The Award for Best Super-hero Movie Goes to…

In keeping with a personal tradition, I’ll once again be sparing myself hours of excruciating boredom by not watching tonight’s 81st Academy Awards on television. If you know me, then you know that I’m an unabashed enthusiast for the movies. But I do everything that I can to keep the Oscars at a distance. I don’t just avoid watching them, though. I also try to avoid paying attention to them as best I can.

Still, it’s been hard not to notice that Christopher Nolan’s epic popcorn blockbuster “The Dark Knight” was somewhat flagrantly stiff-armed in this year’s nominating process. True, the movie received eight nominations — including best art direction and cinematography, and an almost surefire nod to Heath Ledger for best supporting actor — but it was also snubbed for best picture and best director. Here’s a movie that not only broke box office records and earned plaudits from audiences all over the globe, but it was also praised by no shortage of serious critics as a significant elevation of the admittedly limited super-hero genre. In every way that matters for popular entertainment, it was one of the most important — and best — films of 2008. To fail to acknowledge “The Dark Knight” or its director accordingly is, to me, just more evidence that the Academy Awards is a credible measure of nothing other than timid fickleness.

On Second Viewing

I have a contradictory confession to make, however. A few weeks ago, I watched “The Dark Knight” for a second time, at home rather than in the theater, and reluctantly came to the conclusion that it’s not quite as good a movie as I thought it was.

In the months leading up to its summer release last year, I’d heard that it was being compared to a kind “Godfather” for the super-hero genre: an ambitious, complex exploration of the visceral ideas that underpin a popular genre normally accustomed to only superficial treatment. Of all the super-heroes who have entered our collective consciousness, I’ve long thought that Batman was the most rife with potential, and I was ecstatic to see Nolan treat the character so thoughtfully. After that second viewing though, I think those early comparison’s to Francis Ford Coppola’s towering mobster epics were too generous, and that they set my own expectations too high.

It’s absolutely true that “The Dark Knight” was forged from greater amounts of raw ambition, verve and intelligence than any other movie of its kind. But it also lacks the subtlety and naturalism that was integral to making “The Godfather” so much more than a cheap gangster movie, that gave its pulp landscape a texture that was recognizably human and intricate.

“The Dark Knight,” in contrast, seems like a clearinghouse for big ideas, some executed with greater vigor and follow-through than others. Perhaps because director Christopher Nolan had the temerity to paint as big a canvas as he possibly could, the movie he completed is as flawed as it is impressive. It alternates between overwhelming the audience with auteuristic skill and dragging the audience through loudly explicated concepts. Its plot is frequently schematic and unconvincing, its sense of narrative time and physical space is disingenuously flexible, and its dialogue too often amounts to little more than bombastic posturing.

All Hat, No Cattle

There’s an obvious irony here: I’m faulting the Academy for failing to honor a movie that I regard lukewarmly. But I’m not sure it’s necessary for me to believe a movie is unblemished in order to also believe it worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Rather, my frustration stems from my belief — or perhaps my prejudicial assumption — that the Academy rebuffed Nolan less on the merits of his movie than as a result of its less-than-serious genre. The Academy tends to reward movies that burnish its own reputation as a lens on serious art; Nolan’s film, after all, is a super-hero movie

Yet “The Dark Knight,” despite its many flaws, is as good a super-hero movie as we’ve ever seen. It represents a maturation of a genre that is becoming increasingly important to the public imagination. And yet it seems as unlikely as ever to me that we’ll ever see a movie like this — a movie in which a man runs around in a ridiculous costume fighting bad guys — receive an Oscar for best picture. That may sound absurd, but there’s a telling parable in the Academy’s historical treatment of another formerly ill-regarded genre: Westerns. For decades, the Western dominated the popular psyche and drove tremendous business for Hollywood, but was often disregarded as serious art. Today it’s considered a legitimate form of cinematic storytelling, having produced countless classic and important films. But if you look back over the history of the best picture Oscar, you’ll be hard pressed to find a winner in there in which a man rides around in a ridiculous hat fighting bad guys.



  1. Not only did The Dark Knight undeservedly get the cold shoulder, but Wall*E was relegated to the best animated feature category, which is a sad ghetto of only 3 films this year (a category that itself is oddly without Waltz for Bashir, which I think was nominated for best foreign feature… maybe the academy doesn’t count rotoscoping as animation?).

    While I’m a poor person to second guess any nominations this year, having only seen four of any the movies nominated (Iron Man, Dark Knight, Wall*E, and Wanted… this is not my proudest moment), it seems obvious that Wall*E deserved a nod for best picture, but was snubbed due to medium used to tell the story.

  2. I agree with you that The Dark Knight should have been nominated, but as Will suggested, I believe the larger oversight was not nominating Wall*E for Best Picture.

