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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what would it take for a superhero movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture?


Reader Hank suggests that an article on io9 might be a good basis for a Question of the Week. The article is “Will a superhero movie ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture?” And here is some stuff that Rob Bricken says in it to explain why he thinks it will never happen:

That’s mostly because the Academy is a sham. They stopped actually awarding the Best Picture Oscar to the year’s best movie decades ago. Now it’s purely a popularity contest, based way too much on box office, coupled with the Academy’s egotistical sense of what an “important” movie should be. Hey, do you want to win an Oscar? Make a movie about the power of movies, like The Artist and Argo.

It should probably be noted that when the second Gladiator won Best Picture in 2001, I turned off the Oscars and have never turned them back on again. That’s when I knew the system was incredibly, unrepairably fucked.

(Go read why he thinks a comic movie could potentially win, but never a superhero movie.)

I think he’s undermining his own argument by mentioning Gladiator. For one, he’s making the classic error of assuming that his notion of “best” is fact and everyone who disagrees with him is objectively “wrong”; I also suspect that his idea that the “actual” Best Picture used to be awarded in some golden past era is skewed by his likely lack of having seen many of the other potential nominees. But most importantly, Gladiator is very pulpy and very similar in spirit to a superhero film. The fact that Gladiator won proves that the Academy is open to awarding such films.

Reader Hank writes that that io9 piece:

mirrors a lot of my thoughts on the subject, particularly how the Oscars pay *way* too much attention to box office.

And here’s the other place where Bricken (and Hank — sorry, Hank) go wrong. If the Academy were overly impressed with box office, then superhero films would have a greater chance of winning Best Picture. But in fact, Best Picture winners are only very rarely anywhere near the top of the annual box office. (The Hurt Locker, for instance, earned only $17 million in North America, barely more than its $15 million production budget.) And, of course, you have to remember that the final box office numbers for the Best Picture winners includes the bump they got from being nominated in the first place.

So here’s the question:

What would it take for a superhero movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture?

We know — thanks to the recent wins of Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Titanic — that the Academy does not object to action or spectacle. But I would suggest that most modern superhero movies accentuate action and spectacle over drama. For a superhero movie to win Best Picture, it’s going to have to let the scale tip in favor of drama. And it’s gonna have to be powerful drama with powerful impact, and it had better not feel like any superhero movie we’ve seen before.

The superhero Best Picture will have to appeal to people who think they don’t like comic book movies. The superhero Best Picture will inspire arguments among moviegoers, some of whom will insist that it doesn’t really “count” as a superhero movie because it’s “good.” Likewise, the superhero Best Picture will also divide fans of comic books and superheroes,who will also find reasons why it doesn’t “count” as a superhero movie.

The superhero Best Picture might take cues from Titanic and Frozen, which I have no doubt is going to win Best Animated Feature next Sunday night. Tell a story about a female superhero who has to fight not only bad guys but cultural assumptions about what a women should be doing with her life and her talents. Make sure the action doesn’t dominate. Cast Jennifer Lawrence.

You’re welcome.

What sort of superhero movie could win Best Picture, do you think?

  • Martin

    I agree that there needs to be more superhero movies that are less spectacle driven, but I’m going to say that just as we’ve had to wait for comic book fans to grow up to be film-makers to get the really good superhero movies, we’re going to have to wait for the ‘old guard’ that holds most of the power in the Academy to be made up of comic book fans.
    When the likes of Raimi, Nolan and Whedon are calling the Oscar shots, we’ll see really good Superhero movies start to get award recognition.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Problems with Rob’s argument aside (and there are several), I think what would have to happen is not for a superhero movie to more closely resemble recent oscar winners, but for the Academy to shift back an era, like the Golden Age of Musicals, when films that were pure entertainments were regularly honored. However, I also think that the 1970s, both as the decade of “personal filmmaking” and as the “dawn of the modern blockbuster”, make that highly unlikely. At least for the next, oh, 10 to 20 years or so, when all of those ’70s filmmakers, both the Scorsese’s and the Spielberg’s, die off.

  • Hank Graham

    While you’re right, MaryAnn, that the biggest box office winners aren’t necessarily the Oscar winners, I think it pretty obvious that box office profoundly influences the votes, particularly for nominations.

    Consider “Cloud Atlas” not getting any nominations at all, particularly make-up and editing, which should have been gimmes on that one. Consider the lack of a special effects nomination for “John Carter,” which, whether you loved it or hated it, were superbly done. Consider the lack of big nominations this year for either “Inside Llewellyn Davis” and “Before Midnight.”

