Seeing a picture from the Wonder Woman movie underneath a title implying that comic book movies haven’t been good enough to be the best movie of the year might make you feel annoyed and dismissive. So it’s probably best if I preface my point by clarifying what this article is not. This isn’t a criticism of the entertainment value of comic book movies, since this year alone has put out some very enjoyable and successful superhero films that have earned tons of money. This also isn’t anything against the Wonder Woman movie in particular, as I enjoyed it, and was very happy to see such an iconic character overcome the cynicism about whether or not female protagonists hurt marketability. What this article is about is the significance of the Best Picture award.
The name sounds so self-explanatory: an award that should go to whatever movie was the best of the year. But the word “best” is also open to interpretation. Is your idea of the best movie the one that was the most fun to watch? The one that was the most thought-provoking? The one with the most original concepts? Ideally a movie would have all of those qualities, but frequently the nominees are each strong in one way or the other, and we’re all left with our own preferences on which quality deserves the highest praise.
It’s a commonly held notion that the Academy snubs films that aren’t interpretative, artsy, character pieces that are inaccessible to general movie goers. But a fair amount of “fun” films with straightforward narratives have won, spanning a variety of genres. Titanic, Gladiator, The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, and The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King all earned the prestigious award, not to mention numerous other “popcorn movies” that did so. But comic book movies keep shattering box office records and are continuously winding up with Rotten Tomatoes scores over 90%, and yet not a single one has even been nominated for Best Picture. So if the Oscars aren’t averse to giving the nod to movies the general public gets excited for, why has this major part of the movie market not gotten acknowledgement from the Academy?
To answer that, let’s start by looking at the best case for a comic book movie that may have actually deserved a Best Picture nomination: The Dark Knight, eligible for the 2008 Oscars. It did wind up breaking ground when Heath Ledger became the first actor in a comic book movie to win Best Supporting Actor. But nominations for bigger awards than that eluded the film, leaving many wondering why. Looking past the Joker stealing every scene he was in, The Dark Knight does have flaws—for example, the way the Joker’s plans are so packed with convoluted variables that they only succeed not through cunning, but thanks to the plot conveniently accommodating him. But it has certainly aged better than the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, which many now view as one of the Academy’s bigger botches for their most prestigious award. Did the Academy members really think the beloved Batman movie just didn’t live up to its reputation?
Well, the following year the Academy broadened its maximum number of Best Picture nominations from five to ten, a move that very well could have been motivated in part by backlash against The Dark Knight not making the cut for 2008. As reported by the New York Times, when speaking about the increased number of Best Picture spots in a question and answer session, the Academy’s then president, Sidney Ganis, said, “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.” With that acknowledgement, it certainly does not sound like the Academy are elitist snobs turning up their noses at masked vigilantes like so many people make the members out to be. I certainly won’t deny it: if there had been ten nomination spots in 2008, The Dark Knight definitely would have deserved one (along with WALL-E, which fans also felt was snubbed). Though even if the Academy could call a do over for 2008 (as they somewhat did for 2005, acknowledging in retrospect to The Hollywood Reporter that Brokeback Mountain was a more deserving winner than Crash), I suspect they still would have chosen Milk for Best Picture rather than The Dark Knight.
Regardless, after 2008 the excuse that there just happened to not be enough spots for a superhero movie to get nominated went out the window as the number of nomination slots jumped to ten. And we’ve established that the Academy is willing to award movies the general public enjoys, so it doesn’t seem like simple snobbery is the explanation either. So why has there not been a superhero nomination for Best Picture in the nearly ten years since the nomination slot increase?
To that, I would just say that there hasn’t been a truly great comic book movie in those ensuing years.
That might sound outrageous, but when you think about it there really haven’t been too many superhero movies in that time that even fans have commonly agreed are a cut above the rest. Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Solider were all fan pleasers, but all started falling apart in the third act. Iron Man had a well-told origin story, but a forgettable villain in Obadiah Stane. The Avengers likewise lost steam with having the generic Chitauri be prominent enemies for the heroes to test their teamwork against. And Winter Solider similarly abandoned the complex issues it broached early in the film for the typical bombastic climax.
Oddly enough, fans were even upset last year when Deadpool didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. Deadpool was a fine movie, and maybe it didn’t deserve a total snub across all the award categories, but to say it deserved one of the Best Picture spots? The most unique thing the movie brought was a Marvel character openly cursing (albeit amusingly). Not to mention that the villain was yet another cardboard cutout. That doesn’t really compare to the ambition eventual nominees like La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight showed. To say Deadpool was some egregious omission that could have been a candidate for the year’s best movie is really silly.
Which brings us now to this year, and what inspired me to tackle this subject. Though award season is still a ways off and numerous strong contenders have yet to even hit theaters, fans of comic book movies have already found two candidates for Best Picture: Logan and Wonder Woman. Even as early as it is, it’s obvious that neither one deserves to win the award.
In terms of 2017’s movies, Dunkirk already looks like a lock for a Best Picture nomination. Get Out and The Beguiled are also likely candidates. And going by his previous work, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! will also be something to keep an eye on. Those movies alone are strong enough competition to keep Logan and Wonder Woman from getting anything more than nominated. Just to be clear, it’s not like I’m rooting against a superhero movie ever getting that big win. I simply do not want to see it become a recurring trend each year for fans to cry foul when the Oscars don’t mislabel good comic book movies as great.