    This is the second Pixar film in a row that should have not only been nominated, but won, Best Picture of the year. Over the years I have begun to put the Oscars on par with the Grammys as the worst award shows. They both consistently give awards to the undeserving, and fail to even nominate brilliance. I mean come on, Jennifer Hudson for best supporting actress? Seriously.

    I honestly don’t understand why anyone takes them seriously anymore.

  3. I’m always in two minds over the Oscars. I find it ridiculous that only English language films can win and that genre films are rarely nominated. However, round the end of the year the quality of films released improves in an attempt at Oscar glory. I can’t help thinking that many films would not get commissioned were it not for the chance that it could get recognition from the Academy.

    Oh and there’s been 2 westerns that have won the prize, all be it in the 1990s when the genre was taken seriously and all but finished anyway.

  4. Well, what about the Fantasy genre, it could be said that its on par with the comic genre, and still Lord of The Rings III won all of its postulations.

    True enough it took the genre quite some time to reach a Lord Of The rings quality status, but it got there. Comic book genre is one that has been taking seriously for less that a decade and it already gave us one Dark Knight, maybe in time well see its equivalent of LOTR.

    And this year will get Watchmen, which if you consider the source material and considering they stick to it, has a lot of potential of actually becoming a landmark in comic book cinema history with LORD potential. Here is to hoping, right?

    PS. I do agree that the first time I saw it my expectations and excitement where all too high and upon second viewing I started noticing all the wholes in the script and directions though.

  5. This discussion about genre in film has precedent in literature as well. Genre literature (westerns, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy) still get looked down on by the snooty literati in NYRB, etc. When exceptions happen they tend not to be paradigm-shattering: one good fantasy novel doesn’t make The Establishment reconsider all the other fantasy novels.

    There is some good movement in graphic novels, however. There’s some good work being done in the area and more and more people are looking at graphic novels as serious literature. The move from graphic novels to superhero comics, and from there to superhero movies, seems plausible.

    But I’m not going to hold my breath.

  6. This is a heretical view, but I was extremely disappointed in The Dark Knight. I thought it pretentious pompous and overblown. It’s a comic book character, not freakin Hamlet. The Academy showed a glimmering of good taste in not honouring this film, as the award is supposed to be for the best film not the most profitable one.

  7. Hollywood has become such a left-wing liberal political enclave that they no longer have much objectivity. I think the best picture this year (by far) was Gran Torino. Best Actor Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. Best Director, etc etc.

    Slumdog Millionaire was a nice little movie. Ditto for Harvey Milk. Those two movies both carried liberal political messages. Gran Torino was politically incorrect. That’s how Hollywood votes.

    Giving an award to a slimeball like Sean Penn takes the cake.

  8. I don’t think either of them were best picture worthy, but I enjoyed Iron Man way more than The Dark Knight. Am I alone?

  9. No, you are not alone. Iron Man was a far better movie than Dark Night and the Dark Night fans have the same affliction as Star Wars fans. It blinds them to the film many flaws. The only thing Dark Night had going for it was the Joker, the rest was an endless series of violent acts, loud music, and faux philosophy.

    Can’t agree on Gran Torino. Most of the acting in that film was appalling school-grade garbage.

  10. Dark Knight was over-hyped because Heath Ledger died and everybody wanted his Joker to be an important role, not just a part in a super-hero movie. If you saw the movie months later on video then it was a lot easier to notice that Dark Knight is not even as good a movie as Batman Begins, and Heath Ledger had almost no good dialogue.

    Also, Dark Knight should be the darkest of the Batman films … instead it’s the opposite. I wanted it to look much more like Sin City.

  11. The Dark Knight could have been a greater movie, but it had to constantly straddle the fine line between satisfying 2 audiences. Regular movie-goers who have spent over a billion at the cinemas, and people who love Nolan’s movies. If Nolan had chosen one side, it would have been a much better movie, but made half the money.

    @david Small: Ummm… Gran Torino was as “politically incorrect” as Crash, yet Crash won the big prize. You decry the Academy’s non-cinematic motives behind awarding the prize, yet want to deny Sean Penn it because he’s a “slimeball”. I think your observation speaks more about you than the Academy (despite all its faults).

  12. While we’re complaining, The Dark Knight had better sound editing than Wall-E? And Sean Penn over Mickey Rourke?

    Oh well, it was a wonderful year for cinema.

  13. Fo’sho, the last third of that movie could’ve been cut without losing any significant quality or plot advancement.

  14. While we all recognize that “Unforgiven” may represent the Academy’s acceptance of the Western as a serious genre, there is another way of looking at it: Clint Eastwood finally directed or acted in something significant enough for the Academy to grant him what amounted to a Lifetime Acheivement Award. They did not want to experience the embarassment of having another one of their legends die without having ever been recognized. It happens with many of these entertainment organizations. Marving Gaye won a Grammy for “Sexual Healing,” but everyone knows that was the Grammy he did not get for the album “What’s Going On.”