    Everyone keeps citing “The Hurt Locker,” but part of that is that it’s become so unusual for something that financially unsuccessful to even be nominated, much less win. It’s the exception that’s proving the rule.

    We almost never see the sort of thing that happened routinely up through the 70’s, of films that were technically superb getting single nominations in the fields they excelled in, and the technical awards, generally, being parceled out among several films. There were the occasional “Ben Hur” winners that won a lot of the awards, but that was fairly rare until the 1980’s.

    Instead, we’ve gotten winner-take-all voting, and the technical awards have become the harbingers of the Big Winner. Or, worse, people give consolation votes to movies they liked but didn’t want to vote for for Best Picture.

    And that is why I argue that the box office has way too much influence, as the aging, dwindling voting membership of the academy don’t look much past the top 10 films to see what’s been done.

    At the top of the awards, I don’t think it’s box office concern that sways the decisions. Instead, it’s cultural stereotyping and assumptions about what constitutes what’s worthwhile and good. And on that basis, I don’t think a superhero movie, no matter how good, will win the Oscar in my lifetime.

    As a final thought-experiment, which of these performances from 1958 can you bring to mind:
    Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones”

    Christopher Lee in “Horror of Dracula”
    Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

    David Niven in “Separate Tables”
    Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones”
    Spencer Tracy in “The Old Man and the Sea”

    Christopher Lee’s performance is the one I suspect the greater majority of film fans would mention. It is, of course, the one of those that was NOT a nominee for that year’s Oscar.

  • Hank Graham

    Also, think how much fun it will be if I have to eat my words next year, after Angelina Jolie and “Maleficent” take home very award there is. But I’m not expecting that.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Hank, I’m curious, have you done any number crunching on these assertions?

    For instance, I’d looked at the last 20 years, and I found only 4 Best picture winners in the top 10 US box office for their release year. Another 6 broke the to 20, which leaves half of the winners outside of the top 20 grossers of their year. I don’t think that supports the assertion that the “voting membership of the academy don’t look much past the top 10 films to see what’s been done.”

  • RogerBW

    I think that the Academy voters have been allergic to “genre” for years. The only way they’ll let anything with a fantasy or SF element get in is if it’s also a huge commercial success.

    Your description of the superhero Best Picture sounds to me a lot like Iron Man (2008). What did that get? Two technical noms.

  • Bluejay

    I agree with those who say it’ll probably take a generational shift in the Academy, that puts younger filmmakers in charge who aren’t prejudiced against the superhero genre.

    The superhero movie you describe has already been made — three of them, in fact: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, particularly The Dark Knight Rises. It balanced action with high-impact drama (and thorny sociopolitical issues), it didn’t feel like any superhero movie before it, it inspired arguments about whether it was less a superhero flick and more a gritty crime drama, it made a ton of money, and whatever criticisms people had of it, everyone seemed to agree that it blew past all expectations of what a superhero movie could be. And yet no film in the trilogy was nominated for Best Picture.

    The superhero genre just doesn’t seem to fit Oscar voters’ expectations of what a Best Picture should be. Maybe it’s the costumes? Would a Nolan-caliber movie about a rich vigilante in civilian clothing, fighting crooks with non-green hair and regular unmuffled voices, get more love from the Academy?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Batman Begins came out in 2005. The nominees that year were Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich. A tough year, even accounting for the general feeling that Crash was the worst movie to win Best Picture in a generation. Walk the Line would likely have garnered that fifth nom.
    The Dark Knight, far an away the best of the three, is a fine film, and probably should have been nominated over The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It is, at least, often credited as the reason the Academy opened up the Best Picture filed to up to 10 nominees, so there is that.
    The Dark Knight Returns is a deeply flawed film, and would never have deserved the award on its own. It might have been given it as reward for the entire trilogy, but then the Academy had already done that less than a decade earlier, for the much better Return of the King, representing the much more consistent Lord of the Rings trilogy.

  • RogerBW

    And my candidate would also have been up against The Dark Knight, Slumdog, and so on for the 81st awards.

  • the Defiant Ones was actually well-acted. Lee’s performance as Dracula in the first one was pretty good, but he was waaaaaaay better in Wicker Man.

  • Tonio Kruger

    A miracle?

  • Bluejay

    HA! Nice.

    Time to call in this guy?

