Oscar honoring superheroes? It's not as far fetched as it sounds.
When the initial awards buzz for The Dark Knight started it was entirely focused around the collective desire to memorialize Heath Ledger. Now, with the film becoming an indisputable phenomenon at the box office can the Best Picture shortlist be far behind? Assuming that the latest Batman film can or will be nominated for the movie industry's top honor might sound like fanboy raving but remember: I'm not a fanboy and I haven't been raving. I am however an Oscarologist. And I think it could and very well might happen. Here's why...
Box Office + Raves
Oscar catches a lot of flak each year for preferring serious drama (not usually associated with a pot of gold at the multiplex) over audience approved fare like action films. Ignore for a moment all those pieces speculating that Oscar will be looking for more popular films to reverse their ratings decline... there's no precedent for a sudden shift in AMPAS taste in order to cater to the public. Why would they start now? No, consider this possibility in terms of previous bonafide genre sensations: E.T., The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of the Rings and The Sixth Sense are just a few examples of films that weren't traditional fare that were nevertheless nominated for the top prize on a wave of critical adulation, public love, and zeitgeist hysteria. The Dark Knight fits neatly into that line up in terms of perceived quality, box office gold, and right film/right time impact. One could argue that Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2 had all these things as well but what Spidey's films didn't have was an overlay of the violently somber. Spider-Man played like most adult conceptions of comic books play: bright, colorful, funny, sincerely old fashioned and eye-popping. Batman's pretenses to grandeur, its masculinity and violence, the dramatic heft --these are a lot closer to what Oscar likes to honor once you extract the rubber and capes.
The best precedents might actually be closer to Beauty & the Beast or Chicago. Both were films from genres that hadn't been seriously considered for some time or ever (in the former's case) but both followed up other sensations that had built up critical respect and public interest.
The Little Mermaid prepared the water for Beauty and the Beast's nominations, restoring luster to a genre that was previously dismissed as for children only. And the one-two-three punch of risky auteurial chutzpah that was Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Moulin Rouge! (2000-2001) paved the way for the more mainstream friendly Chicago (2002) to actually win the top prize. Suddenly musicals were artistically serious and hot again. Chicago was a vessel through which AMPAS could nod their heads and tap their feet: yes, musicals are worthy of praise and statues (again).
Nolan + Their Favorite Hero
Unlike many other celebrated youngish directors, the Academy has actually been paying attention to Chris Nolan's output. From Memento to Prestige to Batman Begins, they've thrown his films a nomination here or there. And they've always liked Batman more than other caped crusaders. Even the first Joel Schumacher effort Batman Forever was awarded with three nominations. It's still hard to imagine quite how that one happened.
All of this is not to say that the Picture shortlist will be an easy get for Warner Bros and DC. Oscars are never easy gets. You have to work for them and you have to work smarter and harder than your competition. It's a race with numerous wild cards and variables. The Joker would probably love its potential for chaos.
- Backlash. Excessively praised and hyped films always generate them. There's plenty of time for a real Bat Backlash (there's also plenty of time for a backlash to the backlash to arrive to cancel it out. It's early) and the er... drooling of fanboys (it's as if the motion picture never existed before July 18th) might make all the relatively sane and well documented praise seem guilty by association in the minds of more traditional voters.
- Heath Only. There will certainly be some voters who feel that honoring the late great young actor is enough attention for the film itself.
- Franchise Fatigue. Even though Oscar has been known to honor unbaity phenoms, they're not into honoring sequels unless they've honored predecessors. I suspect this will be the toughest obstacle for the campaign. This is the 6th live action Batman feature in the past 20 years. How will they make it seem like the only one?
- Traditional Goodies. The Fall is hardly ever lacking in traditionally Oscarable flicks. They'll have to pale next to this Batman vs. Joker hit.
- WALL•E. The Dark Knight wasn't the first pre-Fall entry to ignite "could it happen?" Best Pic buzz. Pixar's latest raising of the bar has gone quiet in this week of Batmania but that doesn't mean that cute little trash collector can't still inspire the 6000+ AMPAS members. If there's two non-traditional triumphs in the actual awards race come December, both from the summer, things will get more complicated for both once precursor season kicks in. This shouldn't be the case of course (release dates shouldn't matter) but it is since the critics organizations and awards bodies are all human and are easily swayed by whatever they've just seen.
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