As of this writing, the 2018 Oscar nominations haven’t been announced, but already the awards season has proven surprisingly fruitful for superhero movies. Wonder Woman has a Best Picture nomination from the Producer’s Guild, while The Lego Batman Movie has a Best Animated Picture nomination from the same group. Logan‘s managed a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination from the Writer’s Guild and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Patrick Stewart at the Critics’ Choice Awards. How well these films do with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remains to be seen.
Generally, the Academy doesn’t go for superhero films. The box office is usually reward enough for massive blockbusters. Still, there are times when the degree to which the Academy snubs the genre at the Oscars borders on the ridiculous. Then there are the exceptions to this rule. Sometimes superhero films do win Oscars. Usually it’s in the technical categories like effects or makeup, but on rare occasions, superhero films win big. This list covers eight times superhero (or superhero-adjacent) movies won Oscars and seven of the most egregious superhero snubs in the awards’ history. Which of 2017’s great superhero films will join the former category, and which will join the latter?
15. WON: SPIDER-MAN 2
Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie was nominated for Best Sound and Best Visual Effects in 2003 but lost those awards to Chicago and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers respectively. Two years later, the LOTR juggernaut was over and Spider-Man 2 improved on its predecessor in every single way. The sequel scored three nominations, for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects.
It lost the two sound categories but won deservedly for Visual Effects. The CGI webslinging, though it might look dated now, was a noted improvement over the first film’s cartoonier animation. The practical puppetry effects used for Doctor Octopus’ tentacles, meanwhile, haven’t aged at all; those still look fantastic. All the different elements came together for some of the best superhero action scenes put to film.
14. WON: THE INCREDIBLES
Of course The Incredibles won Best Animated Film at the 2005 Oscars! What else would have won? Shrek 2? F—ing Shark Tale? The Incredibles was without question the best animated movie of 2004. A case can be made that it’s the best film in any medium that year, but the odds of cartoons getting a Best Picture nomination, especially back in the five nominee era, were so slim that it’s best just to be happy with the recognition it got.
The Incredibles got more Oscar attention than most cartoons or superhero movies ever recieve. It won Best Sound Editing, the only time an animated film ever won that particular award. It was also nominated for Best Sound Mixing and, most impressively, Best Original Screenplay, making it the fourth animated film (after Toy Story, Shrek and Finding Nemo) and the only superhero film to get a writing nomination.
13. ROBBED: IRON MAN
Iron Man might not seem like a movie that would ever have any shot as an Oscar contender, but then you remember Johnny Depp got a Best Actor nomination for the first Pirates of the Caribbean. If one career-revitalizing turn by an eccentric character actor elevating an otherwise above-average popcorn flick into a cultural phenomenon can get a nomination, why not another?
Robert Downey Jr.’s Best Actor snub for Iron Man stings less considering he did manage a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Tropic Thunder the same year. It’s also likely with another superhero film dominating the conversation for the 2008-09 awards season that the Academy wasn’t ready to embrace yet another movie in the genre. It didn’t sink in at the time just how much the love for this performance would reshape the future of blockbuster movies.
12. WON: THE DARK KNIGHT
So how do you win an Oscar for acting in a superhero movie? You die. OK, that’s cynical. One would hope that had Heath Ledger lived, he still would have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar on quality alone for his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. The tragedy of his death, however, undeniably shaped the conversation around his work and gave The Dark Knight an extra push as both an event movie and an awards contender.
The Dark Knight also won the Oscar for Best Sound Editing. The film was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. That’s two Oscar wins from eight nominations, a record haul for a superhero movie (if we don’t count a certain borderline case a few years later).
11. ROBBED: THE DARK KNIGHT
Yes, The Dark Knight has to be on both lists, for as exciting as its wins and nominations were, so much conversation surrounded the nominations it didn’t get. It didn’t get in for Best Picture in a year where The Reader, a movie with a mere 61% Rotten Tomatoes score, made the cut. Christopher Nolan didn’t get in for Best Director either. Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score were also worthy considerations that didn’t lead to a nomination.
The outrage over The Dark Knight‘s Best Picture snub led the Academy to expand the field of Best Picture nominees the following year in an attempt to get more popular films nominated. Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, got snubbed from Best Director again in 2011 even as his film Inception got in for Best Picture. It remains to be seen if the director’s branch of the Academy will finally embrace Nolan for Dunkirk.
10. ROBBED: THE AVENGERS
The Academy was never going to go for The Avengers in any significant way. It was too lightweight, too geeky, too transparent a corporate branding exercise to ever be taken seriously at the Oscars. Its only nomination was for Best Visual Effects, the sort of category it was a “no duh” to nominate it in. And yet, even if its ambitions were lower-brow than the typical Oscar movie, The Avengers executed its goals so exceedingly well, it deserved to be in competition.
You can argue whether or not The Avengers was Best Picture-worthy, but it was certainly more nomination-worthy than Les Miserables. Mark Ruffalo would have also been a worthy Best Supporting Actor nomination. The one category it absolutely deserved a nomination in is Best Adapted Screenplay. The way Joss Whedon’s script balanced multiple character arcs, great dialogue and an amazing climax absolutely deserved awards.
9. ROBBED: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
The other big superhero blockbuster of 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, didn’t even get a single Oscar nomination like The Avengers did. TDKR was a more divisive film than its predecessor The Dark Knight, and it was inevitable it wouldn’t be as successful at the Oscars. Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway were great but neither’s performance was as instantly iconic as Heath Ledger’s. Still, NOTHING for the film?
Christopher Nolan’s improved his skills as an action director with every blockbuster he’s made since Batman Begins. Whatever you think of its story, TDKR is an undeniable technical achievement of the sort that should have earned some of the below-the-line craft nominations. Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects and the two sound categories all would have been worthy.
