Superhero Movies, the Oscars, and Logan's Best Picture Nomination Chances
The Academy Awards have a complicated history with blockbusters. On the one hand, many Academy members might balk at the idea of tentpole pictures getting Oscar nominations because the Oscars are, presumably, for higher art and not popcorn movies. While others argue that the Oscars are meaningless because nobody sees those movies, outside of coastal cities. But the Oscars ceremony needs popular movies nominated so that more people have a reason to watch. Similarly, a lot of movie fans think that blockbusters deserve recognition when they are good. I admit this is all very general, but essentially this is the push and pull between populist movies and the Academy Awards.
In the past few weeks, the latest Wolverine movie Logan has gotten rave reviews from critics for being a contemplative, unconventional superhero story. The James Mangold film, which opens on March 3rd , brings back Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman as the titular X-man hiding out on the Mexican border with Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Logan gets called back into action with the arrival a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen). There's already some talk about Logan being good enough to be an Oscar contender for the 2017 awards season and that it would be the first superhero movie to be a major Oscar player.
First things first: there are a few reasons why Logan is being brought into the Oscar conversation. The review embargo dropped right towards the tail end of the Oscar season (the awards will be handed out the Sunday before the film is released in theaters). So everyone’s already buzzing about potential awards for next year's ceremony, and this movie fell right into that. Furthermore, when a big blockbuster gets glowing notices, it can be really exciting. It signifies that it could be a blockbuster that actually matters to both the audiences and its filmmakers. Logan promises not to be just another obligatory cash cow like most franchise entries.
Last year, the game-changing action epic Mad Max: Fury Road earned 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film won six awards in the technical categories. Many film fans that night were hoping all the early Mad Max wins that night would lead to a surprise win for director George Miller. That didn’t happen, but I wondered if the floodgates had opened for big blockbusters to enter the Oscar conversation.
But Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a superhero movie like Logan. It’s high octane, visceral, once-in-a-lifetime experience, with themes of patriarchal oppression and feminist survival. The film was beyond just being a summer money-maker. It was a movie for adults, with resonant themes and brilliant practical effects. Superhero movies have a different battle, with their comic book origins and use of CGI. The Avengers had been critically acclaimed and succeeded in doing something impossible: tying five previous movies together while balancing multiple superheroes and their movie stars. In a more superhero-friendly Oscar climate, The Avengers might have made a bigger splash.
The major superhero blockbuster to get serious Oscar attention was Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed The Dark Knight. The 2008 film was nominated for eight awards at the 2009 Oscars, winning Best Sound Editing and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for Heath Ledger. The film missed out on nominations for Christopher Nolan’s direction and Best Picture. This was a surprise, since the film received nominations and wins in key Oscar precursor awards like the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Producers Guild. The five films nominated for Best Picture that year were Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the winner Slumdog Millionaire. It’s safe to say that, as good or bad as they may be, none of these films were as influential and iconic as The Dark Knight.
In fact, The Dark Knight not getting the Best Picture nomination is the exact reason why the Academy changed the number of nominations from five to ten for the 2010 Oscar season—though some would argue that the equally acclaimed Wall-E not getting a Best Picture nomination also lead to the change. The Academy decided that there needed to be more room for “populist” films, though even that is an unfair label. The Dark Knight was and is an incredible achievement in 2008, and it deserved to be recognized as such.
It’s because of successes like The Dark Knight that billion-dollar money-maker Avatar was nominated for Best Picture, as well as The Martian, Toy Story 3, and District 9. And the Oscars usually have room for more high-minded blockbuster fare like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Arrival, and Gravity. And in the modern blockbuster era, the first one nominated for Best Picture was the film that created the modern blockbuster era, Jaws. Star Wars was close to winning, but lost to Annie Hall. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of an “Oscar nominee’ changed to fit a certain type of film, and the nonsense term “Oscar bait” was created. A movie like Titanic can win as a period love story that also is a crowd-pleasing disaster movie. However, the idea of big summer movies getting awards attention was completely alien.
Whether Logan can become the first superhero movie to get major Oscar consideration in the top categories remains to be seen. The film will have to play well with audiences, which seems likely. Campaigning is just as important to getting Oscar nominations as actual quality. If Fox really wants Logan to be an Oscar player it’ll have to be marketed as such later in the year. Perhaps Logan can do what The Dark Knight couldn’t do—after all, we’re living in a post-Mad Max: Fury Road world—but superhero movies have to fight harder to be taken seriously. It helps that Logan is rated R, because more voters might take it seriously. If it pulls off its soulful superhero vibe, then it could possibly go the distance.