The term “watershed moment” popped up multiple times in reference to the release of Black Panther, which hit theaters in February of last year. The re-introduction to Chadwick Boseman’s T’challa is the first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly black cast; it addresses being black not only in America but in the world at large; it broke box office records in America and internationally.
The historical moniker is clearly warranted, but if one were actually to put a date on when that watershed moment exactly occurred, it might be Tuesday morning, as the film is now officially a Best Picture Oscar nominee.
This morning, Oscar voters bestowed Black Panther with the honor of being the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture, as well as nominating the film in six other categories.
That the Best Picture nomination doesn’t quite come as a surprise has as much to do with the Academy’s attempt to instate a “Popular” Oscar category as the film history that has led up to this point. The idea that superhero movies ought to be in contention for film’s biggest honor isn’t a new one; at the 2008 Academy Awards, The Dark Knight received eight nominations (and won two, including a posthumous Best Support Actor nod for Heath Ledger), but was notoriously shut out of the race for Best Picture.
The controversy that ensued from the snub — building upon complaints that blockbusters were being overlooked during awards season — led to a significant shake-up in the Best Picture category the next year: the playing field was upped from five nominees to a variable amount based on votes, which in 2009 would result in a 10-deep category. The increased number of slots would (hopefully) mean that a wider range of films could receive recognition, including “mainstream” films like The Dark Knight.
The change hasn’t been a panacea, however, as evidenced by the Academy’s failed attempt at the Most Popular award, which felt born out of a state of panic to ensure that Black Panther would receive at least some recognition if it ended up failing to receive a Best Picture nomination. The idea was (rightfully) nipped in the bud — and now here we are.
Since The Dark Knight’s night at the Oscars, the cultural currency that superhero movies hold has changed. The perceived legitimacy of the “comic book movie” genre has increased in rough parallel to the way that horror as a genre has broken into the prestige playing field and, more than that, the sheer amount of money spent to put them in front of every potential customer on the planet means they hold undeniable cultural currency. Most are made from a formula, and then mass produced (or at least produced for the masses), and films working outside of those lines are unthinkable. Unless they’re looking to subvert or challenge the format, there’s really no such a thing as a small, outside-the-system superhero movie.
So what does it mean that the Academy has finally come around to superhero movies being worthy of winning Best Picture? Marvel movies aren’t totally monolith — entries like Black Panther and Thor Ragnarok stand out as unique visions — but they are part of a major brand in a way that films like The Shape of Water, Moonlight, and Spotlight (to name the last three Best Picture winners) decidedly aren’t.
This isn’t an indictment of Black Panther — it is one of the best movies of the year, and deserving of its nomination — but rather a note as to the way that what we (or at least the Academy) perceive to be a “Best Picture” has shifted, if admittedly a little behind the times. Black Panther also possesses a cultural significance in terms of content and effect on the industry that can’t quite be attributed to the other two live-action Marvel movies released last year, Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp, putting it neatly in line with your stereotypical Academy Award nominee. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) has made a habit of taking broad stories and bestowing them with a specific, personal touch, and it’s a boon here as it sets Black Panther apart.
There’s a surface-level comparison that bears being made with regards to Get Out’s Best Picture nomination last year: the film’s recognition came as a surprise given that horror is not a genre that often — if ever — breaks into major awards contention, but it was also well-deserved given how well-crafted the film is, and the way it fundamentally seemed to shift popular views on the genre as well as impact the cultural conversation. The other big superhero movie that’s done the rounds this awards season, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, taps into a similar mix of pure cinematic greatness and contemporary urgency.
What remains now seems to be whether or not Black Panther will beat out the rest of the year’s competition and actually win the night. In that regard, it still has a few hurdles to clear — genre bias is alive and well, as animated films, for instance, have also never taken home Best Picture — but its nomination is a watershed moment on its own.