Arts Opinion: Black Panther nomination marks overdue shift in Academy standards

Superhero movies have been the premiere Hollywood draw for most of the 21st century, and this year’s crop of Oscar nominations illustrates that critical recognition is finally catching up with public sensibilities. 

With the nominations’ announcement on Jan. 22, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther officially became the first superhero movie ever nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The nomination represents a significant—and welcome—shift in the Academy’s typical selection criteria, as popular fare has not traditionally been considered for the Academy’s most prestigious award.

In the wake of this development, it is important to consider that, while Black Panther is the first superhero movie to receive a best picture nomination, it should have happened a decade ago. It was in 2008 that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight caused such a stir in Hollywood it forced the Academy to rethink how they select their yearly best picture.

The Dark Knight is rightly considered one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and Black Panther’s best picture nomination proves that its influence is still felt a decade after the film’s release. While The Dark Knight did receive some award recognition, notably the late Heath Ledger’s posthumous best supporting actor Oscar for his indelible performance as the Joker, the film was notably snubbed of a nomination for Hollywood’s top prize.

At the time, Ben Child wrote in The Guardian that “there remains the sneaking suspicion that many voters refrained from nominating The Dark Knight not because they did not believe it to be a great film, but because they did not believe it to be the right sort of great film.”

In hindsight, the film’s Oscar snub is even more egregious when one considers how it has aged over the past decade. The Dark Knight not only helped prove the financial viability of a cultural superhero obsession, but 10 years later it subverts the very genre that it helped spawn.

Nolan’s film is a gritty, political crime epic that happens to include a guy who punches people while dressed like a bat. The Dark Knight uses its titular character and its other more campy elements as tools with which it tackles nuanced, weighty themes regarding the various consequences of extremism. This feels particularly refreshing once it is juxtaposed to more contemporary superhero movies like Avengers: Infinity War, which generally amount to entertaining yet formulaic CGI slugfests.

However, The Dark Knight’s exclusion from the best picture race did not go unnoticed. The outrage and negative press coverage that resulted from the snub forced the Academy to change the way they think about and vote for best picture.

They expanded the field from five to 10 nominees, until eventually deciding on a range of five to 10 potential nominations from year to year. This is perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest cultural effect, as it has since allowed films ranging from Pixar’s Up to the sci-fi movie Mad Max: Fury Road to receive recognition that they otherwise may not have.

Black Panther’s inclusion in the 2019 best picture race is a win for popular movies in general. It is the culmination of a movement The Dark Knight started, and shows the Academy is not completely blind to the tastes of the actual people who go see movies.