Each year, the same debate rages: Can a movie about superheroes be a legitimate contender for a best picture Academy Award nomination?
The answer, so far, has been a taunting laugh followed by a hard no. After all, as UCLA associate professor of sociology Gabriel Rossman — who worked with University of Arizona assistant professor of management and organizations Oliver Schilke to develop an algorithm that determines what they’ve dubbed a film’s “Oscar appeal” — puts it: the rules have routinely been that “you can sell popcorn or get Oscars” and cinema based on comics “are movies that sell popcorn.”
But the tides may slowly be changing. Blockbusters featuring superheroes that also tackle big social issues and more intimate and personal, yet universal, demons command the world’s attention. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film “The Dark Knight,” a cinematic feat that also dealt with such topical issues as privacy and technology, is said to be one of the main reasons why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) changed its rules to allow more than five entries in the coveted best picture category.
Last year, director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” made headlines not just for its box-office results, but also because it shattered several glass ceilings in regards to gender equality and sparked many a think piece on whether it would also be the first superhero film nominated in this category.
Of course, it was not. But, could that honor happen this year to another ground-breaking superhero film? Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” may have its roots in the beloved Marvel comics, but it has so much more going for it: With a majority black cast and a laser-sharp focus on social issues including race and conflicting identities, the film hit a litany of touchstones when it was released in February. With high scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, it clearly resonated with both the critical community and pop-culture watchers — giving Academy voters another reason to vote for T’Challa & Co.
In doing this, “Black Panther” follows a trend seen in other films that have found Oscar success.
“There’s a reason ‘Get Out’ did well even though it’s a horror movie; there’s a reason Guillermo [del Toro] was talking so much about inclusion during ‘The Shape of Water’ — and sincerely so,” says Andrew Stachler, CEO of entertainment and digital marketing agency Max Stax Media, which works on several awards campaigns, of one of last season’s best picture nominees and that category’s eventual winner.
“Making your movie important is a tried-and-true tactic in these campaigns and, I think, when you go back to superhero movies, that is probably a core thing that they have struggled with,” he says. “If your movie has something meaningful to say — or even, better yet, has a cause — then that makes a difference in a campaign and sets up support of other superhero movies.”
UCLA’s Rossman says analytically speaking, a “Black Panther” nomination (or win) for best picture would also make sense. He says that, in addition to movies about Hollywood like “The Artist” or ones about investigative reporting like “Spotlight,” the stereotype has always been that movies about the Holocaust or war crimes traditionally played well with Oscar voters.
Moving forward, he says, “My rough sense is that is that social- problems pictures, which were always a part of the Oscars, are even more so now.”
“Black Panther,” he adds, fits the trend of “movies addressing the experience of stigma in some way.”
“Black Panther” is unlikely, however, to receive an added push from voters concerned about their reputations after April Reign’s 2016 Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite garnered so much attention. As Stachler reminds, “there are
all sorts of ways to spread those votes around, whether it’s ‘Beale Street’ or ‘Widows’ or something else, and make yourself feel good about your vote.”
“Black Panther” also shouldn’t suffer any blowback from the almost immediate death of Academy’s extremely unpopular popular film category. Stachler muses that “a vote for ‘Black Panther’ would be a vote against the popular vote, which would line up with the Academy as a whole” because nearly no one thought that attempted addition was a good idea.
In fact, the real debate may not be whether a superhero film will infiltrate the elite world of best picture — rather it’s if these movies may dominate the acting categories and follow the legacy started by Heath Ledger’s posthumous supporting actor win for “Dark Knight.”
Although there were critical raves lauded on “Black Panther” favorites including lead Chadwick Boseman and such supporting players as Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright, those talents are by no means the only ones in these types of films to receive such reception this year. Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Thanos, the villain in “Avengers: Infinity War,” certainly made an impression (Variety’s own Owen Gleiberman described the performance as a “slit-eyed manipulative glower, so that the evil in this movie never feels less than personal”).
And then there’s Ryan Reynolds’ all-in performance in “Deadpool 2,” a film based on the X-Men character that had its own take on socially conscious issues (this time with such topics as juvenile crime and rehabilitation, as well as gender and queer acceptance). The film had myriad marketing stunts, from a Bob Ross-inspired video teaser to a dance routine choreographed around Celine Dion’s live performance of the film’s theme song, “Ashes” — not to mention Reynolds’ own willingness to use his social-media channels to champion the movie and/or troll fellow mutant impersonator, Hugh Jackman. And while all of this certainly resulted in box office success and critics’ approval, “Deadpool 2” is not talked about in the same conversations as similar films.
“I spend so much of my time immersed in this one character who draws breath from every aspect of the genre [that] I’m literally chewing and blowing bubbles with this particular art form,” Reynolds says. “I put my last drop of blood into these movies. They’re the most fun I’ve ever had in the industry. But also the most challenging.”
He adds that it does get bothersome when the “Deadpool” movies are written off as simply popcorn fair because “‘Deadpool’ pairs well with a wide variety of foods. Not just popcorn. Fuck popcorn.”
The takeaway: Academy voters shouldn’t base their ballot picks on the snacks they eat during screenings.