In the case of Wonder Woman, the majority of its emotional resonance exists off screen. Despite the heroine being one of the most well-known comic book characters, it took 76 years for her to get her own live-action solo film. In the interim, comparative unknowns to casual moviegoers, such as Ant-Man or Rocket Raccoon, were still making it to the big screen. This was thanks to the myth that audiences aren’t interested in female leads and that they don’t sell. So it has understandably been quite gratifying to see Wonder Woman break all sorts of box office records and shut down such a ridiculous excuse to avoid featuring female leads.
It also doesn’t hurt that as a piece of entertainment, Wonder Woman is on par with similarly enjoyable superhero origin stories like Batman Begins and Iron Man. That being said, while the movie is revolutionary for women in film, it’s far less groundbreaking as a piece of fiction. Looking at Wonder Woman simply for what’s on the screen, its third act faces many of the common problems in comic book movies. The side characters are given jokey one-liners in lieu of character development. The villain is basically an underdeveloped final boss plucked from a video game. The climactic battle threatens the world only to be resolved in a storm of CGI effects. It’s good even with its shortcomings, but nothing we haven’t seen before.
Logan, on the other hand, infuses its story with emotion seen on the screen. It’s such a stark contrast from any of the other X-Men films, and might actually stand a decent chance of getting a Best Picture nomination. Though I can’t see it winning, for the reasons I’ve brought up for many of the previous movies, specifically its dull villain. For all Logan does to try and buck typical superhero tropes, X-24 is the generic comic book movie antagonist, and relying on having a hero face an evil version of himself is just so boring at this point. Part of why The Dark Knight is so beloved is because the Joker was riveting to watch. So it really is a wonder why more comic book movies don’t try to emulate that nuanced antagonist. We’ve seen mirror image antagonists like X-24 too often in superhero movies in general, let alone in the X-Men films that have already pitted Wolverine against similar foes like Sabretooth, Lady Deathstrike, and Deadpool. Logan’s inability to avert that trend is one of the biggest detriments to being able to say it was great all the way through, rather than just a good movie that contained some great moments.
I’m hardly the first person to talk about these shortcomings in Logan and Wonder Woman, so fans will have some pretty clear and agreeable reasons for why neither film gets Best Picture, if that’s what the Academy decides. But I already know that one of the prevailing talking points would be how both movies were snubbed and that the Academy has once again demonstrated its supposed bias against genre films. That’s what makes the push for superhero movies to win a bit of a frustrating thing to see and hear—good superhero movies with a bit of a fresh twist are getting exalted as great, and then people get upset when level-headed critics acknowledge that there were indeed significantly better movies for the year.
I’m not saying the Academy is undeserving of criticism. As stated earlier, even the members can admit they chose the wrong movie for Best Picture sometimes. Then they may also choose the right movie for the wrong reasons, like going with what they think is the “important” choice rather than what they sincerely enjoyed. After 12 Years a Slave won, the Los Angeles Times reported that two Academy members admitted they had not even watched the film out of fear that it would be upsetting, yet still cast their vote for it to receive Best Picture. And that’s not even getting into the criticism against the Oscars relating to representation, as brought to the forefront by last year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash. So there are definitely issues worth discussing about the Academy, but I don’t think their treatment of superhero films is one of them right now.
It’s not like I’d be crushed if Logan or Wonder Woman did win. I’d be a bit disappointed that what I believe is the wrong movie would have won, but that’s happened in years past, too. Honestly, I’ll be relieved when a superhero movie does win. It’ll be like when Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor—there, it happened, now can we finally stop having this conversation every year? I do want a superhero movie to win the award one day, but I’d really rather it be one that actually warrants it. But since The Dark Knight, there just hasn’t been one that is truly worthy of the win. Despite how hasty many are to push for a superhero movie to win, the genre has become complacent, producing movies that are safe and formulaic.
The Academy acknowledges movies that are daring. That can mean harrowing reminders of our history in past winners like 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List. Or it can mean action films with quirky heroes fighting against futuristic tyranny as in nominees like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Deadpool, Wonder Woman, and Logan all dared to be a bit different in their own ways, which is why I think people got excited enough about them to want them to get nominated and to win. So fans want superhero movies to be daring too, but all three films ultimately stopped short of achieving the uniqueness they seemed to promise at the outset, and instead circled back to the conventional by the end of their stories. Even with how much money the genre currently generates, fans are getting burnt out and craving something new. So I can only imagine how worn out the Academy members are, given that they have to watch a lot more movies than the average person. How many times do we really want to see wise-cracking superheroes who spend forty minutes of a movie rehashing an origin story most people already know? How many more CGI monster villains are going to appear with the bland motivation of destroying all humans again?
Since fans and critics alike can agree that the genre is becoming stagnant, I’d like to see people constructively directing their frustration at the movies instead of the Oscars. Stop pushing for comic book movies that are just a fun way to pass a Saturday night to win Best Picture. Instead, push for the movies themselves to do something fresh. We never even would have had The Dark Knight if Christopher Nolan hadn’t taken Batman in a more realistic direction, one that was contrary to so many of the cheesier superhero films that preceded it. So push for directors and writers to tell stories that are more original and don’t follow the comic book movie beats we’ve seen dozens of times by now. When we start getting more movies like that, there won’t even need to be a push for them to be nominated for Best Picture, because their greatness will be too obvious to deny.
Chris Isaac writes for Screen Rant and CBR. His work also includes essays for USA TODAY, talking feminism in games for The Mary Sue, and examining mental illness depictions in the media for Arcadia University’s Compass. If these things interest you, you can follow him on Twitter.