8. WON: BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) may or may not be a superhero movie (it all depends on how you interpret that ending), but it’s certainly about superhero movies. The experimental dark comedy, shot to look like a single extended take, stars Michael Keaton (playing off his Batman persona) as an ex-superhero actor trying to be taken seriously on Broadway.
Birdman makes fun of everything, both the “high culture” of theatre and the “low culture” of superhero movies. Some fans found it too cynical about the latter. While director Alejandro G. Iñárritu doesn’t hate all superhero movies (he consults on Guillermo Del Toro’s films), his hyperbolic description of pop culture’s overwhelming obsession with superheroes as “cultural genocide” earned him criticism. Still, Birdman won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, the sound mixing and sound editing were also nominated.
7. ROBBED: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Guardians of the Galaxy was nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. It should have been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Writer’s Guild agreed, but the Academy snubbed it. This isn’t even a close competition where it lost out to some equally worthy films. Guardians‘ screenplay is better than most of if not all of the ones nominated at the 2015 Oscars.
American Sniper inexplicably skips over the most interesting part of the story it’s adapting. The Theory of Everything‘s a bland paint-by-numbers biopic. That year’s winner, The Imitation Game, works on its own merits but could have been so much more powerful if it stuck closer to the actual history. People either love or hate Inherent Vice. That leaves Whiplash, great but not even an actual adaptation (the short film the Academy ruled it “adapted from” was made after the feature screenplay was complete).
6. WON: BIG HERO 6
Once again, a Disney-released animated superhero film won the Best Animated Feature category. Unlike The Incredibles, though, Big Hero 6 didn’t really deserve it. Sure, it’s a fine formulaic superhero film for kids, but aside from the charming Baymax robot and some well-presented themes about overcoming grief, there’s just not much there for older viewers who’ve seen this formula done better elsewhere.
Even ignoring the big film that wasn’t nominated in in 2015 (we’ll get to that later), it was arguably the weakest film in its category. Only the artistically ambitious but awkwardly written Boxtrolls gives it competition for worst in the category. Nothing in Big Hero 6 matches the imagination of Song of the Sea, the poetry of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya or even the spectacle of How to Train Your Dragon 2. It just won because Disney seems to win this category by default.
5. WON: SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE
“You will believe a man can fly,” the posters declared. Judging by its Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects, Richard Donner’s movie Superman: The Movie lived up to its lofty goal. This was during a time when the Academy didn’t always give out a special effects award, so to win a special achievement award a film’s effects had to be truly astounding. The flying effects, far beyond any previous attempts to adapt Superman in live-action, fit the bill.
The first great superhero movie, Superman: The Movie got additional nominations for Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. John Williams, having already won for Star Wars the previous year and Jaws two years before that, lost Original Score to Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Run score. Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter beat Superman for Sound and Editing.
4. WON: BATMAN
Tim Burton’s Batman recieved only a single Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction. While an enormous hit that revitalized the superhero genre, the 1989 Batman wasn’t quite as universally beloved as Superman: The Movie. It’s an odd fusion of auteurist sensibilities and commercial mandates, a movie that’s solid entertainment but not really the great adaptation of the comics that fans were hoping for.
For all its many flaws, though, one could not deny the movie was downright gorgeous to look at. Tim Burton is very much the art director’s director, whose films always look fantastic even when the scripts are lacking. While Batman only had one nomination at the Oscars, that nomination easily translated into a win, beating the likes of The Abyss and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
3. ROBBED: HELLBOY
For sheer visual beauty, Hellboy certainly deserved more than the zero nominations it got at the 2005 Oscars. Blame its lack of recognition on its relative obscurity at the time. The movie was based on a lesser-known comic and didn’t make much at the box office. Guillermo Del Toro had already established himself as a great director with 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, but it wouldn’t be until 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth that audiences and the Academy would really take notice.
Is it a Best Picture contender? Absolutely not. Should it have been a contender in Best Makeup, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography? Absolutely, and it’s a shame such loving craft got overlooked. The Academy did somewhat correct its oversight by nominating Hellboy II: The Golden Army for Best Makeup in the 2009 awards (it lost to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
2. ROBBED: THE LEGO MOVIE
It features Batman, so it counts as a “superhero movie” for the purposes of this list. You can consider this a placeholder in the possible event The Lego Batman Movie is also robbed of a Best Animated Feature nomination (it’s already been snubbed in some major precursor awards). But yes, The Lego Movie not only should have been nominated for Best Animated Feature, it should have won.
Other than Ava Duvernay and David Oyelowo‘s egregious snubs for Selma, The Lego Movie‘s snub from Best Animated Feature was all anyone could talk about when the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced. Maybe it was a “Ben Affleck for Argo” situation where people didn’t put it on their ballots assuming others would. Maybe it was animation branch insider politics or just a reluctance to take a toy-based movie seriously. At least “Everything is Awesome” got up for Best Original Song!
1. WON: SUICIDE SQUAD
Ah yes, “the Oscar-winning Suicide Squad.” That phrase brought to you by the same category which gave you “the Oscar-nominated Norbit” and “the Oscar-nominated Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.” The Makeup and Hairstyling branch seems to play by their own rules. They only nominate three films where other categories hold five, and their selections go far off from your typical Oscar-bait.
Suicide Squad‘s competition for the award consisted of Star Trek Beyond, a movie which had impressive make-up but not as many people saw, and A Man Called Ove, a Swedish film way less people saw. That explains why it won. You might not like that Jared Leto’s Joker’s forehead tattoos won an Oscar, or that the DCEU won one before the MCU has, but that’s the facts. You gotta deal with it.
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