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A Decade Ago, the Oscars Looked Down on Superhero Movies. Now One Might Win Best Picture.

It’s a journey that begins with one Joker and ends with another

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Marvel/Ringer illustration

When the 81st Academy Awards aired on February 22, 2009, the ceremony took an intriguing, if time-consuming, approach to present the acting awards. Rather than have one or two presenters announce the nominees and winner, the Academy invited five previous winners in each category and assigned each a nominee to praise prior to the announcement. The announcement of the Best Supporting Actor award, for instance, found Alan Arkin, Joel Grey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Christopher Walken delivering brief encomiums about, respectively, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael Shannon. (The moment was undercut only slightly by Arkin apparently thinking the “actor’s actor” he’d come to praise was named “Seymour Philip Hoffman.”) Everyone looked as if they enjoyed the moment; no one looked like they expected to win even before Kevin Kline began addressing the family of the absent fifth nominee, Heath Ledger.

That Ledger would win for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight felt like as foregone a conclusion as an Oscar outcome could be. Widely recognized as one of the most talented actors of his generation—particularly after Brokeback Mountain, for which he received a Best Actor nomination—Ledger had died the year before at the age of 28. That combination of respect and sadness can help tilt Oscar voters. But even without it, Ledger’s cryptic, unsettling turn as Batman’s archnemesis still played like an impossible-to-deny once-in-a-lifetime performance, even though it was in the sort of film the Academy tended to ignore: a superhero movie.

That Christopher Nolan’s artistically ambitious, thematically rich The Dark Knight clearly wasn’t an ordinary sort of superhero movie—as it was understood way back in 2008, the same year Iron Man launched the MCU—didn’t seem to make much difference. Its slim chance at earning a top prize beyond Ledger’s performance had been anticipated. In an Entertainment Weekly column, Mark Harris had to add a “Seriously” to his plea for a Dark Knight Best Picture nomination, noting “this comic-book movie has shown judgment and maturity in a year when many veteran genres have felt erratic.”

“It’s kind of crazy to look back at The Dark Knight and realize how early it actually came in the superhero wave, since at the time it felt like such a culmination of the form and the beginning of something different,” deputy editor Katey Rich notes. “But yes, basically, in 2008 an ‘Oscar movie’ had calcified into something very specific—adult-oriented, star-driven, promoted by the Weinstein Company or a major studio or Fox Searchlight, and kind of designated as an ‘Oscar movie’ from the start.”

When Ledger did become The Dark Knight’s sole nontechnical nominee, it didn’t go unnoticed. Though outlets like The Hollywood Reporter took a “que será, será” attitude, noting that a “top-grossing picture of the year becoming a best-picture nominee remains the exception rather than the rule,” the film’s exclusion came up in many discussions of the awards. The Academy itself seemed to sense it had made a mistake. In June 2009 it announced that the Best Picture category would expand to 10 nominees rather than the traditional five, a move widely interpreted as a response to l’affaire Dark Knight. “All of Hollywood wondered exactly how close The Dark Knight came to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Now we know the answer: It missed by 12 months,” the Los Angeles Times concluded in the article announcing the change.

The Academy’s plan for the future looked to the past for inspiration, specifically to the pre-1944 practice of nominating more than five films for Best Picture. Despite some complaints at the time—and a 2012 move to change the field from a compulsory 10 to merely allowing up to 10 nominees—the new tradition has become widely accepted, even welcome. Assessing this legacy 10 years in, The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan went so far as to argue it “saved the show” by breaking the blockade of “twinkly Miramax films” and “middlebrow dramas” and allowing room for a greater variety of films to pick up nominations, including animated films, science fiction, the work of untidy auteurs like Tarantino, and more films directed by women and people of color.

Nominations for superhero films, however, have continued to be a rarity even as caped heroes, masked avengers, and sorcerers supreme have come to dominate the box office. Since 2009, only two superhero movies have received a Best Picture nomination, and none until Black Panther, the highest-grossing film of 2018. That makes Black Panther an outlier in two categories. Since the expansion of the Best Picture category, only one other top-grossing film has earned a nomination, Toy Story 3 in 2011. That gap between what plays at the box office and what picks up nominations—and a desire to fix sagging ratings for the Oscars telecast—led the Academy to announce the introduction of the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film award in 2018, a category shouted down and tabled within a month, before the Academy even had a chance to define what it considered a “popular film.”

