One thing that has bothered me about the film industry these past few years is the debate surrounding how one determines the quality of a film, whether it is through glamorous awards, critical acclaim, or audience reaction. This isn't a nuanced topic but these conversations usually pop up during awards’ season, so it’s fresh in our minds post-Oscars. Those who have very strong opinions on the matter typically boil down to three categories: those who feel strongly about Oscar golds, those who feel strongly about indie films no one’s heard of, and those feel strongly about films everyone recognizes but never acknowledges during awards season. If we all feel so strongly about relative quality, how do we determine which films to celebrate?
I tend to fall evenly in all three categories: I feel defensive about all films, because I genuinely appreciate the work and I try my best to see everything, because I love movies. So I love the typical Oscar golds, I love the weird indie that you have to dig for online, and I love the pop culture darling you have to stand in line for at midnight. I adore the idea of taking an dream in your brain, writing it down, and working with a team to bring it to life; that is cool.
However, this article is going to take a side - despite my usual indifference - because lately awards shows have gotten increasingly predictable. All films honored at the Oscars and various awards shows are well deserving, but I believe one particular genre has been downgraded for its popcorn-munching, summer flick, easy-to-digest qualities and that is the blockbuster superhero flick.
My favorite film of 2014 was Guardians of the Galaxy and, those who know me know that, I have expressed the very strong opinion that this film is a post-modern masterpiece. Don’t worry, this article won't bore you with extraneous details of the social revolution and intertextuality. I'm not that cruel. But I will say I was disappointed that Guardians did not get any major awards/noms this season, including Oscar Best Picture nomination, despite its acclaim. This leads me to my next point...
One could argue that awards don’t matter; revenue, critics’ reviews, and YouTube fan comments matter. I disagree. Recognizing your fellow artists’ work during awards season matters, too. So, therefore, the Oscars still matter, despite the elaborate musical numbers, the self indulgent montages, and long-ass red-carpet preshow.
(Remember: there are people besides high profile actors and glitzy moneymakers who are sitting in the audience, too.)
We, both as movie-goers and academy members, need to start recognizing the superhero genre and other pop culture films for more than just opportunities for escapism and brain-dullers. These films are much more; they are tokens of our generation and the bridge between high culture and low culture. Superheroes represent all of us.
Take exhibit A: Marvel Studios.
What Marvel is currently doing is incredibly nuanced and their productions are ones worth acknowledging. All of the heroes, heroines, and stories we have grown up with as children are currently being brought to life on screen through extraordinary bits of technology, well-written dialogue, and amazing actors who are willing to coexist in intertwined worlds. These characters' lives aren't just being told as individual stories; Marvel is bringing a whole universe to life: interstellar worlds are being bridged, teenagers are swinging alongside their idols, and Gods are teaming up with Russians spies. How freaking cool!
These stories may have already been told; but, then again, which ones haven’t? Superheroes have become the American mythology, originating from other great internationally-known mythologies. Superheroes are symbols of our exceedingly international existence.
One of this year’s prized films, Boyhood, has been celebrated by critics for its use of time to arc a story throughout its development (and reasonably so). Marvel Studios is managing something quite similar, with twelve movies created over a span of eight years and nine others planned between now and 2019. This is an amazing feat when you think about the scattering of crucial Easter eggs (Wakanda on Nick Fury’s Map) and the appearance of main characters in other films (Iron Man in Incredible Hulk). A whole universe is being developed and adapted within twenty films and many more are sure to come down the road. These films may not be emotional indies or historical flicks with gravitas, but they are several stories, all relevant to each other, that bridge not only recent worlds but also the time gaps between the original paper incarnations and their reboots. Superhero films are our connection to the past and our understanding of the present. They reflect our fears and our hopes for the future.
Studios are even attempting to mirror these two techniques. Just last year, DC announced the cinematic-beginnings of the Justice League and the long awaited Wonder Woman film, a hero that has shaped female identity for decades, in 2017. Now, we have another universe of characters extended to the silver screen. The fact that other superhero based production studios are looking towards this technique says something about its value.
Awards season has not totally ignored superhero films in the past; Heath Ledger’s award for Best Supporting Actor as the Joker was well deserved and gave awareness to these complicated and important characters. But more recognition needs to be seen, just as more recognition needs to be seen for films centered upon people of color, women, animation, and other popular culture films. We need diversity and general public interest in these awards shows because awards season should also reflect the viewers who interact with the art. There is no film without an willing audience.
There is no shame in looking outside of the typical, there is no shame in awarding popular culture, and there has to be one year where we can’t easily guess the nominees or the winners. Artistry in movies does not have to be overly complicated. It does not have to be riddled with onion layers worth of deep material that the layman cannot understand. Artistry can be found in popular culture. It can be accessible to everyone. It can be the blockbuster film of the summer, it can be Oscar gold, and it can be an underground unknown.
Superheroes are structured upon the idea of relations. From wealthy Bruce Banner to broke college student Peter Parker, we all want to be heroes; awards shows should start recognizing that.
How do you feel about awards season? Do you think another group always gets overlooked? Or are awards just a distraction from the real issues? Comment below.