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?

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