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Could a Superhero Film Win An Oscar For Best Picture?
There are some unwritten rules at the Academy Awards. Comedies are under appreciated. It is almost impossible for a "popcorn" movie to get nominated unless it is a spectacular epic like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And live action superhero films are never, ever nominated for anything other than technical awards. The lone stand out was Heath Ledger getting nominated and winning an Oscar for playing the Joker, but many suspect this was due to his untimely death. That same year The Dark Knight failed to get either a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director despite being near or at the top of most critics year end lists.
The only category that recognized superheroes was in the animated feature category. In 2005 The Incredibles won. But it must be pointed out that very few animated feature films were made each year, and most were cheap direct-to-video features. The year The Incredibles won, only two other films were nominated. It was almost impossible for The Incredibles not to be nominated, and not to win. Today there are more animated features released per year. The fact that The Lego Movie was not nominated is testament to how crowded that field has become in recent years.
There was perhaps good reason for Superhero films to be ignored in the past. Some of the worst movies of the 80s and 90s were based on comic books. For the longest time Hollywood thought of comic book movies as frivolous entertainment. Something they made for the kids. All the studios cared about was creating another special effect showcase that would make an exciting trailer. Not only were they not concerned with giving any comic book movie a decent script, they often sabotaged the script they did have with formulas and product placement/promotion. Take, for example, the Batman franchise. Tim Burton had delivered two very decent Batman films. But the movies were too dark for young children. Warner Brothers felt this was driving off a core demographic, families. If they could make the Batman films family friendly then it would not just be teenagers buying the tickets, but mom and dad and the rest of the children. Technically the gamble worked. Batman Forever ( 1995 ) was a box office hit. But it, and the film that followed, were failures with the critics. Warner Brothers got their family demographic, but by Batman & Robin ( 1997 ) lost their teenage and adult demographic. So the franchise was pulled and eventually rebooted.
But even when Burton was directing the movies, they were far from great. Visually, they were outstanding. But the script was meandering and cartoonish. They were popcorn films and not much more. As much as Batman fans were pleased with Burton's movies, they were not the best movies of the year. Close to award worthy, but not close enough for nomination consideration. ( Well, perhaps worthy of a director nomination for Burton and supporting actor nomination for Jack Nicholson, but that did not happen. ) The problem was that film makers were too caught up in making comic book movies cartoonish instead of cinematic.
That all began to change after the disaster of Batman & Robin, which did turn a profit in the millions, but was so universally reviled that many felt it not only killed the Batman franchise, but the superhero movie genre as well. Studio began to realize that the only way to succeed with movies based on comic books was to insure the films being produced were quality. In the years to come superhero films would be made by the industries best actors and directors. This was no guarantee of success. Academy award winning director Ang Lee was given Marvel's Hulk, and managed to turn it into an expensive art film with mixed reviews. Other directors understood what to do. Sam Raimi elevated the genre with his Spider-man movies. Christopher Nolan saved the Batman franchise with three critically acclaimed films. Marvel Comics took over the production of films based on their characters with Marvel Studios, releasing a series of critically acclaimed superhero films, many which are considered the greats of the genre. While some bad superhero films still exist, most superhero films produced in the past two decades have been among Hollywood's best. And the payoff has been record breaking ticket sales. Thanks to top quality movie making, superhero films have earned the studios billions of dollars.
So why has this not translated into Oscars outside of technical awards? Many believe it is simply old fashioned snobbery. Superhero films are still considered low class. And yet they are now made by the same people who dominate the Academy's nominations for their other work. Take this years Best Supporting Actor category. Not one, but two of the actors nominated have previously played The Hulk. Edward Norton in Marvel Studio's Hulk reboot, and Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers. And the only reason why neither Hulk won Best Supporting Actor this year, was because they were beaten by the actor who played J Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films. In the Best Actor category, we had one actor who voiced Rocket Raccoon in last years box office smash Guardians of the Galaxy, and one former Batman. In fact, when it comes to actors who played Batman we have eleven nominations, resulting in three wins. Michael Keaton with one nomination, George Clooney seven nominations including two for screenplay and one for director, Christian Bale two nominations, and Ben Affleck a nomination for the Good Will Hunting screenplay. Clooney and Affleck were also the producers on Argo ( 2012 ) which won for Best Picture. Not bad for Batman. And yet, when it came to The Dark Knight, the Academy refused to nominate for best picture.
This year, though, it seems that the Academy is beginning to change it's attitude towards superhero films. Not only was this the year that two former Hulks were nominated, not only was it the year a second superhero film won Best Animated Feature ( Big Hero 6 ), but this was also the year that Birdman ( or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance ) was nominated for Best Picture. Okay, so maybe Birdmanis not an actual Superhero film. But it is the closest the Academy has ever come to nominating a superhero film.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a down on his luck actor who years earlier was the star of the successful Birdman movie franchise. Thompson wants to revive his career by writing and starring in a Broadway play, but is tormented by hallucinations of his Birdman alter ego who he hears and sometimes sees. While this is not a plot that has Keaton playing an actual superhero, but rather an actor who played a superhero in the past, it does introduce the topic. With several films qualified for the Best Picture nomination, Birdman could have easily been blackballed just because of it's subject matter. The title alone could have turned voters off. But not only did voters find Birdman worthy enough to be among the eight nominated films, they also found it worthy enough to win the Oscar.
Think about it. A movie peripherally about a superhero was not just nominated for, but won Best Picture. And during a year with such strong competition. Among the nominated was Selma, the historical drama based on Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 voting rights march. This year there had been controversy as no one of color was nominated for acting, and Selma received no director nomination. Add to that the racial turmoil of the previous year, and Selma gets the edge with the guilt vote. Meanwhile Boyhood was this years most ambitious movie, filmed over a 12 year period to show actors aging in real time. American Sniper was not only this year's most patriotic film, but the murder trial of the sniper was taking place at the same time Academy members were voting for best picture. The Grand Budapest Hotel was the front runner for Best Picture, having been released in March of 2014, and for the next ten months was the film everyone said was destined to win the Oscar. And yet with such strong competition, Birdman came out victorious.
So does this mean that the Academy has finally accepted the superhero film? Could an actual superhero film win an Oscar in the near future? That is hard to say. Birdman was a film about an actors decent into madness, who just happened to have been a former star of superhero films. All that is certain is that the description "former superhero star" did not turn Academy members off this movie. They were still inspired to make it this years most nominated film, translating in this year's most wins including best director for Alejandro G Iñárritu. In other words, a film about a former superhero star got more accolades from the Academy than any other film this year, while a film about Martin Luther King Jr. got only two ( Best Picture and Best Original Song nominations ). Others may argue that Alejandro's film was too ground breaking for the Academy not to recognize. But this was the year of the far more groundbreaking Boyhood. And single shot movies have been done before, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rope ( 1948 ). All that can really be said for sure is that the subject matter, and even title, of Birdman did not stop Academy members from recognizing how great a film it was.
So perhaps this is a turning point. Perhaps we could see a real superhero film among the nominated some day. But there is still one last hurtle. From this point on, someone has to produce a great superhero film. The movies that win Oscars are typically the ones studio executives have had little interference over. The films where the director had the final cut. Superhero films are so expensive to produce that studio heads often interfere throughout the production. They want a spectacle that will sell tickets, not Shakespeare. Movies with the quality of The Dark Knight and The Avengers may have just been an anomaly. Where a studio just happened to trust a directors vision enough to let him spend the millions on the film he wanted to make. Unless that happens again, there will not be any superhero films worthy of nomination, let alone a win. But the future has yet to be written.