By Daniel Howat
Time and again we hear the rallying cry as fans of the summer blockbusters demand that the Academy recognizes their favorite superheroes. This year is no different, as “Wonder Woman,” “Logan,” and more have factions demanding Oscar nominations. Will they achieve a different result than in years past?
I’ll never forget walking into a class in 2012 to hear a fellow classmate declare, “‘The Avengers will win Best Picture this year, no question.” Not everyone is as deluded about the chances of superhero films at the Oscars, but this debate comes up every single year. So why is it worth talking about this year? Well, the studios behind some of this years’ most successful blockbusters are validating those feelings with legitimate awards campaigns. Warner Bros. is spending big bucks to get nominations for “Wonder Woman,” focusing on Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director. 20th Century Fox has also announced an enormous awards campaign for both “War For The Planet of The Apes” and “Logan.” These campaigns will be among the biggest awards campaigns ever for blockbusters. The real question is: why now?
Let’s take a quick look at summer blockbusters and the Oscars. Blockbusters have often received nominations in the technical categories, but the above-the-line categories are tougher. Famously, even “The Dark Knight,” widely acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time, missed out on a Best Picture nomination in 2008. This led to the expansion of the category in 2009 from five nominees to ten, in an effort to get a wider variety of films nominated. This worked for a year or two, with films like “Up,” “District 9,” and “Inception” making the cut, but since 2011 the category has essentially shut out anything outside of true awards contenders. In fact, still, no comic book film has ever been nominated for Best Picture, Director, or a leading acting Oscar.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the few summer blockbusters to break in, scoring a whopping ten nominations. But this was no average action film. “Fury Road” was widely seen as a game-changing achievement in filmmaking. Many predicted George Miller to win Best Director, although Alejandro Iñárritu prevailed in the end. Is “Logan” as much of a game-changer? Or “Wonder Woman“? Could Patty Jenkins be the first comic book film director nominated?
To put it simply: it’s highly unlikely. Though the studios will spend a great deal of money to get their films recognized, they are hardly any more acclaimed than other superhero films. Heath Ledger is one of the only actors from a comic book film to receive a nomination, much less win an Oscar. Gal Gadot’s performance isn’t exactly capturing the culture as much as Ledger’s Joker. The only other actor nominated for a comic book film is Al Pacino for 1990’s “Dick Tracy.”
“War For The Planet of The Apes” is a slightly different story, but with the same ending. For both “Rise of The Planet of The Apes” and “Dawn of The Planet of The Apes,” legitimate calls for a nomination for Andy Serkis made significant ground. Many thought he could’ve made the cut, but whether it was hesitation about a motion capture performance or some other factor, he was unsuccessful each time. Will “War” be any different? Again, the answer is no. Though critically acclaimed, “War” is the least successful of the franchise financially. Serkis would also have to contend as a Lead Actor this time, which would be even harder to break into. This third time around simply seems to be generating far fewer calls for a nomination.
So what about “Dunkirk“? It’s the only summer blockbuster this year that’s not only expected to get quite a few nominations, it’s the current frontrunner in a few categories, including Best Director. Why is “Dunkirk” any different than “Wonder Woman” or “Logan“? Well, the obvious answer is that “Dunkirk” isn’t a normal summer blockbuster. Gritty war dramas are more respected by the Academy than superhero films. “Dunkirk” would feel right at home if it had been released in the midst of the fall Oscar season. Despite its July release, you can still bet on many nominations coming their way.
Finally, another abnormal movie entering the Oscars race this year is “Get Out.” Being a February release and a horror movie, normally this wouldn’t even be a consideration, but “Get Out” is the most profitable movie of the year, and still one of the best reviewed with a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. It certainly made a mark on our culture, and given the general lack of films starring (and made by) people of color this year, it can’t be counted out at this year’s awards.
“Get Out,” “The Dark Knight,” and even “Mad Max: Fury Road” prove the point: if a movie that doesn’t fit the Oscar mold is going to be nominated, it needs to be a game changer. Something seen as unique, that affects the culture. Can that truly be said of “Wonder Woman,” “Logan,” or “War”? Not really. All three are great films with excellent performances, and no one should discount the important achievements of “Wonder Woman,” but it’s just not the comic book film to break Oscar’s glass ceiling.
For those waiting with bated breath to hear Patty Jenkins’ name when the nominations are released, my advice is to embrace reality. The Oscars, while they may neglect some incredible movies, can also highlight lots of amazing smaller films that might otherwise go under the radar if not for awards attention. Just because a film isn’t nominated for Best Picture, that doesn’t mean the Academy is out of touch or that your favorite blockbusters are bad movies. For better or worse, the Academy has a type and superheroes just don’t fit the mold.
You can follow Daniel and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @howatdk