No Superheroes Allowed – Superhero Films and the Academy Awards

No Superheroes Allowed – Superhero Films and the Academy Awards

February 24, 2015 0 By Alanna Smith

“And the Oscar goes to…”

Or rather, doesn’t go to.

In the last decade, superhero films have become more and more prominent in the film industry, and since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began in 2008 they’ve really taken over the box office. But when it comes to high profile awards shows like the Oscars, superhero films continue to be snubbed and ignored.

This past year we had four Marvel superhero films hit theatres – Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy – and yet not a single film won in any category at the Oscars. In fact, they were barely nominated.

Winter Soldier

For some reason, this is the norm. Superhero films and often geek fandom films in general tend to be shoved into the Visual Effects category and then subsequently ignored when being considered for the win. Occasionally you’ll see these films appear in related post-production or art department categories like Best Makeup, Best Sound Editing, Best Costume or Best Sound Mixing. You’ll almost never see them in one of the “big four” categories though (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress). But why is that? Clearly the Academy recognizes the vast amount of work and passion put into these films but only to a certain degree. They’re willing to admit that the post-production and art departments are worthy of praise because when it comes to sci-fi and superheroes, making those worlds and characters believable relies heavily on the makeup, costume, VFX and sound departments. The Academy can’t deny superhero films a nomination in VFX when 50% of the visuals were computer generated. Doesn’t mean they have to give them the win, though. All they need to do is show the public that they recognize these films and then they can continue to completely bypass them for the win.

The destructive thing about this whole process is that it implies that superhero movies are just action blockbuster garbage that people go see because of fancy effects and explosions and robots. It implies that superhero movies don’t have deep enough story or characters to deserve such an award, and that the work is less sophisticated or of lesser quality just because of the subject matter. In reality, the reason we go see superhero movies is because the worlds amaze us, the characters intrigue us and the story compels us. And frankly yes, the action and adventure aspect makes the whole thing that much more exciting.

James Gunn recently defended superhero films in a post on his Facebook page

“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.”

gotg - guardians

In my personal experience, I’ve always watched movies to escape reality. I want to see movies about epic heroes saving the world from destruction, a team of badass alien criminals fighting bad guys in space, mutants with superpowers in a dystopian future. All of these things interest me infinitely more than watching a real-life psychopath assassinating people in the war, or a boy growing up for 12 years. Those kinds of movies can’t get my attention, not just because they don’t have enough space adventure or superpowers, but because I genuinely don’t find them interesting. To me it’s just boring old regular life being depicted on screen. Of course there’s storytelling there, but I much prefer movies that show us grand worlds we could only imagine and amazing characters that can do impossible things.

As a film student, I am told what I should be watching: Oscar-winning films that I don’t find interesting, documentaries premiering at TIFF that I wouldn’t want to watch, independent films with deep story and fancy cinematography that are supposed to give me some kind of epiphany about filmmaking. And yet, I don’t watch any of those films. I watch superheroes and sci-fi and fantasy and action, and I love it. But when I mention to many other film students or professors about how much I loved Winter Soldier or X-Men, I get the stink eye because apparently this means I have no taste in film. With award shows like the Oscars, I feel like Old Hollywood continues to brainwash the upcoming film talent into thinking that fun and popular films just mean bad taste. And yes, it is “Old Hollywood” calling the shots, because in case you haven’t noticed the Academy is really just a bunch of old white guys (94% white, 76% male, average age of 63). Superhero films have just as much storytelling as any other film, with characters we can still love and relate to, just set in different worlds or circumstances that invite more excitement and action into the mix. People who say that superhero films aren’t as well written as the classic Hollywood films blow my mind. If Guardians was able to make me laugh, cry and cheer in the theatre all while making me believe that a giant tree alien and a talking raccoon could pilot a spaceship and handle weaponry, I like to think it was pretty well done. Not to mention Winter Soldier, which many Marvel fans have hailed as the most satisfying Marvel movie to date (and by that I mean they can’t really find anything to complain about in it, writing or otherwise).


Here’s an even more intriguing tidbit: the top 8 box office hits were three Marvel films, Mockingjay, Transformers, Maleficent, LEGO Movie and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The 8 nominees for Best Picture included none of these titles, and with the exception of American Sniper (released in 2015), none of the nominated films made half of what the top 8 did. In fact Guardians made more than 7 of the nominees combined, as did Mockingjay. These are the movies audiences are watching, these are the films making money for Hollywood, so why are these the films being ignored and looked down upon?

I’m a young filmmaker who wants to make superhero and sci-fi films – those are the movies I love and that is the storytelling I value, and that doesn’t make me any less of a filmmaker. It shouldn’t matter if my storytelling involves a man with a high tech suit of armour or a woman who can control the weather or a teenager who was bitten by a radioactive spider. Film allows for that type of freedom and creativity in storytelling, and awards shouldn’t be withheld on the basis of ‘there was too much science fiction in this movie, not classy enough’. There is just as much work and passion going into these films. I’ve only made short films so far and that’s already a tonne of work, so I can’t imagine the amount of work and devotion that is required of Joss Whedon or James Gunn – who are directing intricate story moments as well as giant action scenes. Or how about Hugh Jackman, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana or Scarlett Johansson, who have to make us believe in and feel for a character all while acting on a set that’s almost entirely green screened and fighting bad guys that aren’t even there? Does that not take just as much care as an independent film?

“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.” ~James Gunn

I don’t think the Academy realizes that, for people like me, snubbing films like this doesn’t make the Oscars seem more prestigious. It doesn’t inspire me to make films that are of a “higher class” than superhero movies. No, it just makes me dislike the Oscars and the elitist attitude. I mean, if you tell a bunch of geeks that their favourite movies aren’t worth their time, we’re not going to stop watching those movies, we’re probably just going to stop watching the Oscars. Let’s face it, superhero movies have been around for a while and are here to stay. It’s about time people stop with the high and mighty act and learn to accept this genre as an equal.