With the 91st Academy Awards having been presented, we've come to the end of the most unpredictable awards season in quite some time, where one of the biggest question marks was just how well Black Panther would do. As the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, Black Panther already made history. With a Best Ensemble win from the Screen Actors Guild, an Oscar for Best Picture was within the realm of plausibility, but thanks to some tight competition, it could have just as easily gone home entirely empty-handed.
The actual results were somewhere between the two extremes, but still reason for fans of Black Panther and of superhero movies in general to be happy. Ryan Coogler's film won three trophies, for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score. This beats The Dark Knight's two awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Editing, and The Incredibles' awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing to stand as the most successful superhero movie ever at the Oscars. These are also the first Oscars awarded to a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Alongside Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse's well-deserved Best Animated Feature win, it was a pretty great night for superhero movies.
While many predicted the stunning but more traditionally Oscar bait-y work in The Favourite to win for Costume and Production Design, you can't argue that Black Panther's wins in those categories weren't extremely well-deserved. Even those who weren't in love with the film as a whole had to admit that the painstaking research and creativity in designing the costumes and world of Wakanda was an extraordinary accomplishment. These wins made history for both superhero movies and for African-Americans in the film industry; Ruth E. Carter became the first black woman to win Best Costume Design, while Hannah Beachler (sharing her award with Jay Hart) was the first black person to even be nominated for Best Production Design.
Best Original Score, awarded to Ludwig Göransson, is somewhat more debatable as a worthy win. It's a great score, probably the best overall in the MCU, but is it really better than Nicholas Britell's score for If Beale Street Could Talk or Alexandre Desplat's work on Isle of Dogs? Musical taste is highly subjective, of course, and even if your favorite score didn't win, it's not worth complaining about Black Panther's success here.
That Black Panther managed three wins indicates that Academy members really loved this film, so as the night went on, a Best Picture win seemed possible. Black Panther lost both Sound Mixing and Sound Editing to Bohemian Rhapsody, and "All the Stars" didn't stand a chance against "Shallow" from A Star is Born. Still, Best Picture had no clear favorite.
The film with the most wins total, Bohemian Rhapsody, would have caused major outrage if it won Best Picture in the post-#MeToo era, due to its credited director Bryan Singer's ongoing controversies. Roma and Green Book had won precursors, but both had major strikes against them, Roma being a foreign language Netflix release and Green Book having no Director nomination. A Star is Born and BlacKkKlansman hadn't won any major guild awards, and The Favourite and Vice were just happy to be nominated. With no one film a sure thing, the time seemed ripe for Black Panther to surprise.
In the end, however, it didn't. Green Book ended up winning Best Picture, a result that's already proven controversial. While many, including Representative John Lewis, have celebrated the Civil Rights-era buddy comedy, others have questioned the film's historical accuracy and handling of racial issues. Some critics (including Spike Lee) have compared Green Book winning the same year as BlacKkKlansman to Driving Miss Daisy winning the year of Do the Right Thing, though at least this time Lee won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
There are many reasons Black Panther didn't manage the Best Picture win. Part of it is genre bias; Black Panther joins the likes of Star Wars, Terminator 2, The Matrix, Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy films that have taken home multiple Oscars, but couldn't manage Best Picture. Only Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and The Shape of Water have managed to conquer that genre bias.
The fact Green Book is the film that beat Black Panther, as opposed to something like BlacKkKlansman or Roma, will inevitably raise questions of how much racial issues played a role in the results. To be fair, the Academy has significantly diversified its membership since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and this year's ceremony was fantastic overall when it came to a diverse selection of winners. Still, old white men still make up a majority of the Academy, and when a film like Green Book that's about racism but is made mostly by and for old white men wins over a cultural phenomenon like Black Panther or a critics' darling like Roma, you can't not wonder if that was a factor.
One additional factor which might have hurt Black Panther is Disney. Yes, the studio campaigned harder for Black Panther than it has for any non-animation Oscar campaign in quite some time, but outside of its former specialty branch Miramax, a Disney film has never won Best Picture. Proof of Disney being a detriment to a Best Picture win, a New York Times article surveying 20 anonymous Oscar voters found that at least some voters who liked Black Panther as a movie did not want to reward Disney at a time when Disney's purchase of 20th Century FOX threatens near-monopolistic control of the movie industry.
Will a superhero film ever win Best Picture? The odds remain low, but in light of Black Panther's Oscar success, they're better than they've ever been. As for what could possibly break through in the future, Marvel and Disney will likely campaign again for Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, though both films seem like they might be a bit too geeky for major Oscar success. Black Panther 2 will certainly get a major push when it comes out, and if it's as good or better than the original, watch out. If Todd Phillips' Joker movie at Warner Bros./DC turns out well, it could be a contender. Hey, the director of Dumb and Dumber just won Best Picture, so why can't the director of The Hangover pull off the same trick?