Judging by how often the Academy has nominated a performance in a fantasy epic or a superhero movie over the past 80 years, you’d think that wearing a cape and giving a decent performance were somehow mutually exclusive.
There have been exceptions: Alec Guinness (“Star Wars”), Sigourney Weaver (“Aliens”) and Ian McKellen (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) received nominations, although, pointedly, none of them won. By and large, the Academy prefers to bestow awards on the sort of big, ultra-showy acting — celebrity impersonations, gender-benders, portraits of mental disability or terminal illness — that allows for tortured emotions, weight fluctuations, deglamorizing makeovers and bravura feats of mimicry. Acting, in short, that makes acting look like hard work.
Oscar’s biases are nothing new. Unfortunately, they’re increasingly out of step with the reality that some of the finest acting in American movies — and, for that matter, some of the most artful filmmaking — can be found in the realms of what might be uncharitably described as “fanboy cinema.” In a year that saw a surfeit of memorable performances in superhero pictures — Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman in “The Dark Knight,” Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man,” Charlize Theron in “Hancock” — it may be time for the Academy to start taking this work as seriously as the actors and filmmakers have.
Credit for this phenomenon must go in part to the recent infusion of indie directing talent into the studio ranks. From their earliest projects, helmers such as Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro demonstrated formidable filmmaking chops and a sometimes down-and-dirty enthusiasm for B-movie thrills — qualities they’ve maintained even as their ambitions, reputations and production budgets have soared.
Crucially, these filmmakers have attracted thesps who share their respect for brawny populist fare, bringing authority, authenticity and razor-sharp technique to bear on unapologetically archetypal roles. Whether it’s Naomi Watts embodying a silent-era romantic heroine with luminous grace and wit in “King Kong,” Daniel Craig reinventing James Bond as a tough but vulnerable antihero in “Casino Royale,” or Tilda Swinton frightening the tots as a crypto-fascist ice queen in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” these actors have managed the tricky task of investing conventional material with emotion, gravitas, subtle humor and psychological complexity.
More often than not, such perfs have been the product of adventurous casting choices favoring indie luminaries, veteran character actors and flat-out unknowns in lieu of more traditional B.O. draws. Even after her acclaimed work in “Mulholland Dr.” and “21 Grams,” Watts was still a relatively unfamiliar face when she starred in Jackson’s “King Kong.” Hugh Jackman was all but unknown outside Australia when he took the pivotal role of Wolverine in Singer’s “X-Men”; he left his mark on the character so indelibly that he’s now toplining an upcoming spinoff.
And consider Raimi’s original “Spider-Man,” the blockbuster that arguably launched this new era of respectability for the comicbook movie: By now, Tobey Maguire seems so right for the part, it’s easy to forget what a counterintuitive choice he was at the time. Known not for classical good looks but for his engaging, offbeat presence in arthouse faves like “The Cider House Rules” and “Wonder Boys,” Maguire drew on his gift for underplaying to successfully render Peter Parker a fully dimensional human being first and a web-crawling crime fighter second.
What unites these films and performances is their utter lack of condescension, their implicit belief that while these movies can and should be fun, they needn’t be frivolous. Nowhere is this maturity more evident than in “The Dark Knight,” a crime drama that makes Tim Burton’s earlier Batman thrillers, considered dark at the time, look flighty by comparison. As with “Batman Begins,” Nolan works in a gritty, almost neorealist vein, and his characters manage the feat of conforming to human psychology without betraying their graphic-novel origins.
There are flickers of Method to Ledger’s madness as the Joker, whose assorted tics and gestures — licking his scarred lips, giggling to himself as he brandishes a knife — are far removed from Jack Nicholson’s broader shenanigans in Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” Comparisons to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning turn in “The Silence of the Lambs” are not inappropriate; like Hannibal Lecter, this Joker is an eloquent psychopath who manages, in very little screen time, to foster a disquieting intimacy with the audience.
Similarly demonstrating that a comicbook adaptation needn’t feel like something off an assembly line, indie-bred helmer Jon Favreau fashioned “Iron Man” as a sort of midlife-crisis comedy, played out against the topical (and en vogue) backdrop of Middle Eastern conflict. Rather than disappearing behind a metal mask, Downey delivers a droll, acerbic performance in a role that, no less than the suit of iron that gives Tony Stark his heroic identity, seems specifically tailored to his strengths.
Downey’s Stark has wit and personality to burn — not something one would necessarily say about his squarer ’80s action-movie forebears, such as Indiana Jones and Superman. Notably, both of these classic characters attempted recent comebacks — with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Superman Returns” — that drew mixed reactions from auds and critics. Rather than reimagining their material in the bold, visionary manner of Nolan’s Batman cycle, they offered quaint, nostalgic throwbacks to a less cynical B-movie past.
Updating a beloved series is no easy task, not least because the filmmakers must deliver fresh innovations yet also satisfy the expectations of hard-to-please fans. All the more gratifying, then, that with “Casino Royale,” Martin Campbell made a Bond caper that felt at once classic and new, and the first such film in years to mine 007’s dramatic possibilities, as opposed to his potential for double-entendre and self-parody. In defiance of premature speculation that he was unfit for the part, Craig imbued a well-worn stereotype with a rich inner life, a trend one hopes will continue in the upcoming “Quantum of Solace.” Craig may not land a date with Oscar for his troubles — but, then, he’ll be in excellent company.