With a few notable exceptions (“The Dark Knight” in particular), superhero movies have never been a significant presence in the awards conversation. And you know what? That’s just fine. In a righteous world, nothing that grosses a billion dollars and serves as an 150-minute teaser for its own sequel would even be eligible for a trophy; to quote the immortal words of Donald Francis Draper: “That’s what the money is for.”
By and large, Academy voters have agreed with that wisdom, and Oscar season has become something of a safe haven from the Galactus-sized genre that’s devoured much of Hollywood in its maw. Recent years have produced a clear demarcation in discourse: From mid-February until Labor Day, it’s all spandex and Infinity Stones, as moviegoers on both sides of the aisle agree to put aside their differences and pretend that Bucky Barnes is an actual character, not just a smoldering vessel for the pent-up sexual frustration that fuels the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once the Venice Film Festival kicks off the long race to the Dolby Theatre, however, adults in the room take over, and the focus shifts to more high-minded topics like Ryan Gosling inventing jazz and Sally Hawkins having sex with a fish man. Frivolous questions about mythology (e.g. “Is Spider-Man really dead?”) are replaced by urgent queries about the human conditions (e.g. “Is Ben really Back?), and a measure of balance is restored.
That’s about to change. This year, superhero films will storm the red carpet like never before. When the nominations are announced January 23, the movie business’ Mason-Dixon Line between middlebrow and lowbrow will be smudged beyond recognition, precipitating a new Oscar era that’s defined by a single, all-encompassing unibrow. For better or worse, awards prognosticators will now have to watch Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “Joker” with an eye toward the Best Actor race, and view the likely success of “Captain Marvel” as a prelude to a legitimate campaign nine months later. For better or worse, studios and filmmakers will now have to conceive of these films in a more critical light, with the understanding that appeasing the fans is no longer the only metric that matters. And while this critic maintains that Marvel titles and their ilk remain less skewed toward art than commerce, it’s still possible to see how this imminent paradigm-shift — which on the surface could seem like a sign of the apocalypse — might actually be for the better, and not the worse.
Sony Pictures Animation
For your consideration in all categories: “Black Panther” is virtually guaranteed to become the first superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture, and is far more deserving of a spot than several of the contenders that were greenlit for the sole purpose of winning Oscar gold. While a Best Director nomination for Ryan Coogler and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Michael B. Jordan are far less assured, neither is beyond the realm of possibility. And the landmark blockbuster — a game-changing film so colossal that it made “Infinity War” feel like a bloated afterthought — is also in the mix for a wide array of below-the-line categories, including Best Score (Ludwig Göransson), Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter), and definitely Best Production Design, for which Hannah Beachler just won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s award.
Speaking of “Infinity War,” Marvel’s über-movie will likely also be mentioned a number of times on the morning of January 23, as it’s poised to compete in many of the same under-the-line categories (especially Best Visual Effects, which — in a year that might as well have not had a “Star Wars” movie — could also make room for “Aquaman”). “Infinity War” is also tipped to land nominations for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Design, and Most Actors. “Deadpool 2” is geared toward laughs rather than spectacle (the crazy thing about this franchise is that Deadpool knows he’s in the movies!), but Céline Dion should never be underestimated for Best Original Song, even if her latest entry (“Out of Ashes”) is a bombastic parody of the power-ballads for which she’s famous.
Last but not least, the Best Animated Feature category is certain to be stacked with superhero movies, as Brad Bird’s “Incredibles 2” will face off against the upstart challenger, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a film that completely reinvigorates the genre, reaffirms why it’s resonating with a diverse modern audience that’s desperate to fight the power, and reiterates to us how these hyper-popular spandex myths are able to reinvent themselves on the fly whenever things get stale.
20th Century Fox/Screenshot
Just when it seemed like “Infinity War” might be the culmination of a cultural phenomenon, that Stan Lee’s death could symbolize the end of an era, and that “Turn Off the Dark” was always going to be the silliest possible subtitle for a Spider-Man adaptation, along comes a delirious postmodern spectacle to remind us that these movies will exist for as long as people need to see themselves reflected in them. Sometimes, that can feel like a threat. Watching “Into the Spider-Verse,” it feels more like a promise. This may be the first year that superhero films compete in major categories across the board, but it certainly won’t be the last.
The incursion of superhero movies on Hollywood’s last remaining artistic stronghold is hard to spin as a good thing, but the fact of the matter is these things aren’t going anywhere. Despite the hype, sources confirm that “Avengers: Endgame” is not, in fact, going to be the last superhero movie. It’s not even going to be the last superhero movie of next summer. Indeed, it’s not even going to be the last superhero movie of next summer that stars Tom Holland as Spider-Man!
There’s no use waiting for the genre to go away, especially now that it’s evolved into a veritable industry of its own. Far more productive is hoping the genre improves, and supporting whatever it takes to encourage that. While below-the-line Oscar nominations have never moved the needle all that much, the broader array of accolades that will be earned by this year’s crop of Avengers and Incredibles — an unprecedented dropping of the Infinity Gauntlet — could be enough to spur the studios toward greater artistic ambitions.
Raising the ceiling on what’s possible for superhero movies will only force their creators to aim higher, risk failure, and strive to be something more than well-compensated popcorn salesmen. It will justifiably reward the makers of bold, proud fare like “Black Panther” and “Into the Spider-Verse” for expanding the medium at a time when most people are eulogizing it, and bringing new audiences into the fold at a time when theaters desperately need to be reaffirmed as a place where people of all kinds can huddle in the darkness and imagine a better world together.