The Oscar Bait and Switch

I have always at least cared a little bit about the Oscars. I’m not ashamed to admit it- even if it is out of a kind morbid fascination with just how stagnant, dull and poncy it became. There’s so many cliches about the kind of movies that get nominated and we’ve kind of put up with it for years. The movies that get nominated are good, I guess, but they’re also safe in a kind of prestige type of way.

The veneer of self-congratulatory ass-kissing was always palpable- and y’know, since Weinstein went down, it’s kind of burst. Or at least it’s thinned a lot. It was kind of accepted for a long time that he basically had a strangle hold on what films would make it to the nominations category. His influence could make or break a movie and the people behind it. Now he’s pretty much only known for being a disgusting pustule of a person who deserves a can-can line of kicks to the bollocks from now till he dies. Hopefully soon. His power certainly has at least.

Sorry- getting off track.

Walk like a Panther…

Like- I know you probably don’t care about the Oscars and maybe Black Panther getting SEVEN nominations (INCLUDING BEST PICTURE) won’t change your mind, but… It’s certainly made me happy. Of all the superhero movies to come out in the last year, Black Panther deserves it the most. Not just because it’s almost ridiculously good- but it almost makes sense as an Oscar nom. Story wise it’s about heritage; inner demons brought on by unresolved trauma and loss; the historical consequences of oppression; hidden family grievances finally coming back to haunt the present and what it means to take on a legacy potentially poisoned forever; royalty in a time of war and internal crisis. These are all things that win Oscars in the past.

It’s just that in the past, they have largely tended to be in movies about White British Royals, Sad Rich White People, White People Who Solve Racism and White People Confronting Inner Demons. To be fair- there’s still examples of these in the current nominations. The difference specifically with Black Panther is that pretty much all of the protagonists and major players are black, it’s a superhero movie and y’know, it’s not insufferably self-important. It’s also fun. Black Panther is fun. It’s a good movie. It’s a bloody good movie. 

And I suspect it’s all of the above reasons why it’s being nominated. It’s the most Oscar-worthy and that’s, for once, a good thing.

Spider-verse rules

Also- Into the Spider-verse was somehow even better. I’ll bet Sony never imagined it’d finally get an animated feature nominated for anything- except maybe a Razzie. Not only did Spider-verse get a nomination, it’s already won a Golden Globe and again- and it deserves to. The animation was revolutionary, the story was perfect, the characters have basically become cemented into our hearts and God that soundtrack.

It’s about a teenage boy, from a background rarely represented in movies at all let alone a superhero one, coming to terms with his future. It’s about dealing with an identity crisis. With the burden of expectations. And it’s a superhero movie. A Spiderman movie. WITH SPIDER-HAM. IT’S A GOLDEN GLOBE WINNER. With a ton of nerd-wank plot elements like alternative dimensions, multiple iterations of the same character and… I think this means we’ve made it. Nerds rule the world now. We’re done. No more places left to conquer.

Nerds… They’re EVERYWHERE!

I mean… is this bad? Should we be concerned? Are we going back to the studio system of the thirties where like, five companies own everything? Are we only going to get big prestigious superhero movies from now on? Is that it? Are movies going to eventually end up in the same place comics are- with superheroes basically being the only game in town save for a few notable critical darlings?

No, not entirely. I don’t think so. I think we’re more in danger from a saturation of franchises in general- not just superheroes. There’s some concerns to be had about monopolies and its impact on cultural growth, sure, but… I think we’re going to be okay. I’ll explain.

A while ago Mark Kermode (our Siskel and Ebert except he’s one dude and he’s still very much alive) put out a book about how Blockbusters could be better. It was called The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex and it was his book long rant about how chain cinemas and limp, okayish blockbusters were ruining cinema. There was no ‘culture’ in these blockbusters, Kermode argued- no prestige. No effort. They were often given bland leads no one had heard of and were too cowardly to talk about anything important.

