Superhero Movies Aren’t Oscar Worthy Yet, But They Can Be

Superhero Movies Aren’t Oscar Worthy Yet, But They Can Be
Image: Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios

The 2022 Oscars are this weekend, and it’s shaping up to be one of the messiest versions of the annual film awards show for a variety of reasons. Before its controversial category omissions and foolish decision to bring back the “most popular film” category (but this time stupidly dictated by Twitter), one of the most newsworthy things about this year’s Oscars was if Sony and Marvel Studios would be thrown a bone by way of giving Spider-Man: No Way Home a Best Picture nomination. That predictably didn’t happen, though the film has managed to follow in the footsteps of most MCU movies and earn itself a nomination for best VFX alongside Shang-Chi.

What followed was some notable, attention grabbing backlash. Kevin Smith rather vocally thought the film deserved a shot at the crown, if only because it would help boost the ceremony’s dwindling ratings; ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel also weighed in on the supposed snub, calling it “unforgivable.” For a film that’s earned nearly $US2 ($3) billion at the box office and whose star is potentially (read: definitely) locked in for another trilogy of films, part of a larger brand and franchise that’s constantly talked about, you’d think the Oscars were No Way Home’s single chance at being remembered. (It very much isn’t, and earlier this month, won best superhero movie at the Critics Choice Super Awards, in addition to both Andrew Garfield and Willem Dafoe taking home acting awards.)

Oscars season is typically unkind to the superhero genre. The majority of nominations and wins that the genre has netted have been for technical awards like effects and makeup, or if the film is in the supposed “lesser” medium, animation. But when these movies have managed to hit the upper tier of awards for acting, they’ve gone to DC films: Joaquin Phoenix took home best actor for Joker in 2020, a path paved for him in part thanks to Heath Ledger’s posthumous Dark Knight win 2008. Marvel very much wants one of those higher tier awards, and they’ve said as such in so many ways: they had a For Your Consideration campaign for Avengers: Endgame, hoping to get one of several actors in the best supporting actor category. More recently, MCU head Kevin Feige made his feelings on not getting Oscars known late last year, calling out a genre bias that contributed to Black Panther not getting a win for best picture that it was nominated for back in 2019. You can easily imagine that’s why they snatched up Chloé Zhao for Eternals, notably putting her name in the trailer after she took best director Oscar last year for Nomadland.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

It would be nice to see superhero movies take home Oscars for categories beyond makeup and effects, and if more of them recognised that animation can be more than an avenue to set up future storylines or cater to narrower audiences. But for all the hemming and hawing about which superhero movies deserves these big awards, the bigger question should be what the genre can do to actually earn them.

In that regard, it feels like the medium will be largely lacking, because they’ve painted themselves into a corner of being weekly junk food meant to facilitate fancams, social media gifs, and spoiler-filled tweets and videos that you’ll see just before you remember to mute the keywords. (Or, more likely, Twitter users who’ve managed to just work around your muted words.) These films bring in actors who inhabit these roles fairly well, but also feel like they’re being asked to act against computers for a good amount of production — and in some cases, these actors genuinely are and lack the context for what the heck’s meant to be happening in the scene proper. For many of these films (a lot of them from Marvel, frankly), characterization often takes a back seat to the spectacle of watching these pen and ink characters adapted in live action. What depth and interiority these superheroes have is largely offered in brief snippets, so devoted fans can later fill in details where they wish, doing a lot with a little.

And that’s fine! There’s something to be said for enjoying films where the aim is to deliver 2.5 hours of reliable fun, decent music, and set pieces that’ll remind you fondly of an early PS4 action game. I am an admittedly easy mark for superhero films, eyes perking up to the TV whenever an MCU movie is playing on TNT at the gym. At the same time, movies like Logan can prove these movies can be so much more if they slow down and let things play out. Part of the reason The Batman is so enjoyable is that it’s a slower, more deliberate movie than what we usually get. For as easy as it is to say Marvel films are doing spins on kung fu movies or political thrillers, The Batman genuinely commits to being a noir detective story in a way that feels fairly novel. Even Spider-Verse manages to turn its “Spider-Man, but x” hook that could’ve felt extremely commercial into something special and deeply personal in a way that Marvel’s work just doesn’t and hasn’t for quite some time.(I’m hopeful, though: Eternals was a decent attempt at a shakeup, but Doctor Strange 2 seems like it’ll succeed in bringing some much needed variety to the proceedings, as does the eventual Blade film.)

Image: 20th Century FoxImage: 20th Century Fox

Take your mind back to 2021, think of Eternals, and ask yourself: what if this were Marvel’s first movie devoid of action? (Or at the very least, significantly less of it.) What if, after the introductory scene where its characters show off their powers, the film put more focus on them exploring what it means to be around for all of history, to have contributed to humanity’s highs and lows? It’s a movie that, while still having the potential to fizzle out, could’ve been noteworthy for what it was noticeably missing, for being a movie that didn’t ultimately clash with the themes it sets up or have to worry about callbacks and name drops. We won’t know, though, because while still fairly enjoyable, the finished product ultimately has to be all set up for whatever cameo-filled crossover is looming ahead.

Ultimately, that’s what’s holding back Marvel movies from getting the best picture and acting awards they covet so much. There’s a bias against the genre in the Oscars, sure, but the genre currently is rarely willing to go out of its way to be more than enjoyable, popcorn guzzling fun. Until they decide to raise their own bar, they’ll have to settle for breaking box office records and capturing the attention of the world every point of every day.

The 2022 Oscars will air tomorrow on Sunday, March 27.