In Defense Of Superhero Movies And Their Place At The Oscars

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Anyone a fan of genre films or superheroes in general left last night’s Academy Awards feeling a bit spurned by the overall sentiment that comic book-based movies aren’t as deserving of praise or worthy of being called “films.” That’s because there were several below-the-belt quips and comments about the genre, on top of a slew of complaints from various Academy members and other people in Hollywood about the “wave” of superhero films that are apparently plaguing Hollywood.

Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy recently bemoaned the “tsunami of superhero movies” at the Spirit Awards, despite the fact that his wife, Rene Russo, was in two Thor movies for Marvel. During the opening musical number at the Oscars ceremony last night, Jack Black humorously took to the stage to complain about the state of Hollywood, and included the likes of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man (the three most iconic superheroes and three of the biggest money makers in Hollywood) in his hate list. I know that that’s not a reflection on Black himself (who has been vocal in the past about his desire to play Green Lantern), but it’s something that hit hard, whether they were his words or not.

Superhero films are not ruining Hollywood, and they most certainly aren’t “lesser” films than anything else out there. Want proof that the genre actually attracts high talent? Nine of the actor nominees last night are either already acting in superhero films, or soon will be. Bradley Cooper plays Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Rocket Raccoon, Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast as Doctor Strange, Emma Stone played Gwen Stacy in two Amazing Spider-Man flicks, and was joined in the last one by Felicity Jones as Felicia Hardy. J.K. Simmons famously chewed the scenery as the Spider-Man trilogy’s J. Jonah Jameson, Marion Cotillard played Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises, two Hulks were in the nominations – Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo – and Michael Keaton was the goddamn Batman.

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That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Oscar-recognized talent spending time in superhero cinema. Other Batmen include Oscar winners Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Christian Bale. Past nominees Gary Oldman, Eric Roberts, Tom Wilkinson Maggie Gyllenhaal and Liam Neeson were big players in the Dark Knight trilogy, alongside winners Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous statuette for his groundbreaking role as the Joker (a part that was previously played by Oscar favorite Jack Nicholson). Even farther back, Batman Returns starred three members of Oscar’s elite club: winner Christopher Walken and nominees Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito.

Man of Steel was chalk-full of Academy Award-recognized talent including Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon and Diane Lane. In Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, they’ll be joined by Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, and Holly Hunter. Past Superman films were filled with Oscar winners and nominees like Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Frank Langella, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Terence Stamp, Peter O’Toole, Robert Vaughn and Marlon Brando.

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On the Marvel side of things, Robert Downey, Jr. is a two-time nominee and the driving force of the MCU thanks to his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man. That very same MCU is crowded with Oscar winners and nominees, including Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges, Stanley Tucci, Robert Redford, William Hurt, Sir Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Roth, Josh Brolin, Terrence Howard, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou and Benicio del Toro.

Nominee Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in every single X-Men film (and hopes to continue to do so until the day he dies), and has been joined by winners and nominees like Sir Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, and Michael Fassbender.

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Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church and Jamie Foxx all played Spider-Man villains. And soon, Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Jared Leto will join forces for DC’s supervillain-centric Suicide Squad. 

The list doesn’t stop there. Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Nick Nolte, Peter Fonda, Tilda Swinton, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, Harrison Ford, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sean Connery, Tom Hanks, John Malkovich, Ed Harris, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Rosemary Harris, Paul Newman, Sally Field, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Tim Robbins, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Connelly, Angelina Jolie, Faye Dunaway, Stephen Rea, Alec Baldwin, James Caan, Charles Durning, Robert Vaughn, Sharon Stone, Susannah York, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett have all appeared in comic book adaptations, and have all garnered some bit of recognition from the Academy.

Yes, just because a film garners top-tier talent does not mean that it can’t fail or is suddenly more worthy of recognition than a film that doesn’t. Hell, there’s a lot that can be said about the validity of the Academy Awards in the first place. But to simply trash superhero and comic book films on principle, without recognizing the talent that continues to flock to them, is ridiculous.

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Superhero films, though big budget spectacles they may be, are not always brainless entertainment or more “dumb” than the Oscar-bait that fills the Academy’s ballot boxes each year. The Dark Knight was largely considered a snub when it missed the Best Picture nomination in 2009, and helped propel the Academy to rethink their 5-film category limit and push it to a maximum of ten.

Instead of attempt to dumb down or simply berate comic book films for existing, recognize that the genre is helping push the envelope in Hollywood, and is honestly helping keep it afloat. Each year superhero films rake in hundreds of millions – and even a few billion – dollars at the box office.

Superhero cinema is just another avenue for creators and actors to express themselves, and another art form to toy with. The very nature of the genre doesn’t mean that it lacks conviction or passion, and it shouldn’t be so easily cast aside. In a recent Facebook postGuardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said it best:

Whatever the case, the truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite. I’ve already won more awards than I ever expected for Guardians. What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films…

If you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we’re dumb. But if you, as an independent filmmaker or a “serious” filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.

Oh, and if you aren’t sold on the fact that superheros belong in the cultural zeitgeist and on the Academy’s radar just as much as any other, take a look at this year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, which stars a handful of the actors I listed here, and is about a guy who used to play a superhero.

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