“Black Panther” received a nomination for best picture Tuesday, becoming the first superhero movie ever to bag that honor. The acknowledgment arrives 10 years to the week after DC’s “The Dark Knight” was snubbed for a best-picture nom, forcing Hollywood to re-examine how it viewed popular fare such as animated films and comic book adaptations.
Christopher Nolan’s brilliant “Dark Knight” — the second film in his Batman trilogy, all starring Christian Bale (a best-actor nominee Tuesday for “Vice”) — would garner a posthumous supporting actor Oscar for Heath Ledger. But that superhero movie’s infamous passing-over for best-picture nominees such as “The Reader” is one of the reasons often cited for why the industry increased the number of nominees in the category from five to 10 (before settling on the current range of five best-picture nominees minimum and 10 maximum).
The irony was that this expansion benefited other types of films — including sci-fi and animation — before a superhero movie finally reaped a nod in 2019. Just one year after “Dark Knight,” Pixar’s animated “Up” received a best-film nom, as did the CGI-heavy “Avatar” and the sociopolitical science-fiction film “District 9.”
Ever since, as superhero movies increasingly dominated the box office, the academy found slots outside of the “big six” categories to salute caped crime fighters. But none of that was particularly novel, years after Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) won for art direction and Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978) won a special-achievement award and was nominated for film editing, sound and score.
Hopes rose, but even the acclaimed “Wonder Woman” wasn’t able to garner a best-picture nom last year, although another superhero movie, “Logan,” landed a nomination for adapted screenplay.
For most of the past decade, in fact, academy voting preferences and superhero movie aesthetics lived in such different universes that a spoof of superhero franchise actors, 2014’s “Birdman,” won a best picture Oscar before any true superhero movie could get a nomination.
But in 2019, the Oscars arguably need Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther” more than superhero movies need the academy’s validation.
The Oscars have watched their broadcast ratings plummet in recent years — last year’s telecast hit a record audience low of 26.5 million — as viewers have gained entertainment options, including streaming services.
At the same time, most of the recent best-picture nominees have not done big business at the box office, leaving the academy to float a new “popular film” category last summer, a desperate-looking bid for audience relevance that quickly sparked backlash and retreat.
Yet in “Black Panther,” which received seven nominations, the Oscars found the perfect fit: Ryan Coogler’s achievement is a beautiful spectacle laced with cultural commentary and political relevance that also happened to gross $1.35 billion worldwide — one of the biggest non-sequels ever. The film, set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, also achieved a groundbreaking degree of representation for a blockbuster movie, both in front of the camera and “below the line” (its nominations included a third costume design nod for Ruth E. Carter and the first production design nod for Hannah Beachler).
So if Disney, which owns both “Black Panther” and ABC (the network airing the Oscars on Feb. 24), doesn’t showcase the powerful superhero franchise during the telecast, it’s at the Mouse House’s own ratings peril.
And that’s not even the company’s only superhero nominee. Disney/Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” is nominated for visual effects, and Disney/Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” is nominated for animated feature — a category that also includes a nominee featuring a Marvel Comics character: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
So, given the 10 nominations total for popular superhero movies, including best picture, the academy could well see a boost in its ratings — with a bit of atonement for its “Dark Knight” blunder as a bonus.