You cannot say that about any modern superhero movie now. Not with a straight face. Even the ones that are, ahem, poorly reviewed are still culturally important- if only to note any mistakes and make improvements going forward. Say what you will about the MCU- each movie has had something to say.

The other interesting cultural shifty type thing is- even the ‘lesser’ MCU movies will included some notable bit of canon. Like comics or TV, each issue will have some bit of ‘lore’ that’s important to the overall arc and you’ll need to know about it to ‘get’ the ending to some degree. That’s a big cultural shift in movies. They’re in our nerdy wheelhouse now. Whether adhering to fanboy theories or paying lip service to lore will win any more awards is up for debate- but it’s interesting you gotta agree. Personally if you just rely on pandering to nerd knowledge, it goes down hill and you lose sight of the story and characters and themes- but a little goes a long way. They didn’t need to make references that they did in Into the Spiderverse, and the movie would’ve probably been just as good without them- but boy howdy I was really happy they did.

The Kermode book lamenting the quality of Blockbusters was in 2011 by the way and… I think things are better, at least in terms of how good blockbuster movies are now. In 2011 the MCU phase one was really getting going by that point but I remember the rest of the year as kind of collective shrug otherwise. The next year- Avengers changed everything. Things have been picking up steam ever since and now.. we’re here. Big action movies are at the very least, fun, but they’re also making impacts on the cultural landscape and branching out their leads. And winning Oscar nominations.

Change it up

The major winners, the movies with the most impact this year, had women and POC as leads. Even though Infinity War might have way more impact in the MCU’s main, overarching plot- it didn’t break boundaries in the same way Black Panther or Into the Spiderverse did. Not by a long shot.

That’s not to say Infinity War didn’t make a massive cultural impact- it did. We’re still talking about it over a year later and what it means for a massive franchise going forward. These are comic book stakes played out on the big screen with a massive amount of hype and budget. That’s… incredible really. I personally don’t know if that’s the same as ‘Oscar Worthy’ when Black Panther made such a dent in what we can expect from Blockbusters, especially in terms of representation. On the other hand- it got a nomination anyway so… there.

I don’t know if ‘At least the movies are good’ is cold comfort to those of us worried about just how much power Disney has now, but… Jeez, it’s something right? I don’t know how long this can be sustained or how many more Oscars we’ll get and maybe it doesn’t matter in the future. But now? Man it just feels good the net is being cast wider. That there’s some gesturing towards what people, real everyday people, actually watch at the movies. It means a lot for nerds, for us who love comics and superheroes and recognise not just their staying power but their universality.

Culture Jammers

You can use superheroes to tell pretty much any kind of stories, as those of us who read comics could tell you. That’s being recognised. Superhero is a flexible genre- it pairs with pretty much anything. Even ‘Oscar-bait’. You can use superheroes to explore cultures, the attachments we have to them, symbols of culture, legacy, family, history…

Black Panther did all of those things, but with cool fight scenes, gorgeous costumes, a fantasy setting and super heroics across the world. Spider-verse was clearly set and based in a real world adjacent setting- there really are parts of New York that look like that. Except they aren’t being used to talk about how white people can turn a tragic situation around. It’s about a kid who’s thrown into a ridiculous situation, but relies on a loving support network and overcomes his own doubts. Also Spider-Ham. These are good movies, but they’re also cultural landmarks. People forget- the first Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture- as was Jaws. They were popular summer blockbusters that also happened to be seen as turning points in movie making. In many ways- this is no different- except there’s also representation we rarely get to see in either popular movies or Oscar contenders.

So, the Oscars are better now. Not just because they’re more nerd-friendly, but because they’re more people friendly. I’m pretty optimistic right now. Even if it doesn’t win Best Picture- and there’s a good chance it won’t to be honest- it will win others and at least the Academy can’t ignore good movies anymore.

Plus I like to think it’s fueling some kind of deep seated embolism in Weinstein’s brain that will hopefully strangle his cerebellum before the year is out. Happy days.

I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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