  • It’s not going to be the quality of the film that’s at issue: we’ve had well-acted, well-directed, well-written superhero movies – Dark Knight, Avengers, Iron Man should have garnered RDJ a nomination – over the last decade and a half (ever since X-Men in 2000). It’s the poor quality of the Academy voters who historically have a hard time promoting non-dramatic films – comedies, action thrillers, film noir, scifi and fantasy blockbusters – for consideration much less win any Oscars. Everything’s gotta be a serious drama or artsy film that strokes the collective ego of Hollywood – Crash? Seriously, for the love of God Hollywood, you went with that? – for it to win.

    The exceptions – epics, large-scale blockbusters like Titanic, Ben-Hur – tend to prove the rule in that they’re drama-driven. The Godfather (I and II, and even III got nominated) may be a gangster movie trilogy, but it’s done on the scale of Shakespearean tragedy despite its pulp origin (the novel was trashy as hell). The only serious fantasy movie to win – LotR Return of the King – did so because 1) it’s based off an epic literary tale with its own claim to artistic integrity and 2) it still has a serious dramatic tale hidden under the horror and spectacle. The only genres to get serious consideration at Oscar time are musicals and westerns, and even westerns don’t fare too well.

  • LaSargenta
  • Bluejay

    No, like this!

  • dionwr

    Very minimally, Doc, but I think you may be misreading my assertion.

    I agree–in the top award winners, there is not a great overlap between the biggest box office winners and Oscars.

    My point was that in the technical awards, the voting down the ballot has become less various than it was, and I believe it is related to box office. We get cases like “Gandhi” and “Last Emperor” and “English Patient” and “Slumdog Millionaire” which get nominated for a bunch of technical awards, while deserving independents, oddballs, and foreign films get ignored, like they didn’t even exist.

    It *can* happen–look at “The Artist”–but it seems to help a lot to have Harvey Weinstein to bring it to the Academy’s attention.

    Seriously–Christopher Doyle (who did another one of the ASC’s listed “five most influential” jobs of cinematography of the last 20 years) has never even been nominated.

  • dionwr

    Yes, the Defiant Ones is well-acted, by both Curtis and Poitier. But my point was that was the sort of “serious” movie that Hollywood rewards–and audiences forget–while Lee as Dracula was seminal, and vividly memorable by everyone who’s ever seen it.

  • LaSargenta


  • Tonio Kruger

    What? No love for Peter Cushing? :(

  • Hank Graham

    Au contraire, I love Cushing. I was just using Lee because I felt it made for a stronger, quick example.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    “…there needs to be more superhero movies that are less spectacle driven…”

    the conundrum. The concept of superhero is essentially a device to
    create drama through spectacle, rather than create drama through the
    inward workings of the human spirit. A “superhero drama” is an oxymoron.

    I do enjoy fantasy genre, admittedly this contrast runs parallel to the
    shallowness of yearning for some key opportunity to be heroic for one
    spectacular and memorable moment, versus the deeper level of heroism like doing what’s right even though it’s hard, day-in, day-out, when
    almost nobody knows or appreciates it.

  • Matt Clayton

    So, by that measure, it would be a “Wonder Woman” movie directed by David O’Russell and featuring Jennifer Lawrence as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. And have that trademark O’Russell spontaneity and memorable dialogue. (And no invisible jet.)

    Someone will nail that formula down some day. I do agree with MaryAnn that the superhero movie would have to lean a LOT more on drama than action or spectacle, and get lots of people talking about ‘how different it is’ and ‘how great it was’.

  • Martin

    I’m not entirely sure that a Superhero drama is impossible, I’m still waiting in hope for a Batman film that eschews the punchy upside-down ninja and focuses on the whole “World’s Greatest Detective” thing. I loved Nolan’s Batman films but aside from the CSI stuff with the bullet in Dark Knight, Bale’s Batman’s detective work involved punching people and shouting “Where are they?!?!?!”

    Paint Batman as a detective, trying to solve a case set up by the Riddler, have him trying to match wits in an interview with the Joker (very much like the scene from Dark Knight), and you’ll have an engaging superhero story that’s worthy of current Oscar recognition.

  • Bluejay

    A superhero drama is no more impossible than a crime drama (The Godfather), a dark western drama (No Country for Old Men), a boxing drama (Rocky), a fantasy drama (Return of the King), a swords-and-sandals drama (Gladiator), a war drama (Platoon), or any other Best Picture winner in which characters have complex inner lives AND action/violence are integral to the story.The only thing a superhero movie requires is a character with superpowers; otherwise, any kind of story is possible. I’m sure someone will write the great Oscar-winning superhero drama someday.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Chronicle is a movie that tries to be a superhero drama.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    The problem is balancing the human drama with the drama-of-spectacle.