    @Hamranhansenhansen: I’ll be the first to admit that the hype machine goes into overdrive when a star dies, but Heath Ledger’s role was not centered around dialogue. The Joker’s dialogue, in fact, was rather simplistic, but it made us realize that it’s not always all about the dialogue (think “Castaway”). Those performances ultimately prove to be very powerful. I think Ledger’s performance would have received only slightly less reknown had he lived.

  15. NZ: “And Sean Penn over Mickey Rourke?”


    Rourke was indeed amazing. But Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk was quite simply the best acting performance of the year, and among the best I’ve seen in a number of years.

  16. I was unimpressed with the Dark Knight since halfway through the first time watching it. I love the direction Nolan has taken Batman and thought Batman Begins was excellent. But despite the cinematic beauty of the movie, the Dark Knight lacked what Batman Begins had: a good story. The plot was was always at odds with the ambition of the director, it was flat and unconvincing. Moviemaking at its heart is about storytelling and Batman’s story got lost in some generic wall street heist pseudo morality tale.

  17. TDK was basically Heath Ledger who gave an absolutely stellar performance. Nolan did a great job with him. The rest of the movie? Not so much. Milk was better than the Wrestler, Benjamin Button did not even belong on the list, and Wall-E was cute but the screen ACTORS guild is not going to give an animated movie anything great.

  18. I saw most of anything that was nominated or possibly worthy and overall I wasn’t impressed. Yes, Heath Ledger was awesome, but upon second viewing it really wasn’t as good as the hype or the whole of the film itself. I totally should have bought Iron Man instead. I love Downey Jr.

    Oooh dare i say it…Slumdog Millionaire….overrated! A bit too PG, safe and a bit uninteresting for me.

    Curious Case…didn’t need to watch it (well Cate Blanchett…hott)

    Milk- acting was alright, but Brolin gets a nod for like two scenes which weren’t great.

    The Wrestler- Not fantastic, but I preferred it over Slumdog.

    Wall-E – good and imaginative but way to heavy handed on the messaging. Ratatouille I can role with as excellent.

  19. I’ve just watched TDK, having loved Batman Begins. I let it go for a while before viewing as I don’t like to get caught up in the hyperbole of the press etc… and be a bit more objective.
    First up, I like it because I like Batman and any intelligent treatment gets the thumbs up.
    The film has a powerful point to make about the complex inter-relationship between Batman, Two-Face and the Joker.
    However… and just in my opinion…
    The film is too long, and that length and the weakness of the plot holding up the film diluted the power of the message.
    I am sad that any good young actor gets cut off in his prime but the fact is any actor given the chance at playing the joker would have done just as well as Heath Ledger. The real kudos to the visceral madness of the part should go to Nolan who directed it into what it was.
    Given the general approval for Batman Begins, Nolan must have been let off the leash somewhat and as someone above commented, painted as big a picture as he could. He would have benefited from a few boundaries I think, if he’s been told he had 120 minutes no more no less then we would have gotten a much more focused, powerful movie that would have been no less visually beautiful.

  20. the batman DK direction was very impressive for me.

    of course the plot was somewhat faulted (the time and space are very relative in this movie), but I was amazed by the action, the rythme, the actors and the whole point about vigilant and heroes.

    Normally, I totally don’t care at all about big badaboum and good guy in costume vs bad guys. Batman begins was boring for me (it’s just action with big boum) when I saw it with some friends.

    I don’t think any actor could have done THAT joker.

    but DK ? I saw a real theater movie, amazing. Many things to criticize ? ho yeah , but what a movie.

    It pains me the Oscar Academy deny that.

    the same about Wall-e. Pixar should have more than the animation ghetto. The sound was amazing, truly an accomplishment. The first half is classical , the technological works was tremendous and people should be awarded for that

    it seems theses both movies was simply punished to be what they are : popular fantasy. Yes, they are not hamlet, but it really reads like punishment.

    Come on! Wall-e against Kung fu panda ?? at least, Wall-e should have lost oscars for best movie because it would have be against greater accomplished movies. It would have been honest.

  21. “Here’s a movie that not only broke box office records and earned plaudits from audiences all over the globe, but it was also praised by no shortage of serious critics as a significant elevation of the admittedly limited super-hero genre.”

    Academy awards should not simply be awarded to those movies that are most profitable. Popularity with the public should not guarantee a nomination.

    Yes, serious critics praised TDK, but they also praised many other films of 2008. If every film that was praised by critics was to be nominated, there would be over 15 nominations. If one wants to argue that TDK should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, one would have to effectively argue that TDK was better than every other movie released last year.

