In 2018, Marvel released the first-ever feature-length black superhero film, Black Panther, which was a huge milestone for entertainment and media altogether. Black Panther impacted the world with its cultural significance but more importantly, its timely themes and strong message helped the film garner talks of a possible Oscar nomination. The film amassed a high 96% on rotten tomatoes out of nearly 530 critics and amassed $1.348 billion at the box office worldwide. Now, the history of superhero films being nominated for anything other than technical awards at the Oscars isn’t great. Except for Heath Ledger winning the best-supporting actor role for his portrayal as The Joker in The Dark Knight, usually, the Academy voters only gave comic book films nominations in the visual effects department, sound editing, or sound mixing. In fact, the likely reason that Ledger only won the award for the best-supporting role was due to his unfortunate passing. Of course, this is just pure suspicion on my end as there’s no record of Academy voters confirming their dislike for superhero films. The median age of Oscars voters was 62, though that study was mostly conducted back in 2014. The point is that the Oscars tend to skew in the older demographic, which isn’t necessarily a targeted age for any superhero films.
Unironically, Martin Scorsese may have said it best when it comes to the Academy’s thoughts about superhero films: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Despite the high critical praise that Black Panther was receiving, the Oscar voters likely had this mindset. However, unlike Spiderman 2 or The Dark Knight (two other notable best picture snubs), the Marvel film had a cultural impact that just couldn’t be ignored. So, to appease to the masses, the Oscar voters came up with a new category: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. The announcement was met with backlash, with many citing that this was the Academy’s way of pandering to the mainstream audiences. This move would’ve likely diminished blockbuster film’s chances at the best picture nomination. John Bailey – the film Academy president – confirmed that the new category was a response to the diminishing ratings; however, the group pushed back and held off the new Oscar category.
Since then, the Academy has been more open to comic book films getting acting and directing nods, with Joker notably getting 12 nominations including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (which Joaquin Phoenix would win); however, talks about the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film has notably died down since the announcement. Here’s the thing, I don’t think the Academy should just drop the category, though the criteria of the award should change. Too often, great movies or performances are ignored because the Academy doesn’t particularly care for a certain genre or film. Who could forget Toni Collete’s commanding performance in Hereditary? Or Robert Downey Jr’s tender and emotional one in Avengers: Endgame. Speaking of which, Endgame deserved to be nominated for best picture. It was a culmination of a long journey that ended on a spectacular note. So did The Matrix. Or Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Or even Skyfall. I could on and on about all the blockbuster films that should’ve been recognized as best picture contenders.
There should be an award that recognizes these big-budget blockbusters that offer more than pulse-pounding action; however, it shouldn’t restrict their limits of being nominated for being the best picture. An incredible movie could be in any genre. Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Black Panther, Slumdog Millionaire, 1917, are all in different genres, but each is an excellent film not because of their pedigree, but due to the compelling story, interesting characters, and cohesive narrative. As long as the Academy voters don’t treat blockbuster films as a lesser form of storytelling than the best picture nominations. The Oscars have a best-animated picture category; however, Beauty and The Beast, Toy Story, and Up have shattered the mold by being placed in the best picture category. The Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film is not a bad idea in theory, as long as the voters give the movies the respect they deserve.
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