the legendary auteur since 2006, when his three-hour, digitally photographed Inland Empire baffled audiences even more than usual. Thankfully, Lynch emerged from creative hibernation—barring an artisanal coffee line or two—more Lynchian than he’d ever been.

The Return added plenty to the director’s already massive repertoire: trippy special effects, HD photography, and perhaps most disconcerting of all, iPhones. Yet the series can also be read as a self-composed retrospective of sorts, drawing together highlights from across Lynch’s multi-decade career and splicing them into one masterwork. There’s a black-and-white interlude, à la Eraserhead; there’s that famous driving-at-night shot, à la Lost Highway; there are multiple sets of doppelgängers, à la Mulholland Drive. It remains to be seen if The Return will be the 71-year-old director’s final work, but it feels safe to say that it’s the most comprehensive. David Lynch may not be here to stay, but he certainly came back with a vengeance this year.

Nintendo

Ben Lindbergh: “Nintendo’s revenues keep sinking, and there’s no lifeboat in sight,” read the headline on a story written by Quartz in April 2016. The article—one of many about Nintendo’s steadily decreasing revenues and profits—concluded that the venerable game-maker’s “days as a public company might be numbered,” citing its struggles “to adapt to a world where casual video gamers get their fix wherever they are on their smartphones, rather than on expensive devices that sit in the living room.” The financial news was no better later in the year, as sales of Nintendo’s last-gen console, the Wii U, declined precipitously from already-low levels.

Adaptation doesn’t always do its work gradually. Sometimes, one mutation makes all the difference. And whether we knew it or not, Nintendo’s lifeboat—the Switch—was in sight. The company’s turnaround was swift and dramatic, driven both by robust sales of its hybrid home/handheld console and by a software lineup that included “Game of the Year”–bait The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey as well as strong supporting titles such as Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, Nintendo largely avoided the pitfalls that have plagued it for years, demonstrating that the Switch could attract third-party developers (and run non-Nintendo titles) despite its modest processing power; announcing (and releasing) new Metroid games; avoiding any delays; delivering enough Super NES Classic consoles to (almost) meet demand; and finding ways to tweak its flagship franchises so that they felt innovative and vital without being untrue to their pasts.

Aside, perhaps, from making a breakthrough mobile-only game, there was nothing Nintendo couldn’t do this year, including breaking ground on a theme park, developing a Mario movie after years of bitterness about being burned by the first one, and casting Ryan Reynolds to play “Detective Pikachu” in another upcoming film. As important as turning a profit was, Nintendo’s overnight image makeover may have been its greatest achievement; from a narrative standpoint, Nintendo’s renaissance was the tech equivalent of a group of nostalgia-circuit rockers releasing a surprise album of vintage, chart-topping originals after years of rehashing the hits.

Spider-Man

Jordan Coley: 2002’s Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire is one of my favorite superhero movies of all time. It successfully brought a beloved character to life on the big screen in a way that felt true to the comic/animated series’ spirit, while also establishing its own voice. It was a hard movie to top, and Columbia Pictures never did. The next two Maguire films were progressively worse, with the third film’s chief contribution to the Spidey canon being this aggressively terrible thing.

The series was relaunched in the first half of the 2010s with Andrew Garfield as the lead. I could never quite get on board with that iteration: Garfield was too cool, too smooth. No number of Thrasher T-shirts could make me believe he was a fumbling teenager from Queens and not a 29-year-old British guy from Surrey.

This is all to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming—Marvel’s first crack at the character (with an assist from Sony), this time starring then-20-year-old Tom Holland—was exciting for me. Holland was a perfect palate cleanser to all the overcooked, post-2002 garbage we had shoved down our throats. In Homecoming, he imbued his Spider-Man with a sense of brash, clumsy teenage confidence that, for the first time in a while, didn’t feel like it was added in post. With Holland’s Spider-Man and a host of other classic characters set to enter the Marvel Universe, it’s beginning to feel like the dawn of a new era.

LeBron James’s “U Bum” Tweet to Donald Trump

Katie Baker: OK, I know this isn’t technically the type of 2017 comeback we’re exploring in this space. Still, in a year dominated by celebrities and civilians alike attempting, with extremely varying degrees of success, to own the president via social media, I feel that LeBron James’s simple, successful dunk on POTUS deserves some credit.

James’s tweet came during a hectic weekend that kicked off when Steph Curry, at the Golden State Warriors’ media day, implied that he would not be in favor of his team visiting the White House for the customary post-championship meet-and-greet with the president. That night, Trump gave a rally speech in Alabama in which he kind of randomly alluded to quarterbacktivist Colin Kaepernick as a “son of a bitch;” early the following morning, Trump tweeted that Curry couldn’t visit the White House anyway because he was no longer invited.

With four simple letters, James captured so many aspects of modern life: the growing willingness of superstar athletes to speak their minds or take their knees or otherwise engage in sociopolitical discourse; the oddity of having a political leader who lives his life so Extremely Online; the way it’s just so damn tempting to reply to Trump’s remarks. Far from regretting pressing tweet that morning, James later backed up his sentiment in a video: “This guy that we’ve put in charge has tried to divide us once again,” he said, proving that the strongest burns against the president are also the most concise: “This guy,” “U bum.”

The Freeze

Danny Heifetz: I, too, am aware that this isn’t exactly the correct kind of comeback, but c’mon, words have multiple meanings for a reason.

In this masterpiece from June, “The Freeze” races a fan in between innings at an Atlanta Braves game. It’s a harrowing, fully formed Greek tragedy. The first time you watch it, you think you’re rooting for the fan. It goes like this:

Exposition (0:00-0:05): With a 200-foot head start, a peasant unexpectedly becomes a hero.
Rising Action (0:05-0:20): The audience, but not our hero, senses an impending doom amid glory.
Climax (0:20-0:22): The hero becomes the villain. Sensing his mistake, he stares into the abyss, and the abyss stares back.
Falling Action (0:22-0:25): He falls. The Freeze prevails.
Resolution (0:25-0:29): The camera zooms. “That’s where he belongs, right in the dirt,” the announcer concludes.

The Freeze (real name Nigel Talton) is a Braves grounds-crew member training for the 2018 World Indoor Championships. He’s also an inevitable, unstoppable manifestation of the gods that will strike at the first sign of weakness. Like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock, or Russell Westbrook’s teammates forever standing wide open in the corner, The Comeback of the Freeze is mythology. Heed its lesson.

Joe Budden

Donnie Kwak: To bastardize a line from one of the greats: You’re nobody till somebody memes you. Which means that Joe Budden finally became somebody this year, beyond a talented but underachieving rapper and Love & Hip Hop caricature. Now a full-time talking head on the Complex web series Everyday Struggle, Budden assumed his truest, most natural form in 2017: as the rap game Stephen A. Smith. In doing so, he has achieved the kind of sustained relevance that had eluded him since those halcyon “Pump It Up” days of the early aughts.

Oh, he’s still the same Joe Budden—mercurial, self-aware, and eager to beef—only now, he’s in your face on a daily basis. The memes and GIFs have followed. There was his contentious interview with Lil Yachty, the unforgettable drop-the-mic standoff with Migos, and a general, pervasive antagonism that compelled even Chance the Friggin’ Rapper to clap back. Like the elite-level troll that he is, Budden has only gained more momentum off the retaliation of his foes. A sweatshirt made to mock him has become a Joe Budden revenue stream; Migos had a no. 1 album this year yet still can’t keep Joe’s name out of their mouths. If Joe Budden made you angry this year, you only made him stronger.