A Marvel comic book movie as a serious contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination? My reaction when the idea was recently pitched to me by a top publicity firm floating the April 4 release Captain America: The Winter Soldier was that this publicist must be on crack.
Don’t they know the Academy is basically made up of snobs? The Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything, Boyhood, YES, but c’mon, Comic Book movies have no place in the Best Picture race. That became painfully obvious when The Dark Knight was egregiously overlooked as a Best Pic nominee in 2008.
That led the Academy the next year to expand the number of possible BP nominees from five to ten in an effort to include deserving popular fare like Knight. However to date the expansion has only resulted basically in a larger number of the usual suspects that normally get recognized among the year’s best. Give Oscar a small British picture any day, but Captain America? No!
It’s ironic that one of this year’s major contenders, Birdman does have a storyline involving an actor who played a comic book superhero. But the film focuses on the aging former superhero trying desperately to run away from that image.
Oscar voters can identify with that but real comic book movies are relegated to technical categories such as visual effects and sound and there they will stay, despite the fact that the public flocks to them and critics routinely rate them highly, as shown by review-compilation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which by the way was good enough to lure Robert Redford back to blockbuster fare, earned an excellent 89% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Marvel’s late-summer smash, Guardians Of The Galaxy, the No.1-grossing grossing movie this year, ranked even higher, with 91% positive reviews. And Marvel’s latest X-Men installment, X-Men: Days Of Future Past beat them both, with 92%.
But you don’t see the studios behind them launching major Best Picture campaigns, do you? Certainly, when you see companies like Warner Bros staking their future on the genre by announcing a plan for ten comic-based movies between 2016 and 2020 you see the importance to the bottom line. The genre continues to explode but these are regarded as cash cows, not Oscar bait.
But you have to ask yourself is that really fair? Recently at the Venice Film Festival where he was promoting his two latest micro-budgeted movies – The Humbling and Manglehorn – none other than Al Pacino became a convert. He put Guardians Of The Galaxy on a pedestal, erasing his initial reaction when dragged to see it.
“It was not something I would readily go see, but my kids got me to go, and one has to draw the line at where prejudice starts and where it ends – that was good stuff!” Pacino said. “I recognized the ingenious stuff they were doing : the invention, the attractiveness of the way they were performing it. It had Shakespearean feeling to it at times. I was caught up in the big screen, the big sound.”
In a bit of irony, Pacino remains one of the few actors ever to be Oscar -nominated for a comic-book movie role, 1990’s Dick Tracy (and of course Heath Ledger did take a posthumous Supporting Actor Oscar for The Dark Knight).
I met recently with Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and the upcoming 2016 sequel). They’re also Emmy winners for their work in television, including classic shows like Arrested Development and Community, told me they are frustrated that comic book movies, and that includes their own critically acclaimed film, aren’t getting the kind of Oscar buzz movies that rank far lower on the RT and boxoffice scales seem to be rolling in.
It’s almost as if, as far as Oscar is generally concerned these days, making money is a hindrance. Captain America’s gross puts it at No. 2 behind Guardians with nearly $260 million domestically and $714 million worldwide to date. Their film is nowhere to be found on pundit prediction lists and it would be a stunner if any critics group even considers it in their year end awards despite that early praise it got in April.
“It’s strange that the comic-book film genre is so often thought of only in terms of its economic merits,” said Joe Russo. “Yes, it’s shockingly popular and continues to grow, and yes, the box office success of these films can often embarrassingly outweigh their merits, but as Christopher Nolan perhaps first proved, real and valuable filmmaking can be achieved with the genre. It’s sad that some people, seemingly soured by having to endure the massive cultural presence and expectations that even mediocre or poor examples of the genre can generate, react by trying to reject the genre as a whole.
Of course Nolan, snubbed for Dark Knight but nominated in the Best Pic race for the non-comic book Inception, will be back this year trying for the first time to break into the Best Director race with his very human space epic, Interstellar (Nov. 5), a film certain to benefit because it is not based on a comic book.
Russo says that in many ways, comic book films are analogous to the Western, a form not ignored completely by Oscar in the Best Picture races of the past.
“Snubbing comic book movies because of their ubiquity is akin to dismissing the Western as matinee fodder,” said Joe Russo
Of course, many a great western was indeed snubbed, including John Wayne’s classic pair of The Searchers and Rio Bravo, which between them received zero Oscar nominations. More recently, Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves turned things around, both winning Best Picture.
And as Russo points out, no fantasy film had ever won until the Lord Of The Rings trilogy smashed that myth with three consecutive Best Picture nominations and a sweeping win in 2003 for the third installment, The Return Of The King.
Their own film, which Anthony Russo describes as a hybrid between a superhero movie and a straight, serious thriller, not only would have to erase an 86-year-old voting pattern, it also would have to overcome its early April release date, itself a real uphill climb.It’s extremely rare for any film released before May, and generally even before Fall, to land a Best Pic nod.
But they aren’t giving up hope. They feel having Redford (snubbed in the Best Actor race last year for All Is Lost) helps put the film in a different league.
“The moment we were able to cast Redford changed everything, because it gave a deeper cultural context to the movie,” said Joe Russo. “Not only are you taking one of the most famous actors of all time, you’re taking one of the most famous thriller actors of all time (Three Days Of The Condor). And we’re subverting his on-screen persona and his off-screen persona at the same time. He’s a villain in the movie. He’s never played a villain, and not only is he a villain, but he’s a fascist.”
Joe Russo said the film has a true “civil liberties conundrum” at its heart but was actually written six months before the controversies surrounding NSA leaker Edward Snowden scandal exploded. “We went after ideas that we felt were very zeitgeist,” he said.
So with critical acclaim, industry respectability, all the elements, why no chance at Oscar love, or even an attempt?
“That’s a very interesting question,” said Joe Russo. “I think you look at all those awards ceremonies, there’s a whole process of advocacy for those awards, right? What is the value of the award (to Marvel)? And why should they spend the money required to go down that road? To create the box office? They already have the box office.”
But Anthony Russo says their film feels more like a ’70s-style thriller than anything else.
“It’s a real movie, real filmmaking, and it has really high aspirations, in terms of what cinema can be and what it can do, and what our experience of it is,” Anthony says. “It has every intention on the part of the filmmakers to reach audiences on the deepest level.”
He went on to point out the many ways their film differs from standard comic-book fare and cited influences like The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, Three Days Of The Condor and The French Connection.
During the course of our conversation they also mentioned how the comedy genre also rarely gets its due from the Academy.
“We’ve done comedy and drama,” said Joe Russo. “Comedy is f*****g hard. It’s really hard. The very specific craft involved in the rhythm and the pacing and the tone. Tone is so hard to manage. I think it’s the hardest thing for a filmmaker to do.”
Perhaps an Oscar campaign could more successfully be mounted if they dropped the name Captain America and just called it The Winter Soldier. Now that the Academy could probably get behind. No trace of comic book origins there!
“It’s fascinating, very interesting, very enigmatic how it all works, the Academy,” said Anthony Russo.