A little over ten years ago when “Iron Man” and “Dark Knight” didn’t make it into the Oscars, people asked a valid question: Just because characters wear capes and have elaborate powers (or utility belts), does that mean that superhero films are lesser than? The Oscars aren’t the only ceremony and they aren’t everything when it comes to movies, but they do get us thinking about the concept of which films are seen as art and which films aren’t. For a long time the gatekeepers of culture have excluded superhero films and it’s not hard to see why: Was “Flash Gordon” (the inspiration for “Star Wars”) or the Christopher Reeeves “Superman” films anything but popcorn entertainment?
The Tim Burton Batman films tried to do something stylistically different but it seemed more like a weird director embracing his weirdness and putting a personal stamp on a series than making serious films. When Christopher Nolan started his “Dark Knight” trilogy, he appreciated Burton’s efforts to heighten Bruce Wayne/Batman as a realistic figure but he felt that Gotham was still too fantastical.
By the time, Nolan’s trilogy came around, superhero films were starting to become serious. In the 2000s, “X-Men” cast some of the best actors of its time and there was nothing ironic or campy about its presentation. “Spider-Man” had a little tongue-in-cheek playfulness but it wasn’t zany by any means.
When “Dark Knight” started winning awards and climbing to the top of critics’ lists, people had their hopes that the culmination of serious superhero films could account for something on Hollywood’s biggest test of taste. One champion of “Dark Knight” at the time (I can’t remember who) said that since the Oscars tend to glorify pieces set in the past, so just think of the Gotham universe as Chicago in the heyday of the mob. Makes things a lot easier to think of it as a prestigious film, right?
That film came out in 2008 and a lot’s changed since then.
“Avengers” in 2012 got serious Oscar consideration but it was the film “Logan” that was the first superhero film to be nominated for screenplay. To watch “Logan” and see how far removed it is from a superhero film (it’s more like a late-stage Western) is to see progress but to also wonder if the best superhero films are really anything. Can you cosplay as the characters from Logan?
The next year we got “Black Panther” which blew everything wide open. “Black Panther” is a superhero film in every sense of the word: It’s awe-inspiring, it’s full of costumes and powers, and it has grandiose good verse evil battles.
This year “Joker” got 11 Oscar nominations including the all-important Best Picture nomination and it wasn’t a big deal at all judging by the Oscar coverage. Superheroes are no longer in a little corner of its own. Superheroes are now the norm and that’s a good thing.