OPINION: Superhero Films at the Oscars and the Look Ahead

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This year, “Deadpool” was snubbed at the Oscars. Ryan Reynolds, who put over 10 years of blood, sweat and tears into this project, gave one of the most unique performances in recent memory. Tim Miller did a fantastic job directing, and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick brilliantly wrote what many agree to be an artistic, meta masterpiece. None of these people, nor anyone else who worked on this film, received Oscar recognition. It marks yet another year superhero films have been overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, especially in “major” categories.

A Brief History of Superhero Mythology in Pop Culture and Film

Superhero movies have always been characterized by a distinct tonal and stylistic separation from their genre counterparts in the film industry. This stems from the deep-rooted historical foundation of the comic book art form. Comic books were originally created as a form of escapism in the midst of turbulent social, economic and political unrest. For example the character of Superman was created in the middle of the Great Depression, with the impending inevitability of World War II at society’s cusp, so that Americans could have somebody, a symbol, to look up to and idolize; Superman represented the enduring legacy of America, bringing justice to an increasingly racially and economically segregated society in the form of equality, power and peace to the American people. Unlike a considerable number of movies that represented the art form of film, which is also, at its heart, escapism, comic books were campy, hyperbolized and shared one common trait: the protagonists typically had superhuman powers, and would battle an all-powerful evil villain, often representative of another country or race for political propaganda, usually possessing the traits that encapsulate the polar opposite of the protagonist. Since comic books are grounded in fantasy, the sociopathic evil mastermind archetype, by definition, disregards the disquieting real-world truth of the banality of evil.
It is no surprise that when filmmakers began adapting comic books for the big screen, these movies embraced this campiness, humor and exaggeration, portraying as much of the stylistic elements in the comics on which these movies were based: bright, almost neon color palates, spectacle action sequences, and cheesy dialogue. These films knew what they were, and tried their hardest to emphasize to the audience that they were fantasy. However, this newly minted genre of film was met with mixed feelings. The masses loved superhero films, often spawning blockbusters, yet critics, though aware of its merits as a form of escapism and social, economic and political undertones, commonly viewed these films as illegitimate in the context of other industry genres. In the eyes of the Academy, superhero films had no place in the Oscars, whose pretentious and discriminatory roots ostracized these forms of cinematic expression; they were not grounded in the real world, and therefore could not compete with stories in the same vein as “On the Waterfront,” “The Godfather Epic,” and fact-based biopics.
This disregarding of an art form sheds light on the inherent “problematic” questions that the superhero film genre raises: Do its roots in sensationalism and unreality detract from its legitimate social commentary? Over the past 75 years, the sentiments of the American people have changed. Though superheroes are still wildly popular in pop culture, and their artistic merits are even more so recognized by critics, the American people have been grounded and sobered by a society that is falling apart at the seams. America, now more than ever, is drawn to the Everyman and Everywoman. They look up to regular people that they can relate to on a physical and mental level, not just an emotional one. Does this stop ticket sales for superhero films? No, because people also still enjoy good, artistically and aesthetically stimulating forms of escapism. These are intentionally separate from the real world, and will always be, to some extent. People do not look to superheroes as symbols of hope nowadays, but rather to real-life leaders who possess moral integrity such as former President of the United States, Barack Obama, and that is a good thing. Superhero films have evolved into sophisticated, artistic forms of expression, traits of which some may argue that the comic books on which these films are based have always possessed. It is time they be taken as such.

The Larger Issue

The Academy has created a paradox for itself. The AMPAS has forgotten why the institution was created in the first place, to recognize artistic and technical achievements in the art form of film. They applaud films grounded in realism that address social issues, while perpetuating an 89-year history of willfully disregarding minorities in their recognition of achievements in film. Women and people of color have been consistently brushed aside simply because of their gender or cultural background, while accused and even convicted rapists and pedophiles have, at times, been applauded, even rewarded by the Academy. Superhero films are overlooked by the AMPAS because they are viewed as not realistic enough to be perceived as artistic excellence worthy of their recognition.
It took the Academy until 2009 to recognize a superhero film in a major category. Heath Ledger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” a much-deserved win. Let us deconstruct the stylistic and thematic elements that made “The Dark Knight” acceptable in the Academy’s eyes. Nolan’s Batman Universe was grounded in realism, all things considered. It contained human characters with no illogical superhuman powers, and directly addressed issues of classism and domestic terrorism, highlighting the social issue of the uneven distribution of wealth, the excesses of the top 1%, and the increase of small but radical extremist groups in America. Aside from the trilogy’s human characters and dark, dystopian vision, it embraces what all of its genre predecessors did: using an adapted medium to intertwine intelligent social, economic and political commentary. Apparently, all it takes for the Academy to recognize this art form is to strip it of its comic book-rooted elements. That is not to say that “The Dark Knight” was doing its comic book prior film adaptation predecessors injustice. It is always commendable to creatively evolve old ideas, to add new life to classic tales.

