Can Black Panther become the first superhero film to win Best Picture at the Oscars?
The odds are against it – but in a year when voters may be reconsidering what makes a Best Picture winner, we should expect the unexpected argues Clarisse Loughrey
Marvel’s Black Panther has been a success on almost every level you can think of: the critics adore it, the world has embraced it, and it’s proven itself as a box office behemoth. Back in 2018, it raked in over $1.3bn globally and earned $700m at the domestic box office – making it the third-highest grossing film of all time in the US. It also earned an impressive $70.6m in the UK. There’s only one victory that so far alludes it: the Academy Award for Best Picture. Are those dreams so far-fetched?
In short, yes. It would be bold to predict that Black Panther would scoop up the top prize at this month’s ceremony. The odds are against it: Ryan Coogler missed out on a Best Director nomination, while none of the film’s cast are recognised in the acting nominations. These are usually key steps on the path to Oscar greatness. While the film is nominated for seven awards, most of these are in the technical categories, such as Best Costume Design and Best Sound Editing, which tend to have fairly minimal influence on the eventual Best Picture winner.
Neither has it picked up any wins from the other voting bodies that prove crucial in influencing the Oscars, including Best Director at the Directors Guild Awards (won by Alfonso Cuarón for Roma) and Best Film at the Producers Guild Awards (won by Green Book), with one interesting exception: it won Best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
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In fact, the unusual spread of winners, with no clear frontrunner at this year’s awards race, suggests one potential outcome: a major surprise when it comes to the ultimate prize. Maybe it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that the surprise could come in the form of Black Panther.
The film has already beaten the odds. It made history when it became the first superhero film ever to land a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, making it the third-highest grossing nominee ever in the category, behind James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic. Whatever the eventual outcome, it still stands as a pivotal moment in the history of the Academy Awards, and the voters’ attitudes towards superhero movies.
Change has been brewing for a while. It was the failure, after all, to nominate Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for Best Picture in 2009 that sparked enough outrage to convince the Academy to expand the list of films that could be nominated in the category from five to a possible 10.
The change, in reality, didn’t produce any immediate effect. The real watershed moment came last year, when James Mangold’s Logan, focusing on an older version of the X-Men’s Wolverine, became the first superhero film to ever be nominated in the screenplay categories. Fast-forward to Black Panther’s nomination and there’s a clear progression to be found in the Academy’s mindset when it comes to superhero films.
This could be down to its changing demographics. 2015 saw the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, partially following the damning survey the previous year that revealed 94 per cent of Oscar voters were white and 77 per cent were men, while the average age was 63. In response, the Academy made a move in 2016 to invite 683 new members, of which 41 per cent were people of colour and 46 per cent were women. In 2017, the Academy added a record-breaking 774 new members from 57 different countries, of which 30 per cent were people of colour and 39 per cent were women.
The move has allowed the previously improbable to become a reality – both 2017’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, and last year’s winner, The Shape of Water, weren’t the traditional frontrunners but nonetheless took home the prize.
In all fairness, the lack of Best Picture winners within the comic book genre isn’t entirely down to snobbery among voters: these films are also playing very different games. How exactly does one judge fairly the quality of any blockbuster-style film against the usual Oscar fare when their priorities are so different? Cuarón never had to worry about which of Roma’s characters had the best merchandising potential (the answer, obviously, would be the dog who keeps defecating in the driveway). Yorgos Lanthimos wasn’t distracted by making sure Queen Anne’s battle armour in The Favourite was in canon enough to satisfy the hardcore fans.
The blockbuster is an enterprise that, in reality, must provide more than gripping storytelling and human emotion, as key as those elements still are to its success. This also crops up when discussing the Academy’s historical aversion to horror, a genre that must always balance its human drama with a feast of good scares. And, while fantasy and sci-fi films have sometimes had better luck at the Oscars, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Avatar picking up Best Picture, the superhero film is further burdened by its need to pay dues to the greater cinematic universe it exists in.
It could be argued, even, that the Oscars are hesitant to reward the likes of Marvel and DC with any more power in Hollywood, considering how dominant they’ve become in the popular culture – often to the detriment of more original, mid-budget filmmaking.
However, Black Panther manages to avoid break free of these constraints. Although it bears all the usual markings of a Marvel product (there are references to previous films and a climactic battle filled with CGI trickery), Coogler’s achievement as a director is to use a familiar framework to tell a radical story within mainstream filmmaking: utilising the strife between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the ruler of Wakanda, and Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) to illustrate a nuanced, layered commentary on colonialism and black identity.
As Mikey Mason of Geeks of Color wrote: “The film is a lightning rod of representation, in a time where black people feel so belittled and not paid attention to. Despite all that, director Ryan Coogler and his class-A cast have rallied together to create a film that is every bit as moving, political, and combative as the party it shares its title with.” Indeed, the film even subverts the usual hero/villain dynamic, by deliberately giving Killmonger a motivation that is both sympathetic and grounded in a cultural reality.
This kind of thematic complexity is still rare in the realm of blockbusters – and that’s before even acknowledging the profound cultural impact of the film. Its declaration of “Wakanda Forever!” has become a wider symbol of black excellence, used by tennis players Gael Monfils and Sachia Vickery, rapper Cardi B, and senator Kamala Harris.
Does Black Panther deserve to win? That, of course, is a subjective question. The film faces a year of tough competition, specifically from Roma and The Favourite, which both demonstrate their own forms of ingenuity and invention. With last year, however, marking an all-time low in viewers of the Oscar telecast, it could be that voters are encouraged to take a step back and re-examine exactly what criteria they demand from a Best Picture winner – and whether more attention should be paid to how well films function within the demands of their own genre. If not, there’s always Black Panther 2.