The popularity of comic book films has been nothing short of astronomical over the past decade, with the releases raking in billions of dollars and thriving within their expansive cinematic universes. However, as popular as these works are, a brass ring has evaded them: recognition by the Academy of Motion Pictures.
As much as fans adore Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” the old-school motif “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or Gal Gadot’s fierce debut as Wonder Woman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” none of those films was worthy of crashing the Academy Awards. When a superhero film has managed an Oscar nod, it’s been in a technical category, like visual effects, sound editing and makeup, or in a single, posthumous instance, for best supporting actor, recognizing Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight.”
However, the 2017 awards season could bring the best chance to date for a superhero film to seize serious Oscar gold — that is, in multiple major categories — with “Logan,” Hugh Jackman farewell to his career-defining role as Wolverine.
Months before the Fox sequel arrived in March, fans had a lot of high expectations for Jackman’s final turn as the character he’s played for more than 17 years. And while superhero films aren’t usually looked at for high-profile Oscar nominations, this could be the first to make the Academy realize the potential the genre holds.
If there’s a common trait shared by superhero films, it’s that they often don’t feel real, which of course makes sense given their source material. However, “Logan” is different. It’s grounded, raw. Yes, there are mutant powers and savage action, but the film is much more of an emotional journey than a physical one, separating “Logan” from its contemporaries.
Despite being a story about superhumans, director James Mangold’s film is more concerned with the human experience. No matter how powerful one may seem, there is always an end. Yet, it simultaneously touches on the ideas of hope, redemption and the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. That’s especially the case for Wolverine, who has nothing left to fight for and knows only loss. However, the timely arrival of Laura (played by Dafne Keen, who deserves Oscar consideration for her beautifully understated performance) provides the aged Logan with a sense of purpose — something he’d lost long ago. The emotional, redemptive journey is told in such a unique way and with a strong, central narrative that it demands Academy Award recognition.
Throughout the film, Mangold does a fantastic job of showing, rather than telling, us Logan’s situation. Seeing Wolverine’s many scars as his healing factor fails him, the way he struggles to extend his claws, or even the pained he walks, Jackman visually conveys the message of someone living day by day in a bleak world, the wait of his own past weighing heavily on his shoulders. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that actually benefits from our having seen his character in his prime in earlier X-Men films, full of energy and a boundless ability to withstand any and all injuries.
And then there’s the Alzheimer’s-stricken Charles Xavier, played (again, for the final time) by Patrick Stewart, who suffers seizures that result in telepathic attacks on anyone within a certain range. As he mumbles to himself and behaves erratically, we see him reduced from bold leader of the X-Men to a state where he is fully dependent on Logan. It’s jarring, and powerful to witness. Stewart has played Professor Xavier for close to two decades, and has always thrived in the role. To see him display such a different side of the character, one reduced from powerful mentor to a feeble and emotionally vulnerable man, speaks volumes to Stewart’s abilities. The struggles Logan and Xavier face throughout the film bring a humanizing quality to two usually powerful characters. And while the story is solid, the bottom line is that the audience wouldn’t have cared half as much about their story were it not for the Oscar-caliber performances by Jackman and Stewart.
It might seem completely out of the question for a film like “Logan” to even sniff the Academy Award spotlight. However, it wouldn’t be as far out of left field as some past winners. For instance, Kathy Bates, who played the demented Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” the psychological thriller based on the novel by Stephen King, won the 1990 Academy Award for best bctress. That was surprising, particularly because she faced competition from the likes of Anjelica Huston (“The Grifters”), Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman”), Meryl Streep (“Postcards from the Edge”) and Joanne Woodward (“Mr. & Mrs. Bridge”). One might not think a psychotic woman holding an author with two broken legs hostage and further hobbling him would be deemed an Oscar-worthy film, but Bates’ nomination and win demonstrates the unpredictability that can occur if critics buzz loud enough to catch the eyes of the Academy.
The same can also be said of Marisa Tomei, whose performance in the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny” earned her an Academy Award for best supporting actress. That was perhaps more shocking than Bates’ victory, as comedies rarely receive that kind of attention from the Academy. It goes to show there’s a precedent for surprise nominations, and winners, especially if the film receives enough attention from critics. Whose to say that next surprise can’t be “Logan”?
Of course, this isn’t the first time fans were clamoring for a comic book film to draw the gaze of the Oscars. May hoped last year that “Deadpool” would be the superhero to finally crack best picture. But for all of that, its chances were pretty slim. Bottom line is, as perfectly as Ryan Reynolds played the Merc With A Mouth, it was going to take more than fourth wall-breaking and superhero satire to propel a comic book movie into Oscar conversation.
The success of “Logan” has managed to push the boundaries of superhero films. It could be the start of a trend toward more mature and complex features, particularly within the X-Men franchise, whose last two outings have defied the norms of the genre. While it remains to be seen what accolades “Logan” might receive in the coming year, but Oscar recognition should be among them. Got it, bub?