  22. A general rule I follow is that if the Academy likes it, I probably won’t. This also holds true for most film festivals. There are a few notable exceptions (like Braveheart) but for the most part it’s like a fashion show: The only people who like it are people whose job it is to like it.

  23. Dig into how the Academy Awards are voted on and you’ll soon see how much of a joke they are. There are roughly 5,800 people eligible to vote, and only 1,300-ish actors. Also, not everyone votes, and not everyone sees every film or performance they’re voting for. Then there’s the issue of whether actors are qualified to vote for technical awards and vice versa. It becomes a case where it’s very easy for small issues like the popularity of a director, or whether some actor pissed off some other more popular actor, to change the outcome of the voting. I’ve also read (although I don’t have the source in front of me) that the Academy membership is skewed towards old, white, males. So the Academy Awards are pretty much just a feel good, popularity contest, much like voting for mayor in a very, very, very small town.

  24. @akatsuki – I think you’re confusing the Academy Awards with the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards… The Academy has many members who are Screen Actors, but it is not made up entirely of actors, or I would wager, even a majority of actors.

    Now as to The Dark Knight. I admit despite getting a screen for it to vote on in the WGA awards I haven’t watched it again yet since seeing it in theaters. But based on my first impressions, while I’m not necessarily sure it should have WON Best Picture, I do very much thing it should have been nominated, it certainly deserved the nomination more than Benjamin Button (which I enjoyed, but didn’t think it was even close to “Best Picture” caliber).

    I’ll have to watch TDK again and see how I feel about it, though I won’t be surprised if I do end up preferring Batman Begins (coming out of the movie I wasn’t sure which I enjoyed more.)

  25. Giving Ledger the award was the right thing to do – that was the performance of the year. We’ll never know for sure, but I and many others suspect that he had to die to get it.

  26. I have a beef with giving Heith an award for his performance in the “Dark Night”. Yes he was good but an Academy Award? Seriously.

    And now the buzz is about his new movie and if the US will get to see it. Who gives a fuck. He is dead and it is done. Enough already.

    I thought Batman was fantastic and deserves more than it was given. I do not think it is a movie that you can enjoy at home though. It needs a grand theater to feel it. Nevertheless this movie was shafted by the AA.

  27. Oh come on, you guys are kidding, right? With its unending sophomoric pretentiousness The Dark Knight showed all the intellectual depth of a fortune cookie. And talking of unending, the damn thing droned on and on and on for 152 minutes.

    If they’d cut an hour out of the running time and recognized their own limitations it could have been a fun and stylish superhero movie, but noooo.

    And what was up with Christian Bale channeling a Clint Eastwood whisper for Batman?

  28. I have to step back from praise and criticism of The Dark Knight to defend Unforgiven, which I feel completely deserves the title of Best Picture. I do not at all feel like it was given to Clint Eastwood as a faux “Lifetime Achievement Award”; it was a serious, powerful, dark film, and in many ways it was the anti-western. When you get to the big action sequence at the end, and you feel uncomfortable and confusedЁwell, the filmmakers are doing their job, and well. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone see Unforgiven, for a case of where the Academy actually got it right for once.

  29. In response to david small’s comments, you can’t have yoru pie and eat it to.

    First you complain about a perceived voting bias overriding what you thought were better movies (“Slumdog Millionaire … Harvey Milk…. carried liberal political messages. Gran Torino was politically incorrect. That’s how Hollywood votes.”)

    Then in the very next line you go and condemn a man’s award because of your view of his political leanings/personal habits, instead of judging his skill in his craft? (“Giving an award to a slimeball like Sean Penn takes the cake.”)

    If you want “unbiased” (and nearly universally, unbiased means “with views closer to my own”) then push an unbiased agenda also good sir!

  30. But “The Dark Knight” was a terrible film. The worst of heavy-handed action scenes, combined with mind-numbing police drama on par with “Law and Order”. It had no business being anywhere near an award.

  31. As for Heath Ledger? Well, I don’t really know what to make of him here. He mugged and grimaced his way through the movie in whiteface makeup, except with scars. Yes it was over the top, and yes it was effective in its way. But Oscar-worthy? Not in this life, but since Ledger isn’t, he got it. Maybe there should be a sheer persistence award for keeping the act going for way too many hours?

  32. Unforgiven was a truly great movie in my humblest opinion. To me, Unforgiven >> Dark Knight regardless of genre.

    I thought The Dark Knight was a good but not great movie. I thought it was much more ambitious than say Iron Man, but didn’t quite live up to them (I actually ended up enjoying Iron Man more.) That being said, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see at least a best director nod to Nolan.

    I have no problem with Ledger getting the best supporting award, he was great. I think the script failed him though in what could have been an even better performance.

    I think X-Men 1 or 2 would have to be included in discussion of all-time best superhero movies. I still love the line “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”

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