Could Comic Book Movies Finally Break The Oscars In 2020?
By Ben Travis Posted 6 days ago
In January 2009, the Academy made a mistake. The Best Picture race saw recognition for the likes of Danny Boyle’s winning Slumdog Millionaire and Gus Van Sant’s LGBT rights activist biopic Milk – but among the five nominees, there was no room for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It bagged some technical nominations and a posthumous win for Heath Ledger – but that it wasn’t being considered among the best overall films of 2008 felt near-objectively wrong. In response, the Academy changed a 64-year tradition, increasing the maximum number of Best Picture nominations to 10 – to, in the words of former Academy President Sid Ganis, stop deserving movies being “squeezed out”.
Over a decade later, only a mere handful of comic book movies have troubled the Oscars – particularly beyond the technical categories – despite the genre’s continued box office dominance and considerable creative growth. But 2020 could be different. Following its Venice Film Festival premiere, Todd Phillips’ Joker won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion – an award that just four years ago was won by the none-more-arthouse A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence. Pair that with rave reviews – including Empire’s own five-star write-up – and a widely-lauded lead performance from three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s becoming increasingly plausible that next year’s ceremony could ring out with the sound of Arthur Fleck’s maniacal laughter.
If the Golden Lion is no Oscar guarantee, there is a precedent. Two years ago it went to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water, which later won Best Picture and Best Director at Hollywood’s biggest bash. That, too, was an in-some-ways unlikely winner – a prestige picture, yes, but also a fantasy film in which a woman falls in love with – and canonically fucks – a fish-man. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain also won the Golden Lion at Venice before it bagged a Best Director win and Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. If there’s a signifier that a progressive, outlier film could confidently enter Oscar talks, it’s the Golden Lion.
Endgame’s $2.79 billion haul is impossible to overlook – as is its emotional climax and narrative surrounding sacrificial American heroes.
Of course, while it would be a progressive move for a comic book movie to bag Best Picture, in some ways Joker would be anything but – a movie that leans away from its pulpy paper origins, largely ignoring decades of the comics themselves. It’s a dark, serious, capital-f Film, with a classic Troubled White Man narrative that owes more to Martin Scorsese than it does to Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher – potential catnip for staunch Academy traditionalists. It’s this mode of comic book movie that made the organisation sit up, pay attention, and admit its mistakes with The Dark Knight.
What would be a truly progressive win – and should also be taken seriously in early Oscar talks – is Avengers: Endgame. The Academy, history tells us, rewards financial success, whether it’s Titanic’s 14 nominations and 11 wins (including Best Picture and Best Director) after becoming the #1 box office hit of all time, or Avatar’s 9 nominations (notably missing out on Pic and Director to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) when Cameron once again out-did himself. Endgame’s $2.79 billion haul is impossible to overlook – as is its emotional climax and narrative surrounding sacrificial American heroes. While MCU films have very rarely ended up in the Oscar conversation, Endgame seems poised as the one to hit big – the Return Of The King of its franchise, an epic blockbuster culmination of everything that came before.
There are signs that the Academy has been building towards this for a while. In 2018, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine swansong Logan deservedly received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, and earlier this year, Black Panther marked Marvel Studios’ first major foray into Oscar territory with a Best Picture nomination. While its three wins were among the technical categories – Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design – it revealed an Academy more willing to engage with mainstream comic book movies.
And perhaps that’s because the make-up of the Academy itself is changing – adding 2,385 new voters across 2016, 2017, and 2018, including far more women and people of colour in an attempt to redress the balance on an institution renowned for consisting largely, as so many do, of old white men. It’s notable that these years saw huge wins and recognition for the likes of Get Out, The Shape Of Water, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther – mainstream genre movies with diverse faces in front of and behind the camera, which undeniably display a mastery of filmmaking craft and astonishing performances that might in previous years have been ignored.
For those who remain skeptical of comic book movies, the thought of Joker or Endgame running the gauntlet for Best Picture might sound laughable. Come February, the joke could be on them.
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