January 13, 2018
Batman’s failure a decade ago just might vault his DC teammate Wonder Woman to success now.
As the 2018 Oscars nomination balloting concludes Friday, it bears noting that no true superhero film – including 2008’s acclaimed The Dark Knight – has ever been nominated for the best picture prize.
Yes, despite all the attention paid to the box-office domination of superhero cinema in recent years – six of the top 11 films in 2017 sprung from caped comic books, for instance – the Spandex set still cannot quite get invited to the biggest dance.
Sure, superhero movies have received dozens of nominations for music and makeup, sound and score, but best picture has proved elusive even for such well-regarded hits as Superman and Iron Man. The nominated 1985 drama Kiss of the Spider Woman had a far better shot politically than any of the Spider-Man movies; 2004’s stellar The Incredibles had to settle for best animated feature (as well as sound and screenplay nods); and it was a biting satire of the superhero-performance business, Birdman, that actually won the big Oscars prize for 2014.
The irony, of course, is that Birdman so smartly played off of star Michael Keaton’s own history as a big-screen Batman, which itself had kicked off the second wave in superhero film. And the extended success of Batman on screen led to perhaps the best superhero film ever, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Up until The Dark Knight (for which Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar), as fans know, only five films were nominated for best picture each year. And it was the outcry over Dark Knight being snubbed in 2009 that, many industry observers believe, led the Academy to expanding the best picture nomination field to a maximum of 10 titles.
Which brings us to today. The Dark Knight rule change hasn’t benefited a superhero film … yet. But 2017 offered two hugely popular superhero movies – Wonder Woman and Logan – that merit serious consideration in the best picture race.
What marks Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and James Mangold’s Logan are not simply stellar performances, great chemistry and engaging action. Both beautifully shot films nod openly to their influences from other genres, as Wonder Woman borrows from screwball comedies and the derring-do adventure of Indiana Jones, and Logan aesthetically quotes such Westerns as Shane and Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy.
Such genre cross-pollination might make both films more appealing to Academy voters who otherwise wouldn’t look twice as superhero fare.
And Wonder Woman has the intangibles of timing that could elevate its chances. On Thursday night, Jenkins presented a Critics’ Choice award to her Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot. That moment reflected both history – this is the highest-grossing film ever by a solo woman director – and the future, as Gadot’s positive speech spoke to what challenges lie ahead in this #MeToo era.
Working in Wonder Woman‘s favor, too, is that no clear front-runner has yet emerged from the awards season so far.
Over at Forbes, Mark Hughes’s handicapping of the best picture race suggests that four films are locks for nominations (Call Me by Your Name, Dunkirk, The Post and The Shape of Water), and two more titles are “highly likely” to join them (Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). That leaves four more slots maximum. Hughes includes Wonder Woman among seven films that could well vie for those spots – even as he says that he thinks only eight nominees will get the call this year.
That gives Wonder Woman a narrow window for success. But then again, the most iconic female superhero is long accustomed to beating the odds – even if she must push some of the old guard aside to triumph.