The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences recently announced the nominees for each category in the 91st annual Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars. The Oscars are the last major film award show of awards season and are widely considered to be the most prestigious.
Among this year’s nominees for Best Picture was Black Panther (2018), the first superhero movie in history to be recognized. The only other films to come close were Logan (2017) and 2008’s The Dark Knight. For the former, writer and director James Mangold was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. For the latter, the late Heath Ledger won the award for Best Supporting Actor, joining high-ranking actors like Morgan Freeman, Benicio del Toro, and Michael Caine.
Superhero movies have gained momentum in the eyes of award shows recently, especially after Warner Bros. failed campaign to get Wonder Woman (2017) the Best Picture nod last year.
While Black Panther’s unlikely recognition by the film industry’s high and mighty is undoubtedly a feast for comic book movies, many fans see the nomination as a move to appeal to the film’s breakout popularity and racial representation. To judge whether Black Panther deserves the accolade, fans must evaluate one of two factors:
- Is Black Panther the best comic book movie yet?
- Are this year’s other nominees weaker than usual?
For the first question, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the first place to look. Is Black Panther even the best MCU movie? Iron Man (2008) impressed critics with its improvisational wit and stunning special effects, kicking off a franchise that grew to twenty films in ten years. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) successfully united heroes from independent cinema into a blockbuster of record-breaking commercial success. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) broke the superhero formula to create a surprisingly thought-provoking political thriller. Most recently, fans witnessed the epic Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which gracefully juggled a menagerie of heroes, a brilliantly crafted villain (a CGI one, at that), and arguably the greatest cliffhanger ending of all time.
Outside the MCU, Marvel movies like Spider-Man 2 (2004), Deadpool (2016), and Logan pushed the limits of what a comic book film can be. Spider-Man 2 created a compelling relationship between hero and villain and packed an emotional punch. Deadpool (nominated in 2016 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for a Golden Globe in the Best Comedy or Musical category) proved to be a hilarious and genuinely unique comedy, proving to studios that an R-rated superhero movie can be commercially successful. Logan, building on Deadpool’s success, is a brutal film, both visually and emotionally. It took a hero many fans grew up with and gave him a fitting ending which culminated from Hugh Jackman’s seventeen-year reign as the Wolverine. Logan’s dedicated use of realism in its tone and its characters was a key factor and making it a top contender for the greatest superhero film of all time, yet it was not granted a Best Picture nomination.
On the other side of the comic book aisle, DC’s Dark Knight trilogy garnered widespread critical acclaim, having been helmed by Oscar-nominated director Christopher Nolan. The series’ middle entry, The Dark Knight combined tension, realism, and intense performances to raise the bar for the superhero movies that followed, including Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot’s dominant performance along with eye-catching visuals and an inclusive message lead to a memorable film that some felt deserved award show attention.
Despite the fact that the plethora of comic book films in recent memory that audiences felt was on par with the critically acclaimed ‘arthouse’ films who’s casts and crews normally populate award show ballrooms, none could breach the Best Picture category until now.
What makes Black Panther special? For one, its music and art direction are both unique and useful, evoking a tribal yet electronic feel that matches the title character perfectly. The film’s setting, the fictional nation of Wakanda, adapts the idea of African architecture and society into the bustling center of a modern utopia. No movie can be good without well-written characters, and Black Panther delivers, and then some. Chadwick Boseman breathes to life a powerful yet fragile T’Challa (aka Black Panther), eager to succeed but afraid to fail. Following the death of his beloved father and an uneasy transition to the throne, T’Challa encounters the exiled Erik Killmonger. Killmonger’s lower-class background in America starkly contrasts with the more lavish lifestyles. Wakandan citizens are used to.
Where the movie reaches into Oscars territory, some believe that the conflict in the film over whether Wakanda should use its might and technological advancements to help the world around it, specifically minorities. In the film, Killmonger believes black people have been historically oppressed and marginalized around the world, and it is Wakanda’s responsibility to end this oppression, violently if necessary.
Delving into racial and societal themes is uncommon, if not unheard of, for superhero films, and these themes are part of why Black Panther was so successful. It was also likely why it permeated American culture to the extent that it did. Race-conscious and diverse films typically receive Oscars attention when done well.
Films like Hidden Figures, Fences, and BlackKkKlansman received nominations in the category due to impressive handling of racial topics, with 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight taking home the award. Accepting Oscars attention for these reasons doesn’t necessarily mean pandering to a polarizing issue, it probably means they prefer films that make a serious approach to serious problems, as Black Panther does at times through Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger.
The other films in the Best Picture category this year include Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice which received mixed reviews despite strong central performances. Snubbed by the Academy this year were such films as First Reformed, If Beale Street Could Talk, and You Were Never Really Here, which all received higher scores than both Rhapsody and Vice with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Did Black Panther’s popularity push any of these films out of the slot they deserved? It’s certainly a possibility, but it’s worth noting that out of all the movies nominated, none scored higher on the Tomatometer than Black Panther, which earned an elusive 97%.
Comic book and superhero fans should be excited about Black Panther breaking into the minds of Hollywood’s elite. While it holds a slim chance of winning against heavyweights like Roma, A Star is Born, or The Favourite, it’s still a landmark film in superhero history. It may not entirely be the best in its genre it is still an exceptional film that deserves the consideration of fans and award bodies alike. Black Panther is a great film and gives fans reason to be very excited for the future.