What does Black Panther’s historic Oscar nomination mean to the future of superhero films?

Well, it finally happened.

Yes, that’s right. Black Panther has been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. After decades of snubs and ignorance, the King of Wakanda’s billion-dollar box office and cultural impact has broken the barrier of superhero films and become the first comic book film nominated for Best Picture. Well done Academy- you’ve actually gotten me interested in this year’s show. Will Black Panther win? Of course it won’t. But what does this nomination mean for the future of superhero films and the Academy Awards?

How did we get here?

It’s 2009, and the five Best Picture nominees have been announced. But where’s The Dark Knight? Despite Heath Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor nod (and eventual win) and seven other nominations, Christopher Nolan’s epic crime saga does not make the cut for Best Picture. The outrage is so huge the Academy make one of the best decisions they have ever made- expand the top prize to ten films. Whilst ten films have never actually been nominated, genre films have now made the list including Inception, Arrival, Get Out and now Black Panther. But it took a bit longer for comic book films to be appreciated.

Fast forward nine years and James Mangold’s Logan has gone down as one of the most beloved films of 2017. Geeks pay attention, expecting a Best Picture nod or at least the skills of the actors, especially Patrick Stewart, to be appreciated. The result is both a disappointment and a sign of things to come. The script gets nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay as its sole nomination. Whilst it doesn’t win, the nomination is still something. The efforts of James Mangold and co have been recognised and superhero films have been recognised beyond technical achievements.

But of course these aren’t the only films that have paved the way for Tuesday’s historic nomination. Tim Burton’s Batman achieved an Oscar for its Production Design (it’s Burton, what do you expect?) whilst 15 years later Spider-Man 2 (the greatest film based on Marvel property EVER, and that is a fact) wins Best Visual Effects. Technicals yes, but still awards. Of course we know about the legendary performance of Heath Ledger that garnered him a Best Supporting Actor and, surprising everyone, the critically reviled and widely mocked Suicide Squad (I like it- don’t kill me), WINS Best Makeup, although to be fair the award was well earnt as the makeup was very good. So the Oscars have always been aware of the genre, and give out mandatory nominations to films like Guardians of the Galaxy for special effects in order to seem “cool”. On the animated side, The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 both win the award for Best Animated Film, with Into the Spider-Verse hopefully joining them soon. In short, the Academy know superhero films exist, but don’t feel like wanting them near “real awards”. Again, until today.

Just a superhero film? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the SEVEN OSCAR NOMINATIONS and the billion dollar box office.

Why was Black Panther nominated?

I can determine several reasons why Black Panther was chosen. Outside of its obvious merits as a film there are several things that made it a dead cert for nomination-

Its impact

Black Panther dominated the cultural landscape of 2018 to such an extent even Infinity War was overshadowed by the hype generated two months before. I’ve discussed this before when I looked at the film’s Oscar chances last year and it turns out I was correct. Black Panther wasn’t just another superhero film, it was something bigger, and miraculously the Academy recognised this.

A weaker year than usual, plus being one of the most acclaimed films of the year

Last year Logan and Wonder Woman, two films that recieved Oscar buzz, was in opposition to a very diverse and strong list of contenders, including the Master of Horror himself Guillermo del Toro. This year however has been acknowledged as a weaker Oscar season, allowing the critically acclaimed, beloved smash hit to take its place in superhero film history as the inaugural superhero Best Picture nominee. In a better year, could Black Panther have secured a nomination? Uncertain, but it’s worth speculating.

The Academy needing viewing figures and good PR

Let’s be honest, the Oscars are always a PR nightmare but this year has had immensely poor pre-air discussion. From the Kevin Hart debacle to the various controversies about other nominees, 2019’s Oscar season has been a disaster. The cynical film critic may look at Black Panther’s nomination as an attempt to deflect bad press and get some publicity, although I doubt it. The viewing figures also need to increase, and nominating a Marvel film will certainly help that. Whilst I like to believe the film was nominated on its own merits and not just to get higher viewing figures and be seen as “cool”, this is a likely factor.

What does this hold for the future?

No doubt Kevin Feige, Ryan Coogler and the rest of Marvel Studios are absolutely delighted at this nomination and whilst there is only a microscopic chance it’ll win Best Picture I can guarantee at least one of the seven nominations will go to Black Panther. And with Infinity War having a high chance of scoring a Visual Effects award, Marvel Studios WILL get their first Oscar in February. With this in mind, the future of the comic book movie landscape, and genre storytelling will be heavily impacted by Black Panther’s nomination.

Marvel themselves will almost certainly prioritise the characters of Wakanda in the future, keeping them away from the wider universe barring crossovers. In terms of the other films, I can see Endgame being in a similar situation next year, with perhaps more nominations and a possible win, and as for the rest of Phase 4 I can expect Marvel will try to create a Black Panther-like success every time. Whilst the MCU is very very good there are some weaker films such as Iron Man 2 and The Dark World, and whilst the Ant-Man films are really fun they aren’t exactly compelling narratives. With the Academy now paying attention to them, Marvel will unquestionably focus on making each film as good as Black Panther and create them with the same amount of emotional heft and narrative resonance to strike gold every time. Perhaps darker arcs such as Kraven’s Last Hunt will strike for Oscar gold and with the acquisition of the X-Men some really heavy material will become available for Marvel. As for the Distinguished Competition? Whilst DC is internally self destructing, the recent success of Aquaman is good news for the studio. The two companies respect each other immensely and Marvel will definitely want their rivals to catch up to them. Competition breeds creativity- in fact it was the desire to be different from the more financially succesful Marvel that created the DC renaissance in the 80’s, with Alan Moore and Frank Millar amongst others redefining the idea of the graphic novel. Warner Bros will try to make their Black Panther- they came close with Wonder Woman- but they’ll hopefully try again. Will the solo Joker film be up for Best Picture? Will they get Tim Burton and Michael Keaton together again to work on The Dark Knight Returns? Will we get a Swamp Thing film based on the legendary Moore run? Or Gaiman’s Sandman? The possibilities from both studios is endless.

Genre filmmakers will also benefit from this nomination. Now, no matter what genre you work in, you can be rewarded. It’s very enlightening. As del Toro’s Oscar win and Black Panther’s nomination proves working in comic books is no longer a stigma and this is very good news for the hundreds of creators who wish to work in genre storytelling. Whilst it’s highly unlikely Marvel Studios will walk away with a Best Picture victory, if Peter Jackson proved anything it’s that hard work WILL be rewarded no matter what genre you tackle. Black Panther’s nomination is enough to prove the comic book stigma has been broken- now it’s time for the studios to keep the stigma down by producing films which even the snobbiest film critic will have to appreciate. It’s exciting times to be a comic book fan.

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