Can a Superhero Movie Win Best Picture?
This article was originally published on December 21, 2020.
Superhero films made history in 2018 when Black Panther became the first from the genre to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and they doubled down the next year as Joker rode its Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival to Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations in 2019. But of course neither of those films could break through the ultimate barrier of actually winning Best Picture, losing to Green Book (insert eye roll/puke emojis) and Parasite (insert celebration emojis), respectively. Admittedly the sample size here is low, but two Best Picture nominations for superhero movies in back to back years does raise the question: what would it take for a superhero movie to take home Hollywood’s top prize?
Obviously it’s an uphill battle for any given movie to win Best Picture, and the Academy’s (very rude) refusal to release voting totals for previous years makes it difficult to extrapolate, predict, or truly understand how the preferential ballot has played out in practice; we may never know whether Black Panther or Joker ever really had a shot at winning — if they did, than perhaps this whole exercise is moot. But even without that crucial information, we can make some educated guesses about what the hypothetical film and the surrounding environment might have to look like.
The most obvious answer is that it will simply take time. The Academy has historically been willing to nominate what we might broadly consider “genre fare,” but has been loath to actually name these films as the best of the year. A horror movie wasn’t nominated until The Exorcist in 1973, and one didn’t win until The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. After Cimarron was named Best Picture at the 4th Academy Awards, it took almost 60 years for another western to win, with Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven victorious in 1990 and 1992, respectively. There wasn’t a science-fiction or fantasy win until 2003’s The Return of the King, and that film may also be the closest to an action movie winner. Perhaps most telling, we still haven’t seen an animated film victorious at the end of Oscar night — all this goes to tell you is that the Academy, for the most part, can be quite reluctant to reward what it views as merely a popcorn flick for the regular joe.
And while some of these genres have broken through, superhero movies may have a harder pitch to make. Not only is the genre still relatively recent (most would probably count 1978’s Superman as the first major superhero film), but many can’t shake the idea that these movies are made for adolescents — an issue that also plagues animation and likely hasn’t been helped by the Disneyfication of a majority of the superhero genre’s output. The success of Joker and Best Adapted Screenplay nominee Logan may have as much to do with their R-ratings than anything else, even if, fundamentally, they don’t differ all that much from their PG-13 brethren. While it’s true that the Academy’s makeup is slowly but surely changing — the other time-related aspect that will likely make the most difference — a superhero film that actively situates itself in a more adult lane may have better awards season fortunes in the near term.
The dominance of Marvel and — to a slightly lesser extent — DC raises another question: how willing is the Academy to reward franchise filmmaking? If history is any indication, the answer is not very. Only three films have won Best Picture that could be considered sequels: The Godfather Part II, The Return of the King, and, if you really stretch the definition, The Silence of the Lambs. None of those — at least at the time — fit the mold of a franchise film as modeled by the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Perhaps a closer analog would be a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, which I like to believe could have been very close to winning Best Director, if not Best Picture, but the Mad Max franchise — like The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings — is the product of a single director’s major creative vision, which can’t really be said for much of the superhero fare currently being made.
In that regard, if you are going to make a superhero film based on a Marvel or DC property in particular, you’re probably going to be better off if you get a respected director at the helm. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler might be the lower boundary here, having shown off his chops with the well-regarded Fruitvale Station and the blockbuster Rocky reinvention Creed, while Joker director Todd Phillips may be an outlier, given his positive track record really begins and ends with The Hangover. Your best case scenario is probably a Christopher Nolan type — had he made The Dark Knight ten years later, with a Best Director nomination already under his belt, it’s possible this article wouldn’t need to be written. But even a laureled director doesn’t guarantee success. Nolan and Phillips are two of the six directors to have ever made a superhero movie and received a Best Director nomination at some point in their career. Three of the others made films based on Marvel properties: Ang Lee’s Hulk was met mostly with confusion, Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II left critics mixed, and I’m not sure anyone remembers that Kenneth Branagh directed the MCU’s first Thor movie.
The more interesting features from that group are del Toro’s two Hellboy films and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. Though the latter wasn’t overly well-received at the time, it stands out today as a particularly creative entry in the genre (as, to be fair, do Hulk and Blade II), and refreshing in its unmooring from the more familiar protagonists of the superhero realm. For many engaged deeply with the world of cinema, superhero fatigue has set in, doubly so when the vast majority of superhero films flow from Marvel and DC. A superhero we haven’t seen a hundred times before — whether from a lesser-known company or an original creation — has the benefit not only of freshness, but of creative freedom. While they don’t have the same built-in audience (or make the same kind of money), the Academy might look more fondly on a superhero film they haven’t seen before — an Unbreakable, or a Chronicle, or a Fast Color may lead voters to watch with a more open mind than they might bring to yet another Spider-Man.
This fatigue probably means that any superhero film with Best Picture aspirations is going to have to bring something else to the table. Joker was arguably more character driven, Black Panther was a cultural landmark for on-screen representation, and The Dark Knight (the other superhero film that has likely been closest to a nomination) felt like both a technical achievement and a radical shift in the understanding of what the genre could be capable of. Groundbreaking visual effects a la Avatar might get you over the hump, but probably only if you also have some combination of original storytelling or celebrated behind-the-camera talent. But as we discussed at the beginning, the key may just be to wait. I can’t help thinking about the western, and the fact that Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven could both, in their own ways, be considered revisionist westerns, weaponizing what we know about the genre to say something new. Maybe you could point to something like Logan or The Dark Knight Rises as an example in the superhero realm, but I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet, at least not on the same scale as those two westerns.
But if I had to make a guess about what kind of superhero movie could win Best Picture, I’d probably sketch out the bones of something close to a comic book Unforgiven. The Academy has shown itself time and time again to be a reflexive body, less interested in rewarding true innovation than in recognizing variations on a theme (which, to be clear, isn’t necessarily a bad thing). We’ll eventually reach a point where our current understanding of the superhero movie has run its course, and the filmmaker(s) who are able to reignite our interest will be the ones who can wrestle with the genre’s meaning while still understanding why we were drawn to it in the first place. Maybe then the superheroes will finally reach that last remaining pinnacle of Hollywood glory.