Comic book fans like myself had long awaited Tuesday morning. We watched when “The Dark Knight” was unreasonably snubbed despite scoring 8 nominations. We grew excited that “Logan” broke into the Adapted Screenplay race just last year. Yet despite this, progress had been slow. Yet from the moment that “Black Panther” released, there was something special in the air for the film. It became our first Best Picture film based on a comic book with 7 total nominations on the day.
“Black Panther” was a massive cultural success, sustaining itself as a pop culture discussion for almost a year. It broke $700 million domestic, only the third film in history to do so. In fact, it earned more than the rest of the Best Picture films this year combined (by about the gross of “Ocean’s 8“). Combined with the very high reviews from critics, discussion raged throughout the year. Despite pre-conceived bias against blockbusters, as the year wore on it felt undeniable. This is a moment to relish for comic book fans, but many people have asked me a simple question. Why did “Black Panther” succeed where others did not?
How “Black Panther” Made It Into Best Picture
A little while back, I made the case for a “Black Panther” nomination. What helped the film stand out from the regular comic book fare was its commitment to transporting us away from a world we know into something that felt new and fresh. The craft categories carried the film here, with nominations in production design, costumes, score, and both sounds proving that fact. Wakanda felt like a living and breathing city, built from practical effects. It was tangible in ways that “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Deadpool” were not. Combined with a very real case of bringing unseen cultures to the forefront of cinema, the film was immaculate in its construction.
Regardless of how “Black Panther” fares in the Best Picture race (historically, the stats don’t support a win based on what it missed), it’s a historically significant film. The question for many comic book fans now, is how do we get back?
Well, there are a lot of complicated things that had to occur for “Black Panther” to pull off the trick. It walked into the cinema landscape at exactly the right moment, picking up a February nomination the very next year after “Get Out” pulled off the feat. At the same time, big players faltered down the stretch, with “First Man,” “Widows,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” not finding the requisite support. However, there is a simpler solution than creating a zeitgeist bending blockbuster.
Get to six nominations before Best Picture, and you are almost guaranteed a Best Picture nomination.
The Six Nomination Club
That sounds like a simple enough task on its face. However, superhero films historically don’t compete outside of the visual effects Oscar. Only three superhero films have ever received four nominations in a given year. “The Dark Knight,” “Black Panther,” and “The Incredibles” all reached that benchmark. You could count “Superman: The Movie” but its fourth nomination (and only win) was not in competition.
Since the Best Picture expansion, fifty-four films have earned six nominations or more at the Oscars. Of those fifty-four, only one (“Carol“) missed a Best Picture nomination. Of those fifty-four, thirty-one had at least six nominations before Best Picture was announced. Again, only “Carol” missed. If a film has six nominations coming into the Best Picture category, it has a 96.7% chance of getting Best Picture. Genre films can make the case that they deserve inclusion into other categories, particularly below-the-line. That can tip the balance into the Best Picture conversation. Now the question is, which superhero films can make that argument?
The first one that will undeniably draw attention is “Captain Marvel,” and there is a reason to be excited about its chances. Obviously, Brie Larson‘s pedigree shows she has the talent to win an Oscar, but the talent involved in “Captain Marvel” goes beyond the performers. Each of “cosmic” Marvel films has picked up a visual effects nominations. The sound department features many Oscar nominees, including four-time winner Christopher Boyes. The makeup effects team also has Oscar nominees, and this aspect stands out in the trailer. Meanwhile, Elliot Graham has an Oscar nomination for editing, and Andy Nicholson has an Oscar nomination for production design. In theory, the path is there for “Captain Marvel” to make the push.
Perhaps the film that will draw the most attention is “Avengers: Endgame.” Whether or not it actually functions as the conclusion to the “Avengers” saga seems irrelevant. At the end of the day, its a conclusion of this chapter. It will certainly get a bigger push than previous “Avengers” films in the franchise. However, the most any of these films have ever earned is visual effects nominations. There would have to be a real love for this film for it to expand outside the category. Perhaps most concerning for “Avengers” will be the push that “Star Wars: Episode 9” will be releasing next year, and could easily steal away most of the nominations “Endgame” would need to get over the hump.
For both “Joker” and “Hellboy,” aspects of the films seem like they could break into the Oscar race. However, neither has the profile or the background to suggest they will get above the six nomination mark. While categories like makeup, costumes, and sound are on the table, it seems unlikely they’ll get through more than one or two nominations.
“Wonder Woman 1984”
One last film to check in on will be “Wonder Woman 1984” from Patti Jenkins. Considering the love for the first film, goodwill still exists for the franchise. While the last film fell flat with Oscar, most of the categories should remain on the table. If not for the last act, it is possible that the film could have scored sound, visual effects, costume, and editing nominations. This time out, Jenkins upgraded her editor to Richard Pearson, one of the editors on “United 93.” The film was also pushed back to 2020 to not rush the film out. With some luck, and 2020 shaping up to be a weaker field overall, “Wonder Woman 1984” could become one of the event films of the year.
Ultimately, it might take until “Black Panther 2” for the genre to return to the Best Picture conversation. Still, the breakthrough for the genre should provide a roadmap for the next big budget feature to make a push. This may set off a reverb throughout the industry, giving studios permission to dream big with their superhero showcases. With the correct mix and quality, we now know these films can make the cut. It will be interesting to see which studios actually pursue the path.