  • Bluejay

    It’s a problem any film with spectacle deals with, and it’s not an insoluble one. If a film with wizards, wraiths, elves, dwarves, goblins, epic battles, and volcanic hellish landscapes can still find human drama in the story and go on to win Best Picture, there’s no inherent reason a superhero movie can’t do the same. Past failures don’t negate the possibility of future success.

  • Bluejay

    I haven’t seen it, but MaryAnn seems to think it tried and succeeded.


  • Martin

    Good point, I’d forgotten about that. I think it works very well as a superhero drama because it spends so much of it’s time focused on the characters. In fact, that’s made me wonder if the first Oscar worthy superhero movie won’t be based on an established hero at all.
    Surely it’s time people started making heroes more suited to the big screen than trying to cram old heroes into forms they’ll never fit into. No matter how well people make a Batman film, it’s a telling sign that they always try to shy away from Robin, even if it’s one of the most important characters in the mythology.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I think it would be interesting to examine the “heroes” of all the Big Picture winners and see how “superhuman” they are. There are certainly some films out there with the protaganist as a heroic figure even in a supernatural way without being a “superhero.” How many of those win?

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    From her review of Chronicle: “But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Chronicle is that it makes us reconsider the terms superhero and supervillain
    entirely. No one here can be reduced to such black-and-white terms:
    they’re just people doing the best they can with what they have. It’s
    just that they suddenly have so much more than the rest of us.”

    In Chronicle, the human drama Is the spectacle, not the superhero powers. Rather than the superhero abilities being used to solve human conflict, the human qualities of the superpowered humans are what create and solve the conflict.

    Look at Lord of the Rings, for instance. They could have used the eagles (look up the HISHE parodies on Youtube which are hilarious) to deliver the ring back to Mount Doom, but they don’t. They slog all the way there.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Yes, I concede the possibility, but the problem is the level of difficulty in balancing them. What you might end up with is a movie that feels a lot less like a superhero movie. It would shift the definition, I think, or atleast the stereotypes. On the other hand, none of those other genres necessarily take human nature and mutate it into supernatural strength. The superhero genre is different.

  • Bluejay

    In Chronicle, the human drama Is the spectacle, not the superhero powers. Rather than the superhero abilities being used to solve human conflict, the human qualities of the superpowered humans are what create and solve the conflict.

    If that’s so, then great. It proves my own point that a superhero movie can be ANY kind of story (including a drama about human conflict with human solutions) that just happens to have a superpowered character in it.

  • Bluejay

    What you might end up with is a movie that feels a lot less like a superhero movie. It would shift the definition, I think, or at least the stereotypes.

    Good. That’s what MAJ is arguing for: a superhero movie that some will argue doesn’t “count” as one, because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what qualities a superhero movie can and can’t have.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    The question then would be whether the superhero powers are an essential dramatic device.

    It’s interesting because, if you think about it, Frozen was a superhero origins movie, if you take it literally.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    (Oops, MJ did already refer to Frozen…I had forgotten about that…but it is an example of someone who fits the superpowers description but subverts the usual superhero genre.)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Jennifer Lawrence would be a terrible casting choice for Diana.

  • Danielm80

    And the invisible jet is awesome.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Sorry, having tried that concession on for size, I don’t think it works, for the reasons already stated. Would you categorize Frozen or It’s a Wonderful Life as a Superhero movie? Neither is, really, although they fit the technicality of “superhuman powers.”

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Thing is, the time around nascent film is unique. We’ll never be closer to it than we are now.
    Generally speaking, those “meaningful films” which the Academy seeks out are subversive, supposedly those that peel off the scales covering the mind. In order to do that, we have to be able to relate to the protaganist. The Superhero genre, arguably more than any other, is not so accessible.

  • RogerBW

    Let’s face it, the 1980s era of X-Men was all about the emotional drama; it just happened to be set against a background of people beating each other up with superpowers. There’s no shortage of source material.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    An argument won by superpowers does not teach us anything new. A movie being emotional isn’t new, either. What I mean by “subversion”–which I’m betting is what the judges generally look for– is the process of changing the intuitive mind because that determines most of our decisions. Once we alter our intuition we will find anything we can to advance it in practice…THAT is what makes any work, like a movie, enduringly powerful.

  • Jean grey

    Xmen days of future past should win an Oscar

  • Tonio Kruger

    That’s why I watched syndicated reruns of Wonder Woman so much in my younger days — that invisible plane….

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