While the “Avengers: Endgame” euphoria continues, don’t get your hopes up about seeing the movie wind up with major award nominations next January. Like all Marvel entries, “Endgame” will be dogged by its comic book origins, as well as being the 22nd Marvel movie.
Every year, the studios take their best genre successes and try to push them beyond contending in just the technical categories. Oscar campaigners want to convince critics, guilds, and Oscar voters that their movie rises to the level of art. But it’s rare for fantasy, horror, thriller, action, or comic-book movies to pass over to the Best Picture side.
Sequels, with rare exceptions, don’t do well at the Oscars. “You lose points for previous characters and plot points,” said one Oscar strategist, who thinks studio directors for hire on a franchise are at a disadvantage. “The Academy always favors auteurs.”
If Marvel had a shot at the big time it was “Black Panther,” which was the first standalone movie about that character, and whose writer-director Ryan Coogler had ambitions to make it more than an average Marvel movie. He succeeded: “Black Panther” marked a cultural shift, was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three, for Production Design, Costume Design and Score.
That’s the way even the absolute best genre movies roll at the Oscars: they win tech awards. Even the JK Rowling “Harry Potter” series landed 12 technical nominations over eight movies — and never won. Agreed: Marvel movies are not average. And the genius behind Marvel is arguably Hollywood’s finest producer working today, Kevin Feige. He’s the one who put all those cards on the walls at Marvel years ago and envisioned what we know as the MCU. He’s the architect who oversaw the building and finishing and distributing of 22 related blockbusters, without missing a beat. And he should be in line for the coveted Honorary Oscar, the Irving G. Thalberg award.
Even “Black Panther” and Patty Jenkins’ DC achievement “Wonder Woman,” with powerful historic numbers and popularity and reviews behind them, could not overcome the Academy bias against comic book movies, and genre films in general.
Despite its B-movie status, Universal threw its full support behind “Get Out,” which scored four Oscar nominations and won Best Original Screenplay, because writer-director Jordan Peele took the horror thriller to a deeper, thoughtful, socio-cultural place, giving it mainstream credibility.
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Yes, back in 2009, the sci-fi adventure “Avatar” got close to a Best Picture win, because James Cameron is an established auteur and the innovative technical achievement marked many firsts. But its three wins out of ten nods were all technical, and Cameron lost Best Director to old flame Kathryn Bigelow.
In 2016, auteur George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” broke the mold by landing 10 nominations including Picture and Director, racking up six eventual wins. But the cinematic actioner did not land acting nominations for the magnificent Charlize Theron or Tom Hardy, whose roles were virtually without dialogue. And it did not win Picture or Director.
In 2018, fantasy “The Shape of Water” scored Best Picture, even with a scaley aquaman as the romantic lead. That’s again because Guillermo del Toro was the resident auteur with artistic cred. Action adventure “The Revenant,” you say? Alejandro González Iñárritu commands respect.
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Then there’s the finale of “The Lord of the Rings,” the culmination of the VFX and monster-packed Peter Jackson fantasy trilogy. Back in 2004, “The Return of the King” astoundingly won all eleven awards for which it was nominated. Again, in this case there’s not only a bona fide auteur at the helm delivering never-before-seen CGI spectacle, but a respected literary source, J.R.R. Tolkien.
With “Endgame” you have the Russo brothers. Joe and Anthony Russo have done a fine job with their Marvel movies, no doubt, from “Captain America” entries “Winter Soldier” and Civil War” to “Avengers” chapters “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” But anyone mounting an Oscar campaign for this movie has to deal with the perception that while hugely successful, the Russos fall into a Marvel assembly line. Hollywood sees Feige as taking top talent and squeezing what he needs from them with support from the Marvel creative team, which mostly precludes a personal vision. Writers Joss Whedon and Coogler, at least, managed to escape that perception.
To date, the Russos boast a couple of low-budget features (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “You, Me and Dupree”) and a lot of television credits (“Arrested Development,” “Carpoolers,” “Community”). But their output, while it was impressive to the discerning eye (see: Kevin Feige), does not place them in the ranks of respected auteurs. Going forward, they are in a great position to command top studio projects. But if Coogler couldn’t land a directing Oscar nod, neither will they.
“Endgame” doesn’t boast the tech cred that “Black Panther” did, mainly because it’s not trying to do much that’s new. The costumes, environments, look and score are much the same; the movie revisits places the characters have been before. The most astonishing visual effect is ILM’s animation of Mark Ruffalo’s mo-cap performance as The Hulk. Mainly the movie centers on the emotional crises of its characters. That’s its main strength.
Which brings us to the beloved Marvel character actors who have earned such raves this round. Again, genre nods in acting categories are few and far between. Yes, back in 2009, Heath Ledger won a rare posthumous acting Oscar for “The Dark Knight.” In 2014, Sandra Bullock landed a Best Actress nomination for Alfonso Cuaron’s space opera “Gravity” (10 nominations, seven wins including Director, but not Actress or Picture). In 2015, Matt Damon broke out of the sci-fi box with a Best Actor nomination for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (seven nominations, including Best Picture, no wins). In 2017, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” scored eight nominations including Best Picture but notably missing was Amy Adams. (It only won Best Sound Editing.)
In “Endgame,” only two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. (“Chaplin,” “Tropic Thunder”) has a remote shot at a Supporting Actor slot. That’s because actors will recognize that Iron Man/Tony Stark has a poignant emotional arc, from skeletal, pale and life-threatened at the start (rescued by the film’s resident deus ex machina, Captain Marvel) to happy family man, to the ultimate sacrificing hero. Maybe.
Finally, “Endgame” is earning the ultimate kudo: record-breaking global ticket sales. And that’s how the Academy tends to look at genre franchises like “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” James Bond, “Mission: Impossible” and “Avengers.” Their box office is the best revenge.
With their ingestion of Fox, Marvel distributor Disney may also face another obstacle: an industry backlash to their new market dominance. Come next year, Academy members may realize that Netflix wasn’t the only Hollywood behemoth to fear.