Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Can Superhero Blockbusters Be Best Picture Nominees?

Scene from The Avengers: Age of Ultron
It is way too easy to lobby complaints at the Academy for being out of touch with popular audiences. In fact, the last major blockbuster film to warrant any major Oscar buzz was director James Cameron's Avatar in 2009. The technical spectacle captivated audiences, broke box office records and convinced the Academy to lavish it with nominations and wins. Yes, there have been other big budgeted films like the introspective Life of Pi or the debauchery-filled The Wolf of Wall Street that have been nominated, but let me ask you something: will we ever see a day when a real superhero blockbuster movie gets recognized with so much as a Best Picture nomination? 

Before going further, I would like to constitute the definition of superhero blockbuster movie. The general concept of a blockbuster is a major film release geared towards audiences with the purposes of entertaining more than provoking philosophical thought. The main key is that it is accessible. Yes, The Academy has recognized bigger films like Inception and Gravity in the Best Picture race, but they have never outwardly awarded a blockbuster the top prize, at least since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which was over 10 years ago. While many could argue that Birdman was the first "superhero" film to win this category, I feel like it hardly counts considering its larger context about an actor suffering from his own ego. The superhero culture is more ingrained in his psyche than the capes and cowls that superheroes necessarily are associated with.

This was largely sparked because this weekend marks the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is the latest Marvel film and one that is likely to be talked about at exhaustive lengths. It already has made over $200 million in international box office sales. It is a film that will be ingrained in pop culture. While this is all predictive, it is because I know the truth and an unfortunate reality that goes with: The Avengers was a box office juggernaut that became a quintessential pop culture landmark for the modern superhero movie model. It still is regaled as a favorite in much the way that The Dark Knight was. However, much like the 2008 film, the Oscars don't represent these films in their Best Picture category. But why?

I will admit that it is skeptical to want The Academy to recognize blockbusters more frequently. Many harp on the likes of Michael Bay for making mindless entertainment with his infinite Transformers movies. In fact, there's a lot of awful blockbusters in any given year. However, I do honestly believe that The Academy's sole intention is to recognize the best in film. They can recognize The Wolf of Wall Street - which cost $100 million to make - but why not summer movies that are just as risky and challenge audiences. While this would be more up for contention back in 2008 when the Best Picture category was reserved to five nominations, it feels like a ridiculous complaint nowadays because the category has changed, and it was just for this exact purpose.

To summarize, The Dark Knight was a pop culture milestone that redefined superhero cinema. When it failed to earn a Best Picture nomination, complaints lead the category to go retro and return to a 10 nominee panel. This sort of panned out, as it recognized a more diverse pallet, but as evident by last year's films - released on an altered sliding scale of 5-10 nominees - there is an identity crisis in play. What started as recognizing diversity went on to represent almost solely independent films that nobody had heard of. Even with Neil Patrick Harris hosting, the ratings tanked. Cut to even the year before where films like Her and 12 Years a Slave sat alongside American Hustle and Django Unchained and you can see a vast difference.

Still, there's no superhero movie that has ever been nominated. I am not suggesting to just randomly nominate one to appease fans. I don't think that there has been one worthy of the category since The Avengers (Age of Ultron notwithstanding). However, it does feel like there's some sort of vendetta that goes out for superhero movies that doesn't get lobbied against sci-fi, animation and other outlier genres that have struggled to be recognized. Is it because of the astigmatism that blockbusters are inherently inferior to prestige dramas? They don't have to be. Remember in the 1950's when films like The Greatest Show on Earth or Around the World in 80 Days won? Those were pure spectacle to the point of being considered low points in the Best Picture winners circle. However, if those can even get nominated, why can't The Avengers?

It seems like a silly argument to make, but as a fan of The Oscars, I feel that the award should be more indicative not only of prestige, but of the zeitgeist. With 5-10 nominations, there's room to recognize those clearly Oscar bait movies alongside those clearly popcorn movies. The latter is a particularly hard genre to pull off correctly. Most studio films can be disposable, but what about when they're critically acclaimed and speak to the culture at large? It seems ignorant to act like that doesn't exist. True, maybe there isn't any technical feat on par with Avatar, but these are the films that influence the future of cinema almost as much as the lesser Best Picture nominees.

2014 did seem like a banner year for superhero culture at the Oscars, however. Big Hero 6 won Best Animated Feature and is the closest that a Marvel film came to the top prize. Even the debatable superhero nature of Birdman indicates that The Academy knows that this sort of culture is out there. It just chooses to award it in a prestige drama more than directly addressing the matter. This is no fault of Birdman, but unless it opens the floodgates for diversity in the Oscars circle, what's the point? When this time is several decades removed, will we look back at the Best Picture nominees and see what has withstood time, or a bunch of Oscar bait? There's been cases for almost every decade. Likewise, I think that The Dark Knight will likely overshadow all 2008 Best Picture nominees regardless of quality. Are they better? That's subjective. 

I know it sounds hard to want small change, but The Oscars is a zeitgeist award that still gets nitpicked every year, such as when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain or Do The Right Thing not even getting nominated. It is an award that to some (myself included) means something. To me, it is a time capsule of a year that will define culture better than a Golden Globe, BAFTA or otherwise. While I will be likely to take on the defeatist mode when the year is over and I assess blockbusters against the prestige films, I just want to believe that cinema - no matter how big or small - can be great. I am not sure yet if The Avengers: Age of Ultron will be any good. However, it brings up old memories of 2012 and The Avengers missing the final cut. I am not expecting a Thor: The Dark World to be nominated, but when something gets touted as the height of its genre (The Avengers currently has 92% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes), it shouldn't just be scoffed at by The Academy because its peers are mindless, violent programming. Otherwise, it seems ludicrous to see Avatar as a serious Best Picture contender. It really does. 

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