Pop Culture’s Top 10 Movers and Shakers (2022 Edition)

After two years of tremors caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, 2022 felt, to many of us, like a return to normalcy. Movie theaters were open for business. People were connecting in person again, not just via social media or Zoom meetings. Many breathed an unmasked sigh of relief.

But in the world of pop culture, is anything truly normal?

Yes, theaters were open, but the litany of streaming services were still churning out first-run flicks at home. After years of dipping ratings, the Oscars regained their cultural relevancy—but for the worst of reasons. Social media heaved and roiled like a stormy sea.

Sure, the world of technology and entertainment was ostensibly a bit more normal this year. But the folks who landed on our annual Movers and Shakers list made sure that 2022 felt anything but.

Karey Burke

Outside the House of Mouse, Burke is hardly a household name. Still, the president of Disney’s General Entertainment Content made headlines herself when a company-wide Zoom call was leaked, where she declared her intent to raise the frequency and visibility of LGBT characters within Disney’s entertainment. In another leak, Disney executive producer Latoya Raveneau talked about her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” in adding LGBT content to children’s programming. Secret or no, some parents are taking note. While Disney+ continues to grow (it’s now the biggest streaming service in the world), not all is rosy. Some have speculated (including me) that Disney’s inclusivity push may be a reason behind the underperformance of high-profile animated movies such as Lightyear and Strange World. Both of those projects were nearing completion when Burke made her statements, which suggests that we may be only beginning to see what Burke would like to bring about.

Tom Cruise

What is this, 1987? You ask. How can Tom Cruise still be making this sort of list? Three words help explain it: Top Gun: Maverick. Sure, Top Gun had been a hit in 1986. But why, 36 years later, make a sequel that no one ever asked for? Would anyone even care anymore? Apparently, the answer was yes. Maverick became the box-office smash of the year, banking more than $718.3 million in North America and outpacing second-place Black Panther: Wakanda Forever by nearly $300 million. (Add in its overseas grosses, and Maverick’s earnings stand at $1.5 billion.) Keep in mind that Cruise is 60 years old now, and he’s still making action movies like a young pup. Up next for the star? Another turn as Ethan Hunt in next year’s Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One. He’s been playing Ethan now for 27 years—longer than some of you have been alive. And yep, he’s still doing all his own stunts. Clearly, the guy’s on … Cruise control.

Queen Elizabeth II

It’s not often we put heads of state on this list. But Queen Elizabeth, who passed away this year at the age of 96, reigned firmly over pop culture as much—or more—than she did the British Commonwealth. She was crowned before Elvis Presley recorded his first song, and her 70-year reign encompassed the careers of The Beatles, the Spice Girls and One Direction. During that reign, the Western World became besotted with celebrity, and the Queen and her Royal family became some of the biggest celebrities of all. (Her popularity rating at the time of her death was a staggering 81%.) She appeared as a character in more than 20 movies, and her life continues to be the focus of Netflix’s Emmy-award-winning The Crown. And even as grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, starred in their own divisive Netflix documentary late this year (fittingly called Harry & Meghan), there’s little question what Royal still reigns supreme in the pop-culture world, even in death.

Kevin Feige

In the final episode of Disney+’s mega-meta She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, She-Hulk/Jennifer Walters demands an audience with K.E.V.I.N., a supercomputer that supposedly runs everything Marvel. It’s a literal tip-of-the-hat to Kevin Feige (the computer wears Feige’s characteristic baseball cap), who’s been in charge of Marvel’s sprawling cinematic (and television) universe since 2007. And in 2022, the guy was especially busy. The MCU spawned four of 2022’s top 10 movies: No. 2 Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; No. 3 Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; No. 7 Thor: Love and Thunder; and No. 9 Spider-Man: No Way Home (which was released in 2021 but made $231.8 million this year). Feige pushed three MCU television shows (Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk) and two TV specials (Werewolf by Night; The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special) to Disney+, too. While some people have wondered when our hunger for superhero stories might wane one of these days, the MCU under Feige looks an awful lot like an angry Hulk: It just keeps getting bigger.

