It’s a familiar scenario. A comic-book movie, not directed by the usual white male, far exceeds expectations of quality, critical acclaim, and box office. And so the question rises: Could “Black Panther” be the genre movie that confounds conventional wisdom and ascends to the status of Best Picture Oscar contender? Or, like “Wonder Woman,” will it be shut out entirely?
Each year, the studios try to push their best genre successes beyond the technical ghetto. All Oscar campaigners want to convince critics, guilds, and Oscar voters that their movies rise to the level of art, but any fantasy, horror, thriller, action or comic-book movie is the camel that must pass through a needle to reach the Best Picture side.
The biggest exception was Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. All three films scored Best Picture nominations, and technical wins: “Fellowship” scored 13 nominations and wins for Makeup, Visual Effects, and Cinematography; “The Two Towers” earned six and won Sound Editing and VFX; and then came the ultimate triumph for the finale “The Return of the King”: a grand sweep of all 11 nominations, including Best Picture.
But while LOTR fell into the fantasy genre, it was boosted by the literary pedigree of J.R.R. Tolkien. No other fantasy film has ever won Best Picture. (Even the “Harry Potter” series landed 12 technical nominations over eight movies — and never won.)
Certain truisms hold for these films: Unless the first movie in a series has been nominated, those that follow rarely are. Major-category nominations are exceptional; technical nominations are the norm, though wins are not assured.
There are exceptions, like Matt Damon’s nomination for Best Actor in “The Martian,” and Alfonso Cuaron’s win as best director for “Gravity.” But comic-book epics rarely yield major Oscar nominations. In 2008, Heath Ledger posthumously won Supporting Actor for Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” entry “The Dark Knight.” If superhero movies are in the running, it’s usually for VFX and technical nods — they even win some, especially with the original iteration, before it’s a full-fledged franchise (See: the original Dick Donner “Superman,” Tim Burton’s first “Batman,” “Dick Tracy,” “Men in Black,” and “Spider-Man 2”).
This year, Fox scored the first-ever Adapted Screenplay nod for a comic-book movie (X-Men spinoff “Logan”) as well as the expected VFX recognition for the latest “Planet of the Apes” installment (Weta Digital). Scoring only technical nods were Lucasfilm (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), Disney (live-action remake “Beauty and the Beast”), and Marvel (blockbusters “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″).
Let’s compare and contrast last year’s phenomenon, Warner/D.C.’s “Wonder Woman,” with this year’s breakout blockbuster, Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
“Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins
Release date: June 2, 2017
Box Office: When the movie hit the zeitgeist with a $103 million opening, Oscar speculation was inevitable. The movie reached $817 million worldwide.
Likely Contenders: “Wonder Woman” gave its actors plenty to do — romance, adventure, action. Lead Gal Gadot and supporting player Chris Pine were at turns vulnerable, bewildered, confused, authoritative, charming, seductive, opportunistic, anxious, needy, and powerful. And they maneuvered through some witty moments and dialogue. They made the movie light on its feet; until the inevitably over-pixelated finale, “Wonder Woman” didn’t get ponderous or heavy.
Jenkins earned kudos for executing a rousing superhero adventure that had confounded its studio for decades. But Greta Gerwig landed DGA and Oscar directing nominations over Jenkins for her prestigious mother-daughter drama “Lady Bird.”
Technical nominations for VFX, production design, cinematography, editing and sound were possible. But the critics groups and Guilds were parsimonious with the awards kudos.
Result: No Oscar nominations
Bottom Line: The movie was hugely popular with Academy members, but finally its success was at the box office; it lacked gravitas and never rose to the level of high art.
“Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler
Box Office: Its opening three-day weekend was $201.8 million; its four-day worldwide total, $447 million. It’s projected to be one of the most successful Marvel blockbusters of all time, behind only “The Avengers.”
Likely Oscar Contenders: Already nabbing more attention than usual for a cinematographer is this year’s historic Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”). Also earning kudos is two-time Best Costume Design Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”), who drew on Africa for her eye-popping Wakanda costumes that range from ornamental and tribal to superhero fantastic. And gaining high praise is production designer Hannah Beachler’s realization of the technologically sophisticated hidden oasis Wakanda, ranging from rocky waterfall grottos to futuristic cities and Bond movie gizmos, gadgets, and aircraft. Hair and makeup is another likely nomination, given the wide range of styles on display. Visual effects are also top-notch and varied.
Landing major nominations requires achieving a perception of gravitas. “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” writer-director Coogler’s thoughtful screenplay, adapted from the comics with Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story”), does just that, rising well beyond the usual Marvel superhero mythology. “Black Panther” raises many questions about the role and responsibility of a rich nation in the world, as well as the ultimate consequences of neglecting and abandoning the less fortunate among us. “Black Panther” is widely considered to be the best Marvel movie ever made.
There’s also a panoply of powerful, actualized women who support T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), as well as a complex, angry, dangerous, and yet empathetic villain, African-American Eric Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan). If actors support this movie down the line, offering deserved SAG Ensemble nomination, then Oscar nods could follow for Boseman and supporting players Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”).
And Coogler, who is only 31, could rise to the level of perceived auteur, even if he’s adapting an established comic-book title. Who else could have pulled this off? Of course, people said the same thing about Jenkins. But what she delivered was perfectly calibrated mainstream entertainment. “Black Panther” is something more: It’s historic, crashing Hollywood barriers that should have been shattered decades ago.
Bottom Line: Another valid comparison is not to “Wonder Woman,” but to Jordan Peele’s surprising $4.5 million phenomenon “Get Out” (Blumhouse/Universal), which launched at Sundance year ago and racked up $255 million worldwide and acclaim, breaking out of its horror-thriller genre limitations to wind up with four Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Actor (Daniel Kaluuya).
With its $200-million tentpole scale and scope, “Black Panther” has the potential to notch a lot more.