Last year, Patty Jenkins’ DC comic-book movie “Wonder Woman” far exceeded expectations of quality, critical acclaim, and box office, but was shut out of the Oscar race. That won’t happen with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which should ride the swells of worldwide acclaim and blockbuster status to become a Best Picture Oscar contender. But it will be a challenge for Disney to push this Marvel superhero success beyond the technical categories. They will need to convince critics, guilds, and Oscar voters that Ryan Coogler’s achievement rises to the level of art.
Comic-book epics rarely yield major Oscar nominations. Heath Ledger’s posthumous win as Supporting Actor for Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” entry “The Dark Knight” in 2008 was an anomaly; 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”).
At the 2018 Oscars, for example, Fox scored the first-ever Adapted Screenplay nod for a comic-book superhero 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 (blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″).
“Black Panther” earned top reviews (Metascore: 87) and like “Wonder Woman,” it was the first of its kind, with huge pent-up demand across the globe. Adjusted for inflation, “Black Panther” sold more tickets in North America than the first iterations of “Spider-Man,” “Batman” and “Wonder Woman.” So far the movie has grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, heading for the top 30 of all time (with adjusted grosses).
Among likely technical nods for “Black Panther” are this year’s historic Oscar nominee, cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), two-time Best Costume Design Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”), production designer Hannah Beachler, as well as hair and makeup and visual effects.
Landing major nominations requires 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.
If actors support this movie, offering a deserved SAG Ensemble nomination, then a Best Actor Oscar nod could follow for Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, as well as his supporting players, Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) as his complex, angry, dangerous, and yet empathetic nemesis Erik Killmonger, and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”).
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.
Another valid comparison is not to “Wonder Woman,” but to Jordan Peele’s low-budget phenomenon “Get Out” (Blumhouse/Universal), which launched at Sundance 2017 and racked up $255 million worldwide, breaking out of its horror-thriller genre limitations to wind up with four Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (which won), and Actor (Daniel Kaluuya). With its $200-million tentpole scale and scope, “Black Panther” has the potential to notch a lot more.
What will it go up against? Well, distributor Annapurna and Oscar-perennial Plan B (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Big Short”) are partnering on the return of two writer-directors, Barry Jenkins (from “Moonlight” to James Baldwin story “If Beale Street Could Talk”), Adam McKay (from “The Big Short” to Dick Cheney biopic “Backseat”), while Annapurna backed Jacques Audiard’s English-language film “The Sisters Brothers.”
Studio contenders include four from the Universal family: “La La Land” Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle reunites with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 space mission for “First Man,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen,” starring Steve Carell, and two from Focus Features, Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” starring Lucas Hedges, and Spike Lee’s Grand Prix-winning Cannes entry “BlacKkKlansman” (Focus Features). And Warner Bros. will promote Bradley Cooper’s remake of backstage musical “A Star is Born,” starring himself and Lady Gaga. (Will they take the festival route? My bet is on Venice.)
Fox is releasing heist thriller “Widows” (Film4 and See Saw), directed by “12 Years a Slave” winner Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis, which opens the London Film Festival after playing earlier fall festivals (expect Venice or Toronto), which may lean too far toward commercial genre territory.
And regular awards player Fox Searchlight has three big titles. Yorgos Lanthimos’ dramedy “The Favourite” stars Olivia Colman as crazy Queen Anne, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies of the court who manipulate her. Acting nominations look likely. Festival response will answer the question of whether it tips too far toward comedy to be a Best Picture candidate, which is also the issue for Marielle Heller’s follow-up “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” New York comedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Fox Searchlight), adapted by Nicole Holofcener from Lee Israel’s memoir and starring Melissa McCarthy as a sad-sack author-turned-con artist.
Will any women directors break into the Best Picture race? Debra Granik’s survival drama “Leave No Trace” (June 29, Bleecker Street) scored among the year’s best reviews; veteran Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”) returned to film from directing television to helm “On the Basis of Sex” (December 25, Focus Features) which looks like a commercial crowdpleaser starring Oscar nominee Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) as young attorney Ruth Bader Ginsberg, star of hit documentary “RBG.” And Donmar Warehouse director Josie Rourke makes her feature film debut with Working Title’s “Mary Queen of Scots” (December 7, Focus Features), starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I.
Netflix picked up two movies that were invited, but opted not go, to Cannes: “Gravity” Best Director-winner Alfonso Cuaron’s return to Mexico, black-and-white 70 mm family drama “Roma,” which will likely play Venice as well as its Centerpiece Gala at the New York Film Festival, and Paul Greengrass’ real-life terrorism drama “Norway,” directing a local cast in English.
Daniel Remi Bergeron
Remember, no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I’ve seen it.
“BlacKkKlansman” (Spike Lee)
“Black Panther” (Ryan Coogler)
“Backseat” (Adam McKay)
“Beautiful Boy” (Felix Van Groeningen)
“Boy Erased” (Joel Edgerton)
“The Favourite” (Yorgos Lanthimos)
“First Man” (Damien Chazelle)
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Barry Jenkins)
“The Old Man and the Gun” (David Lowery)
“Roma” (Alfonso Cuaron)
“A Star is Born” (Bradley Cooper)
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Marielle Heller)
“The Death of Stalin” (Armando Iannucci)
“The Front Runner” (Jason Reitman)
“Leave No Trace” (Debra Granik)
“Mary Queen of Scots” (Josie Rourke)
“On the Basis of Sex” (Mimi Leder)
“Peterloo” (Mike Leigh)
“The Sisters Brothers” (Jacques Audiard)
“Welcome to Marwen” (Robert Zemeckis)
“Widows” (Steve McQueen)