And the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to – well, we still have about a month until we know, however the contenders were officially announced on Tuesday. With eight films in total, some such as A Star is Born and BlacKkKlansman came as little surprise but there was one that might not have been on everyone’s radar – one critics might eventually admit changed history.
For the first time ever, a film based on a comic book has been nominated for Best Picture, as Marvel’s Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that made over $1 billion at the box office, has the potential to take home film’s highest award on Feb. 24 at the 91st Academy Awards. This nomination is unprecedented and could initiate a transition in how films are perceived, proving that mega-blockbusters can feature the same brilliant characteristics as more artsy independent films.
While it is the first Best Picture nominee for a superhero film, the genre has made strides the last two decades, most notably when Heath Ledger posthumously won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It was a major breakthrough in the film world, one many saw coming, because characters like that were never recognized, however leaving The Dark Knight off of the Best Picture list was a travesty – and only proved the Academy wasn’t often in touch with what the masses are watching during any given year. Go back even further. Superman had four Oscar nominations in 1979 but not for Best Picture and the same can be said for Tim Burton’s Batman in 1990, which only received one technical nomination. But, Black Panther was a juggernaut from a societal standpoint, the likes of which those earlier films couldn’t quite compete. And with one less film in the list of nominees than the last two years, Black Panther actually has a legitimate shot to win but, more importantly, could it usher in a new era of film recognition?
Comic book film adaptations, which in large bleed into the action genre, have long taken a back seat at the awards, as blockbusters are typically lumped into other more technical categories, including visual effects and sound design – focusing more on computer-generated graphics, sound mixing and even costumes. Look back at the top-grossing blockbusters of the previous 20 years, only five have been nominated for Best Picture: Saving Private Ryan (1998), Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), Avatar (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and American Sniper (2014). Of those five films, only one actually went on to win the award and that was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. That doesn’t exactly bode well for Black Panther.
And, let’s be honest, this probably isn’t the first superhero film that should’ve gotten the nod. For more than a decade and a half, Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment has been churning out action-ladened films that feature solid character development and intriguing stories. Is it a stretch to think past efforts such as Avengers: Infinity War or Guardians of the Galaxy were snubbed – maybe a little. But both of those films combined an impressive array of special effects with unique storytelling, which is sometimes lost in the current landscape of of reboots and remakes. Not to mention both made a ton of money at the box office – often a turn-off for the academy.
Marvel isn’t alone, however. DC Comics and Warner Bros. continue to turn comic books into films, though with scrutiny and little success from critics and audiences alike. There was one film from DC that might’ve been the biggest superhero snub of them all – Wonder Woman. Sure, the Best Picture category last year was stacked, but to not include such a well-rounded film, one that captured an artistic view and engaging plot, felt like a cinematic disservice.
So, why Black Panther – with other worthy superhero films in the past, why this film?
Arguably the biggest reasons lies on the shoulders of the film’s star, Chadwick Boseman. His portrayal of the title character not only captivated audiences but introduced a new, diverse, superhero to a younger generation of children. Finally, he’s a mainstream character that’s just as cool and badass as Spider-Man but that children of a different skin color can better relate to. The supporting cast just fits into place and emphasizes a story and tone that superhero films sometimes lack – often thanks to bloated scenes or visual effects minimalizing the actual story the director is telling. It’s unique and dynamic and, while a little overblown by the media on social and cultural level impacts, provides a refreshing change from the vanilla superhero films we’ve seen time and time again.
No matter what the outcome, Black Panther is a Best Picture nominee that will be talked about for years to come as the film that helped incorporate a new genre into the awards mix – a moral victory for nerds like myself, who believe it’s been a long time coming for superhero films.