Why Not “Deadpool?”

“Deadpool” was another evolution and reimagining of the comic book genre, yet, clearly it was not the “type of film” that the Academy likes. Even though it pushed not only the limits of the superhero genre, but also the artistic confines of film itself, it was not deemed “appropriate.” Everyone expected that this was the year the superhero genre would break the Oscar barrier. Innovation and creativity have been consistently awarded by the Academy, but not in the form of superhero films. To put this concept in perspective, as aforementioned, it took the Academy 89 years to realize it was biased against minorities; it has seldom awarded women and people of color, and often overlooks films they deem too unrealistic, even if they promote equality. So, it may take a while for the Academy to evolve and be more open, just like it always has. Although, this hypocritical organization, promoting an inherently liberal art form, is taking heat from all directions, and hopefully we will see even more changes in adding minorities and expanding its artistic palate next year and in years to follow.

What Now?

This February, “Logan” will hold its world premiere at the prestigious Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival, and it will be reviewed by yours truly shortly after the final credits role. “Logan” belongs in the “X-Men” universe, and marks Hugh Jackman’s supposed last time dawning Wolverine’s now universally legendary claws. With James Mangold, a director who has directed two women to Oscar wins (Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted,” and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line”), at the helm for the second installment in this standalone franchise, this may finally be the film to break the aforementioned superhero Oscar barrier. Given its post-apocalyptic setting, a stark environmentally conscious undertone, and raw acting portrayed in the film’s trailer, this film looks like it will be an incredible piece of artistic expression screaming to be heard and taken seriously. After all, the AMPAS was founded to award artists, first and foremost, regardless of color, gender, or perceived cultural limitations, not to disregard them. Here is to hoping that the Academy continues to evolve and embrace the liberal, morally just views of the larger film industry it tries to recognize, without simultaneously ostracizing its worthy contributors.

Tell us: What do you think of the Academy’s snub of superhero films? Let us know in the comments below!

  • Calvin Damon

    James Mangold has not been nominated for an Oscar, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he was close with Walk The Line

  • Joey Magidson

    Solid article. I have my doubts that Logan will do much above the line, but anything is possible and Deadpool certainly could eventually be seen as paving the way as much as The Dark Knight, et al.

    • Alex Arabian

      Thanks, Joey! I agree, Deadpool could definitely be a trailblazer. It certainly influenced Logan with its R rating and breaking the fourth wall with the comic book reference in the trailer. All I can do is hope for Logan haha.

      • Joey Magidson

        We shall see.

  • Matt St.Clair

    I think The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises deserved a Best Picture nomination. Other than that, I don’t really think a superhero film was ever Best Picture worthy.

  • Wayman Wong

    In its day, ”Superman” (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, would have been a worthy Best Picture candidate. It got 3 Oscar nominations, including editing, and a special award for its Visual Effects. It really was a pioneer for comic-book movies. Plus, ”Batman” (1989), starring Michael Keaton, which got one Oscar nomination and won for Production Design. In addition, It also got 6 BAFTA nomination, including Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) for Supporting Actor.

    ”The Dark Knight” got 8 Oscar nominations and 2 wins, but the Academy still screwed it out of Best Director (for which Christopher Nolan got a DGA nod) and Best Picture. This is why the Academy expanded the Best Picture field, so movies like ”The Dark Knight” could make the cut. Ironically, ”The Dark Knight Returns” got totally skunked. Boo!

  • Nick Fraser

    Mostly, comic book films aren’t on the Oscar nom list because they’re just not good enough.

    I don’t think any comic book film of the past decade except for the Dark Knight (maybe) that got anywhere near Best Picture territory. Make a better comic book film, and then it will change.