While the 91st Academy Awards marked major wins for Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it also served also a clear reminder that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has not yet fully embraced the superhero genre as an art form on the same level as period-pieces and prestige dramas.
That isn't to say the genre has been ignored by the Academy entirely; superhero films have been nominated for Academy Awards ever since 1978's Superman starring Christopher Reeve. However, the overwhelming majority of nominations received by the genre across the four decades of movies have been for technical awards, usually for visual effects. Often, these nominations also are awarded to different films, the prevailing assumption that just being nominated by the most prestigious award ceremony in Hollywood is recognition enough.
This also isn't to say there hasn't been progress made by the Academy in increasing its recognition of the superhero genre over the years. One of the first Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature went to 2004's The Incredibles, while 2008's The Dark Knight remains the superhero film to receive the most Academy Award nominations at eight, winning two, including Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker.
This was a historic year for the genre, with ten nominations across four films, seven of which were for Black Panther. The Marvel Cinematic Universe not only garnered Marvel Studios its most nominations in a single year, but also its first ever Oscar wins across 20 films produced over the course of the past decade. The MCU film was also nominated for the ceremony's top honor, Best Picture, the first ever superhero film to be in contention for prestigious award, though it ultimately lost to Green Book.
While Black Panther was the top choice of movie audiences polled by Fandango and USA Today to win the top award, it was never seen as a particularly serious contender to win Best Picture. This isn't to diminish Black Panther's accomplishment or directly compare it to the other films nominated this year; whether Black Panther is better than Green Book is a completely different discussion. But Black Panther is the latest film to go against decades of tradition and self-fulfilling expectation the Academy has built up for itself.
For years the Academy has been criticized for largely ignoring films outside of traditionally acclaimed genres. Sci-fi, horror and comedy have been largely overlooked by the Academy in favor of dramas, historical fiction and lavish musicals. Among the often snubbed genres, of course, is superhero films, with Black Panther getting the nod against the odds, buoyed by labor of love efforts from filmmaker Ryan Coogler, an impressive ensemble cast, gorgeous design and audience-pleasing acclaim as it garnered industry awards and nominations across various production guilds and other entertainment organizations.
This past August, the Academy attempted to appeal to wider audiences while retaining its own tendency to give top honors to traditional award season fare by proposing an award for Best Popular Film. Theorized to have been created after being criticized for ignoring 2017's Wonder Woman completely and for the early Academy Award buzz going towards Black Panther, the planned award addition was ultimately cancelled to due fan outcry. The proposed award was a pretty bold attempt for the Academy to have its cake and eat it too, creating a category entirely for genres that the organization tends to overlook entirely.
It's unlikely the Academy will make a serious change in its bias towards popular genre films in the immediate future. Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are among the most acclaimed superhero films ever made, but while they're certainly deserving of the awards they won, they hardly exceeded expectation by the end of the night. Marvel Studios or Warner Bros. would really have to pull out all the stops for their future films to get Best Picture nods. While certainly not an impossibility, the Academy traditionally has an even bigger bias against sequels and continuations of established cinematic universes would have more riding against them at future award shows.
Neither Black Panther nor Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse's achievements at this past weekend's Academy Awards should be understated. Both films exceeded the conventional expectations of the superhero genre and brought home Oscar gold in addition to a historic nomination for superhero films everywhere. Despite this, the Academy still has to overcome its own notorious bias of popular genre films to recognize superhero movies as worthy of the top honor over more traditional award season fare. Regardless of the controversy facing Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, both stood better chances than Black Panther of taking Best Picture. Perhaps as the Academy continues to diversify its membership, the likelihood of a superhero film one day taking the top honor could be more likely but, as it currently stands, a rare nomination is as good as the genre will get at the Academy Awards for the foreseeable future.