Black Panther’s best picture Oscar nomination matters

The first Marvel Studios movie to be nominated for Oscar's top prize is about something more than the usual heroes-and-villains stuff

The big story in superhero culture this week is not, as some might be expecting, M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass opening to $40.5 million U.S. Sure, terrible movies have big opening weekends all the time – and Glass is really, really terrible – but Split did almost identical business when it hit theatres two years ago, so it’s not like we’re all witnessing some great triumphant thing happening here. What we’re seeing is the last gasp of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable fandom, as desperate to prove there’s more to these movies than meets the eye as the filmmaker is to burnish his own reputation as a master of genre storytelling. And neither of those things is going to happen.

I still think Unbreakable is great, mind you. And its thoughts on comic-book culture and superhero mythology aren’t as naive and undercooked as the stuff in Glass, which ignores the way caped crusaders and wall-crawlers have conquered the pop consciousness. I mean, it’s bad enough that Glass barely accounts for the way cameraphones and social media have become part and parcel of our reality as far as I can tell, Shyamalan isn’t even willing to acknowledge Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. (Maybe that’s because they do a far better job of integrating a costumed crime-fighter into the “real” world than Glass does.)

But this week’s real superhero story, at least as far as Marvel Studios is concerned, is the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations – and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther landing seven, including one for best picture. It’s the first time a superhero movie has been in contention for the top prize – remember, the Academy doubled that category’s slots in response to Nolan fanboys who were incensed that The Dark Knight was excluded in 2009 – and while Coogler’s magnificent, mature adventure movie is almost certainly not going to win the big prize, it’s important that this should be the first Marvel title to make it to the short list.

That’s because Black Panther is about something more than the usual heroes-and-villains stuff it’s about family and legacy and secrets, sure, but it’s also about the exploitation of Africa and Africans under colonialism, and what it means to take a neutral position in the face of suffering. What I’m saying is that Killmonger was right, and it’s a shame that Michael B. Jordan wasn’t able to land a supporting actor nomination for this one.

Also not nominated: star Chadwick Boseman, who’s more charismatic and textured as T’Challa than a human man has any right to be, or Coogler himself, either as director or with co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole. The lack of nominations in these categories – as well as decades of Academy disregard for superhero narratives – means Black Panther isn’t likely to be a serious best picture contender.

But it does seem to have a shot at landing a few technical prizes, and might even have a shot at best costume design, which I would be entirely on board with: Ruth Carter’s Wakandan fashions are a wonderful feat of extrapolation, imagining where African fashions might go with a minimum of European influence, the advantage of unknown technology and a subtle sense of play even T’Challa’s sneakers are striking. (It’s Carter’s third time at bat, after nominations for Amistad and Malcolm X, and the lady is due.)

And though it was produced outside of the Marvel Studios pipeline, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse has as much of a chance at taking this year’s best animated feature Oscar. It’s a delight, pushing both conventional animation and superhero storytelling in new and wonderful directions while also bringing an entirely different Spider-Man mythology into the mainstream. (It also finds a new way into what could have been a familiar superhero story, which sets it apart from its closest competition in the category, Brad Bird’s sumptuous but derivative Incredibles 2.)

Also, Into The Spider-Verse has Spider-Ham in it. Never bet against Spider-Ham.

Superhero Nonsense is NOW’s weekly column delving into all things superheroic. Check out previous columns here.


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