Elon Musk

The tech tycoon landed on this list last year, too. And while we don’t like to repeat our picks, we couldn’t very well keep social media’s most notorious poster boy off of it. Consider the Musk-Twitter melodrama in 2022: In April, he announced that he was buying Twitter, which Twitter didn’t want. In July, he announced he didn’t want to buy Twitter, and Twitter said he had to. In October, Musk agreed to buy Twitter (for a mere $44 billion) and by November had laid off half its employees, suspended scads of accounts and made a series of gaffes. That brings us to December, when he asked Twitter users whether he should fire himself as the social media platform’s CEO. (About 58% of them said he should.) And just this week, Forbes revealed that Musk lost about $115 billion this year. Last year, we hoped that “the world’s richest human is not secretly plotting world domination.” Well, he may no longer be the world’s richest man. But is he dominating tech conversation? You bet he is.

Jenna Ortega

It’s been quite the year for the 20-year-old actress. Ortega starred in four horror flicks in 2022, including sequel/reboot Scream. She’s the voice of Brooklynn in Netflix’s Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous. But Ortega lands on this list for her starring turn as the titular character in Netflix’s (surprisingly dark) Wednesday, which has been breaking all kinds of records for the streaming service. It’s the third show on Netflix to top 1 billion hours viewed (joining Squid Game and the fourth season of Stranger Things) and has become the service’s second-most-popular English-language series ever. Netflix estimates that 150 million households have seen Wednesday: If true, that pushes Wednesday past last year’s Super Bowl. They say that “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” But in the case of this former child actor, Wednesday’s character is full of riches.

Will Smith

For Smith, the 2022 Oscars were truly the best of times, the worst of times. One of Hollywood’s most bankable, most likable stars was set to accept a long-awaited Oscar for his work in King Richard. But an hour before the Best Actor winner was announced, Smith took an unexpected trip to the stage and slapped host Chris Rock (who’d made a joke about the bald head of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith). The slap sparked plenty of conversation and loads of outrage. Smith apologized several times over the next few days and, eventually, to Rock himself in July. But his decade-long ban from the Oscars ceremony still stands.

Taylor Swift

The singer-songwriter is certainly no stranger to our Movers and Shakers list, but Swift shook the world of music with particular authority this year. In the last week of October, songs from Swift’s album Midnights literally took over the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. That’s right: Swift placed 10 songs in the top 10, breaking the previous record of nine (set by Drake a year earlier). Her song “Anti-Hero” led the way with 59.7 million streams and 32 million radio plays. Naturally, Midnights also soared to the top of Billboard’s album chart (her 11th No. 1 album), and it set a record on Spotify for the most-streamed album in a single day (186 million streams on Oct. 21). It even kept the literal turntables turning. The 800,000 physical albums it sold on its first day on the market made it the year’s best-selling album, and a lot of those albums were made of good, old-fashioned vinyl. Midnights helped vinyl records to outsell CDs for the first time in 35 years.


Don’t laugh. Whales were a big deal at the (ahem) tail end of 2022. Some whale-like critters share the center stage with the blue-skinned Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, and some people think they stole the show. Sure, the monstrous sea monster in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio looked more like a really ugly fish, but it still had a blowhole. And then there’s the R-rated drama The Whale, which swam to the biggest limited cinematic opening of the year and featured a whole lot of talk about Moby Dick, the entertainment world’s most famous whale of all. Yes, indeed, the humble whale had no room to blubber about its pop-culture visibility in 2022.

Zhang Yiming

If Twitter was the year’s social media disaster flick, TikTok was its romcom. And TikTok’s leading man is Zhang Yiming. He founded a company called ByteDance in 2012 to fill what he saw as a void in the Chinese informational marketplace. He introduced TikTok in 2015 and, a year later, bought its most obvious competitor (Musical.ly) for a cool $800 million. And while TikTok isn’t the biggest social media platform out there, the passion its users have for it is staggering. TikTok boasts 1 billion active monthly users who spend, on average, more than 90 minutes a day with the service. Like many a romcom, all that TikTok love comes with a bevy of problems: TikTok encourages that sort of compulsive usage through its endless scroll. And many worry that the Chinese-based company might be misusing all the free info that TikTok collects. The U.S. flirted with banning the service in 2020, and the U.S. House of Representatives scratched the app from all its official devices just this week.

As you can see, the only normalcy in the world of entertainment and technology is knowing that it’ll never be normal. We’ll do our best to keep track of all its crazy ripples and folds in the coming year. And here’s to hoping that your 2023 will be deeply blessed.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

One Response

  1. -Thank you for placing Queen Elizabeth II on this list. She has done a lot to make the world a better place. And in popular culture, she has been portrayed by many people, including Helen Mirren, Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton, Jane Alexander, Freya Wilson, Emma Thompson, Jeanette Charles, and Rosemary Leach.

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