By any definition, Black Panther certainly would have qualified if the Best Popular Film had come to be. But it turns out the Ryan Coogler–directed film, already considered a likely nominee at the time of the Popular Film announcement, didn’t need a special “Only Blockbusters Allowed” category. This year, it’s joined by another superhero movie/Best Picture nominee, Todd Phillips’s Joker. (And, sure, it’s a movie about a villain not a hero, but let’s not split hairs about whether or not a story featuring a Batman character and set in Gotham City, run by the Wayne family, really counts as a superhero movie.) So, is the tide turning? Has the system adjusted to allow for any future Dark Knights? Are the Oscars ready to stop worrying and love superheroes?

It’s worth considering both Black Panther and Joker as individual cases since they’re strikingly different movies. At the risk of dredging up Martin Scorsese’s “it’s not cinema” argument, Black Panther comes from the fine-tuned movie-making system of the MCU, which values the consistency and compatibility of the pieces that make up its expansive universe above the artistic qualities of any single film. The MCU is a stunning logistical feat built on the hard work of everyone from craftspeople and coders to movie stars. But it’s driven by a low-ceiling/high-floor approach to filmmaking that’s produced one good movie after another but few extraordinary movies, since producing extraordinary work is beyond the scope of its mission.

Sometimes the MCU gets there anyway, however. With Black Panther, Coogler didn’t so much break out of the MCU machine as find a way to use it as a tool for artistic expression. Cowritten by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, it raises more morally complex questions than most MCU films, thanks in part to a villain who asks the hero to push back against one tough-to-refute argument about racial and global inequality after another. The striking Afrofuturist design and remarkable performances all add up to a film that demands to be viewed as a unique achievement, even though it’s one part of a larger set. (Only the climactic battle feels like MCU business as usual.)

Joker, by contrast, comes from DC Films, a studio that’s largely given up on consistency and continuity after experiencing mixed results trying to create an MCU-like shared universe. Instead, the company has started to favor a “whatever works” approach, handing projects off to directors with distinctive visions for DC characters. Even films officially within the shared universe, like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, mostly play like they take place in worlds of their own. Todd Phillips’s Joker is set far from any corner of the DC universe we’ve seen before, a decaying place where the profound mental disintegration of its central character barely registers to the city around him until he starts shedding blood. Leaving aside Joker’s artistic value, it’s safe to say that the film has inspired strong reactions. It won the Golden Lion at Venice, inspired more than a few positive reviews, and turned the Bronx spot now forever to be known as the “Joker Stairs” into a tourist destination. Those who hate it, however, really hate it.

It’s being treated, in other words, much the same as other recent Best Picture nominees that divided audiences, like American Sniper or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (The politically backward Green Book belongs in a category all its own.) It also seems likely to earn Joaquin Phoenix a Best Actor Oscar for playing the same role as Ledger in The Dark Knight. That it belongs to a superhero universe is maybe the film’s fifth- or sixth-most notable element, somewhere below its vigorous nods to Scorsese and the ongoing debate about whether or not a bunch of early-’80s Wall Street bros would have known the words to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”

In that sense, maybe Joker’s ascent to the ranks of Best Picture nominees isn’t that different from Black Panther’s. “Black Panther and Joker are incredibly different movies,” Rich says, “but they both seem to indicate how much superhero-adjacent stories are being absorbed into culture, and how it feels inevitable that another Marvel movie, DC movie, etc., will be nominated for Best Picture again soon.” Black Panther and Joker, each in their own way, became impossible to ignore and made any remaining reluctance to treat superhero movies as awards contenders easy to forget. Eleven years ago, The Dark Knight inspired much hand-wringing about what sort of movies got nominated and whether that needed to change. But ultimately time has done more work for the Academy than its own efforts have. These days, superhero movies are just, well, movies.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.