When “The Dark Knight” failed to secured a best picture Oscar nomination, the snub was said to have prompted the Academy to expand the category from five nominees to as many as 10.
A decade later, maybe out of fear that something similar might happen again to the immensely popular “Black Panther,” the Academy announced — then withdrew — its intention to create an award for most popular film. The idea was derided as a bald attempt to shore up sinking ratings for the Oscar telecast, as opposed to honoring the quality of the filmmaking.
“Black Panther” earned its spot in the best-picture category anyway, the first comicbook movie to do so. The film embedded itself in the culture so deeply and so quickly that “Wakanda forever” has been used as a knowing comic punchline everywhere from “Saturday Night Live” to the new film, “What Men Want.”
But “Black Panther” isn’t the only story about a hero with extraordinary powers, standing up for the little guy in an age of influence and corruption, this year. Each nominee can be seen as the tale of a superhero battling the resistance. Consider:
Obviously. Ryan Coogler’s film is the only one in the group that features actual comicbook characters who are enhanced humans. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa assumes the throne (and powers) of the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda, then must decide whether to keep secret the magical element vibranium, while fighting off efforts to exploit it. With great power comes something … who said that? Anyway, he’s got to fight off his own cousin, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to use vibranium to take over the world. But even when he wins, T’Challa will be joining an even greater resistance: the one using vibranium against fossil-fuel-powered greed that threatens to destroy the planet.
Spike Lee adapted this true story, of an African-American Colorado Springs cop who managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The superpower of Det. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington)? Messing with and exposing these white supremacists, while disrupting KKK plans to put a family-friendly face on their group. Stallworth fought the kind of racism and ignorance he assumed would be vanquished in his time, but Lee propels the viewer from the 1970s into today’s resistance, still battling white supremacists in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., and beyond.
Rami Malek’s multi-award-winning performance as Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, celebrates not just Mercury’s mammoth voice and range but his genuine superpower: the ability to resist the scaredy-cat caution of timid music-industry executives, who shrank from the loopy, lengthy grandiloquence of the film’s title song. Mercury’s own sexually omnivorous appetites? Well, even in this film, that’s still more of a secret-identity kind of deal. One more thing: Those teeth look like they should have superpowers of their own — the ability to bite back at critics, perhaps?
Superheroes in early-18th century England? Why not? Granted, it’s still decades before the masked heroes of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and centuries before “The Mask of Zorro” will battle the powers-that-be in the name of the little guy. But look at Emma Stone’s Abigail as an early superhero in the class struggle against the whole system of royalty and nobility. If her queen whisperer routine reveals her power, it’s because she’s the Frenemy, cozying up to (and replacing) Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), right hand to the painfully co-dependent Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Lady Sarah is really the power behind the throne — and the Frenemy wants to replace her. Because, of course, not all superheroes use their power for good. (See “Vice.”)
The Musician and the Lip, aka pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), cut a swath for the resistance through the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil-rights era. As with the best contemporary superheroes (even in a historic setting), they lose a couple of skirmishes (including being tossed in jail by racist cops). But, in the end, they get some impressive wins (as in Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy helping get them released) and learn something about themselves along the way.
A hero will rise — oh wait, that was the catch-phrase for “Sausage Party,” the animated film about horny hot dogs. But it might also be said of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the young servant for an upper-middle-class Mexico City family. She is nearly invisible to the family she serves — not exactly Sue Storm-level disappearing powers, but Cleo can anticipate their whims almost before they have them. And she risks her life to keep the children out of deep water.
“A Star Is Born”
OK, this one is a stretch but stay with me. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has a superpower: the ability to take a massively talented unknown named Ally (Lady Gaga) and turn her into a star, as the title suggests. Think of this as one of those power-transfer tales, the kind where, in order for the hero to save and advance the life of the heroine, he has to sacrifice himself, in this case on the altar of booze and TMZ.
No one is a villain to himself — especially if he’s Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). Instead, Adam McKay’s film offers us the
former vice president as Confidence Man, the superhero who takes over the world. Confidence Man always acts with assurance because he always knows he’s right — and even when he’s wrong, he’s confident.