For decades, comic book films have dominated the box office because everybody loves superheroes. Every year, studios make an increasing number of superhero films, and, despite their box office success, Academy Award critics have stayed relatively constant in their rejection of the majority of them.
The Academy Awards honor the year’s “best” films, performances, and technical achievements, yet comic book adaptations are rarely recognized in the acting and writing categories. Although the Oscars may have a grudge against comic book films, they have a lengthy history of nominating them, dating back to the 1940s.
Even though it appears that they do not receive much love, a few superhero films have undoubtedly received the credit they deserved, whether in the areas of makeup, visual effects or even acting. Join us on a journey through time as we examine the comparatively modest number of comic book films that have received an Academy Award nomination.
It’s no surprise that the film that essentially launched the era of blockbuster superhero movies won an Academy Award back in the day. Sure, the flying scenes don’t hold up as well today as they did 40 years ago, but they were breathtaking at the time. But consider this: Superman was honored in the 1970s when there was no dedicated category for special effects. That’s why Superman received a Special Achievement Award, despite being one of only two superhero films to win for visual effects.
In the 1990s, Batman was pretty much the only superhero film available, as special effects hadn’t entirely caught up to the point where mutants and web-slingers could believably appear on the big screen (they did sometimes appear on the smaller screen, with very mixed reception).
The VFX in Tim Burton’s Batman was not even recognized (that year, the visual effects award went to Total Recall, which was also the only nominee). Instead, the masterminds that brought the dark art deco drama of Gotham City to life were given a statue for Best Art Direction, beating out The Abyss, Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Men In Black (1997)
Men in Black was essentially a buddy-cop movie, albeit with a very healthy dose of science fiction. This film could have very easily been a cheesy mess, but thanks to the on-screen chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as the practical and virtual effects work, it went on to be a box office smash hit.
The Academy Award for Best Makeup went to Barry Sonnenfeld’s sci-fi comic book adaptation, which was also nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Original Score for a Musical or Comedy. Titanic won Best Art Direction, and The Full Monty won Best Musical/Comedy Score. Marvel purchased the original Malibu comic book series in 1994, making this the first Oscar win for a Marvel film.
The Dark Knight (2008)
With this sequel to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan forever revolutionized comic book movies, or possibly movies in general, by reimagining the DC hero in a gritty, grounded crime thriller that blew the minds of every reviewer and moviegoer alive. Academy voters were among those obliged to piece together the fragments of their minds.
Despite its controversial snub in the Best Picture category, which prompted the Academy’s expansion from 5 nominees to a maximum of 10, The Dark Knight held the record for most Oscar nominations for a superhero film before Joker’s 11 nominations more recently. In 2009, the film won two Oscars: Sound Editing and, in one of the most amazing and sad moments in Oscar history, Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded the Best Supporting Actor award for his outstanding performance as the Joker.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
On the big screen, Spider-Man has had multiple variations over the years, but who thought that the one that would gain the most significant acclaim would eliminate the standard Peter Parker in favor of a colorful mix of web-slingers from several parallel realities? The film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is based on this premise.
Not only does Sony’s animated superhero film feature a slew of obscure Spider-Man characters, including adolescent Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), farm animal Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), and fedora-wearing detective Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), but it also features a slew of different animation styles for each character. It’s no surprise that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2018 and was hailed by many as the best picture based on Marvel’s web-slinger thanks to its brilliant plot (which surprisingly leans heavily into more dramatic themes about life and expectations of it) and gorgeous, kaleidoscopic visuals.
The expectation for Todd Phillips’ take on the renowned villain the Joker was high. Still, fans didn’t have to be concerned in the end, as the film went on to become one of the most successful comic book films of all time, particularly at the Academy Awards. It received eleven Oscar nominations, including the prestigious Best Picture award, for its sheer brilliance. Even though outstanding films like Parasite took home numerous honors at the 2020 Oscars, Joker nevertheless won Best Achievement in Music for Motion Pictures and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, owing to the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix.