Black Panther, the superhero adventure from Disney’s Marvel Studio that transcended the genre to become both a major cultural moment and 2018’s top-grossing domestic release, today became the first superhero film to earn an Oscar nomination in the prestigious best picture category.
For Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, the nomination punctuates the first decade of the Hollywood upstart that he has guided through a historic streak of hit releases with 20 consecutive No. 1 opening weekends since its first launch, Iron Man, in 2008.
With Black Panther, the challenge was to present the regal title character, who was introduced in 1966 as the first black superhero in comic books. Creted by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Panther (Chadwick Boseman) lives not in New York but in Wakanda, a fictional African nation where super-science, tribal combat rituals, ghostly ancestors, ancient magic, royal intrigue and geo-political drama are all part of the story landscape.
Instead of tamping down any or all of the fantastical elements, Marvel Studios looked for a filmmaker who could get his or her arms around the dizzying mythology. They found him in director Ryan Coogler (who also co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole) who added more to the story, including a setting that would tie the film’s themes into the ethos of the Black Panther Party, which formed in 1966 in Coolger’s hometown of Oakland.
“The only way we ever wanted to do this project was the right way and that meant finding a filmmaker who had something personal to say, who had a vision and could take this character into another arena and showcase the power of representation on a canvas of this size,” Feige said. “We’re very, very proud of what this film has done. The movie has made a cultural impact that is just humbling and gratifying to see. And we’re very grateful to the Academy for this recognition.”
When did Feige sense that Black Panther was ascending to something more than a superhero film? “To tell you the truth, it was bubbling up from the beginning,” Feige said. “From day one the project was announced there was a special energy. It was on the set, too, every day from all of the crew and the cast, you could feel how personal this was and how special it could be. And then certainly when the poster and trailers started to come out and people who hadn’t seen themselves in a film of this size in this way, it became a celebration of heritage and culture and that is very, very unusual for a film.”
Black Panther earned seven nominations for the 91st Academy Awards and is one of eight films in the best-picture race. No previous superhero film has ever reached such rarified heights of Hollywood prestige, although the Oscar-winning Birdman was a near-relative of the genre with its tale of Michael Keaton as a washed-up superhero actor.
Black Panther is the first comic-book adaptation to land in the best picture race but there have been a handful of other cinematic natives of “Comic-Con culture” to earn nominations. That group includes sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural horror and animated films (Avatar, Star Wars, Inception, Raiders of the Lost Ark, District 9, The Exorcist and Toy Story 3 among them) while Shape of Water and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King are two genre natives that won the Oscar in the elite category.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was considered a superhero blockbuster with a viable shot of securing a best picture nomination and after it didn’t, the Academy responded by expanding the category beyond five nominees to bring more crowd-pleasing hits into the mix.
As a genre, the superhero blockbuster just reached it’s 40th anniversary last month. The genre was invented by Superman, the 1978 holiday release that, in Feige’s view, was worthy of a best-picture nomination. “Absolutely,” said Feige, whose first Hollywood job came in the 1990s with Superman director Richard Donner and his wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, who became a pivotal figure in the Fox X-Men films. “The nomination for Black Panther is a point in history and it connects to so many points that came before it in this genre that I love so much. Dick Donner’s Superman being a big, big part of that. It was the journey that got us here today.”