Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Does "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" Stand a Chance Against the Academy?

Left to right: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises
and Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans in The Avengers
This past summer has not given us that many big budget Oscar contenders. At most, we have people speculating on whether director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises will pull a Return of the King and sweep this year's ceremonies. Meanwhile, there is also some buzz that maybe if director Joss Whedon's The Avengers can stand to steal some thunder from the caped crusader. With the release of Whedon's blockbuster hit, it is time to consider the odds on if it stands a chance against The Dark Knight Rises. Either way, is it possible that blockbuster entertainment can compete against prestige art house films like The Master
For those that need an update, here is how the system works. Christopher Nolan's efforts have long been considered to be overshadowed in favor of other films. It wasn't until Inception that he earned a Best Picture nod, and even then, only took home technical awards. He has never been nominated for Best Director and it feels like he only got the nomination because the Academy was wanting to show that they loved sci-fi (this is of course following the year in which District 9 and Avatar were in the Best Picture category). 

The only real love that they have given Nolan is mostly technical. Here is a list of awards that he has been nominated for.


Best Film Editing: Dody Dorn 
Best Original Screenplay: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (story)

Batman Begins

Best Cinematography: Wally Pfister

The Prestige

Best Art Direction: Nathan Crowley (art director), Julie Ochipinti (set decorator)
Best Cinemtography: Wally Pfister 

The Dark Knight

*Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Peter Lando
Best Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Best Film Editing: Lee Smith
Best Makeup: John Caglione Jr., Conor O'Sullivan  
*Best Sound Editing: Richard King
Best Sound Mixing: Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo, Ed Novick
Best Visual Effects: Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber, Paul Franklin


*Best Cinematography: Wally Pfister
*Best Sound Editing: Richard King
*Best Sound Mixing: Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo, Ed Novick
*Best Visual Effects: Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, Pete Bebb, Paul J. Franklin
Best Art Direction: Douglas A. Mowat (set decorator), Guy Hendrix Dyas (production designer), Larry Dias (set decorator)
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer
Best Picture
Best Original Screenplay: Christopher Nolan

The * indicates winners.

If this is anything to go off of, The Dark Knight Rises stands the best chance of winning technical awards. With six wins out of 21, he has some credibility built. However, there is still a clan of people upset that he has never been nominated for Best Director. However, it should be seen as acceptable that the they managed to at least award him in the categories where his movies shine. Over the past few years, there has hardly been any director with as solid of an acclaim to box office ratio. The only name that came close was James Cameron, who also falls into the category of more amazing on a technical standpoint than a narrative standpoint. This is not faulting the movies themselves, as they are solid pieces of entertainment.

However, Nolan has one disadvantage of sweeping the Oscars as some are speculating. For it to have pulled a Return of the King strategy of taking all of the trophies, it needed to have been more prominent. Both of director Peter Jackson's previous J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations were nominated for Best Picture. It has been long notorious that Nolan has been "snubbed" by having no directorial recognition. 

With the category expanding, I can see the chance to try and add bigger blockbuster fare to show their diversity, but I'm afraid that The Dark Knight Rises will not do that well. Even with a cast that includes Oscar winners Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, and Marion Cotillard and nominees Anne Hathaway and Gary Oldman, it is still a superhero film: a genre which has always been overlooked. It may go down as a really good blockbuster film, but the Academy was reported last year with statistics presented by the Los Angeles Times that the voters are: 94% white, 77% male, and only 14% are under 50. Despite Bob Kane's comic's legacy, it is doubtful that the elderly care much for a story in which a buff Tom Hardy blows up a football stadium. At most they'll acknowledge that it is going for complex themes involving the economy, the rich, and even the human spirit, but even that may reduce it to a screenplay nomination. This will probably be reduced to technical, I'm sure of it.

Left to right: Scarlett Johannson, Hemsworth, Evans,
Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
The other competitor is the newbie in town (kind of) Joss Whedon, who has taken 2012 by storm. First by co-writing The Cabin in the Woods (which will never get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay unfortunately) and the movie that took everyone's mind away from The Dark Knight Rises: The Avengers. Building up over four movies, The Avengers is the culmination of a mix of marketing, hype, and just popcorn fare at its most understood. It lacks the darkness of The Dark Knight Rises, but it does wonders to make it stand out as one of the definitive superhero movies of the modern era.

I would be surprised if this didn't at least provide competition in the technical categories. Numerous scenes feature amazing special effects and the dialogue is snappy and fun, reminiscing on the days when Whedon wrote TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the score may be less iconic as The Dark Knight Rises, the rest of the movie feels up to par in many ways. It knows how to have fun. Probably the only fact that may go overlooked is that they wove together four very different narratives into one story and made it work almost perfectly.

The Avengers has another advantage. It doesn't feel like it is banging itself over the audience's head. With The Dark Knight Rises, you get a sense that everything is loud, aggressive, and telling you how you should feel at any given moment. Hans Zimmer's score is at times brilliant, but it is too aggressive and at times drags the movie into overbearing territory. The Avengers can work as light fare or just a really engaging tale of justice and teamwork.

For those thinking that Whedon is not going to stand a chance at the Oscars, do know that he has previously been nominated. It isn't as a sole creditor, but he did get nominated for co-writing Toy Story with Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, John Lasseter (story), Pete Doctor (story), and Joe Ranft (story). It may not be one that feels distinctly Whedon, but at least provides some credibility and hope that he can sneak in some writing awards. It may not be the most poetic, but take a look at the dialogue in this scene:

And now look at this scene from The Dark Knight Rises:

While they are tonally different movies and both have their charms, from a dialogue standpoint, The Avengers has more of a quick-paced engaging dialogue that covers more ground. Its themes may not be as heavy, but when it comes to who should get a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, I would like to see The Avengers, though in reality, it is the more realized popcorn film and therefore stands less of a chance of getting any traction. Maybe when Whedon has 21 nominations in his catalog, then maybe they'll consider it.

Of course, the Oscars are not the end-all be-all to whether or not blockbuster entertainment will stand the test of time. Maybe neither will get noticed in the big categories or maybe Nolan will get a treatment similar to that of Return of the King. However, he won't get the big sweep, he will just get something simple, like a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. He stands a better chance than Whedon of getting a nod, but that doesn't mean this is his best. Nolan was unfairly robbed of a few spots for The Dark Knight, but that was lightning in a bottle that he kind of captures here, but not enough to scream "BEST PICTURE!" He is a competent and fully realized filmmaker, and even if he goes home empty handed, we can expect his next film to be pretty good.

So, here's hoping that the Academy notices the work of these two films. After all, if the highest grossing film of all time at the time Titanic can sweep the Oscars and movies with high concepts like Inception can earn Best Picture nominations, what is stopping this year from featuring an ultimate category of prestige versus blockbuster? It used to happen all of the time. Maybe it is just the 76% of old white voters over 50 that are stopping us from keeping anything that doesn't look as pretty as The Tree of Life from getting some love, but we just had a summer where nothing came out worth mentioning but these two films (okay, a few smaller titles like Beasts of the Southern Wild, but little on the public's consciousness). 

So what do you think? Is it about time that we see The Avengers or The Dark Knight get a spot other than technical?

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