Can a superhero movie win the Best Picture Oscar?

Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on the Joker is winning awards and picking up Oscar buzz – but based on past results, does it have a chance of glory?

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Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on Batman’s arch-nemesis, Joker, hasn’t even been released yet but some are already mooting it for potential Oscar glory.

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After the comic-book adaptation picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice International film festival, it’s easy to see why some are already predicting it might be the first film in the superhero movie genre to pick up the Best Picture Oscar – but could this really be possible?

To ponder the possibilities, it’s worth taking a trip back to the 2009 Oscars, the first time that a live-action superhero movie seemed to have a serious shot at winning the top prize (previous winners like Spider-Man 2, Superman and Batman had won sporadically in categories like set design and visual effects, but not in great numbers).

Back in 2009, Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic The Dark Knight was critically-acclaimed, commercially successful and widely regarded as one of the best films of the past 12 months.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight
Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

But of course, The Dark Knight wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, with the outcry over the supposed “snub” (notably, footage from the film was used in a montage with scenes from the actual nominees at one point during the ceremony) reportedly influencing the Academy’s decision to increase the Best Picture nominations from five to 10, allowing films like The Dark Knight to at least find themselves in the running in future years.

Still, despite this there was a significant win for comic-book movies that year – Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor for playing the Joker, which marked the first time a superhero-based movie had won in the major award categories (producing, directing, acting, or writing) and could set a good precedent for Phoenix’s similarly gritty, Method take on the Clown Prince of crime.

On the other hand, it could be that this award was something of an outlier. While Ledger’s performance is rightly acclaimed, it’s not hard to imagine that the Supporting Actor race may have been tighter were it not for his tragic death, and in the years immediately after Ledger’s win superhero films weren’t massively bothering the Academy voters.

Suicide Squad

But as superhero films became more and more dominant at the box office, gradually things started to shift. In 2017, largely-derided team-up movie Suicide Squad won an award for hair and makeup styling in a first for the genre, and the following year James Mangold’s Wolverine character piece Logan picked up a nomination for Best Adapted screenplay, the first time a live-action superhero film had ever broken into the writing categories.

And in 2018, even bigger shifts were to come. After being nominated (and losing) in technical categories for years, the critical success and cultural impact of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther created a movement that The Academy would have been foolish to ignore.

Their response? Attempt to create a new “Best Popular Movie” category, which couldn’t have been more clearly marketed if it was called the “Make up an award to give Black Panther prize.” The announcement was hugely unpopular, with many noting that it further ghettoised mainstream, popular films out of the prestigious Oscar categories, and the decision was quickly reversed.

Instead, Black Panther did become the first live-action superhero movie to break into the Best Picture category, and while it didn’t win – Green Book did instead, starring future and past Marvel star Mahershala Ali – it was still another step towards superhero movies finding mainstream awards success.

Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) (Marvel, HF)
Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) (Marvel, HF)

And given the fact that Black Panther *did* end up winning awards for Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, it was definitely a good night for Marvel, which had never managed to pick up an Oscar in the past, and for Sony, who won Best Animated Feature for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Fastforward to this year’s ceremony, and with all this groundwork laid it’s safe to say that a movie like Joker has more chance of winning Best Picture (or any other of the more prestigious awards) than it would have 10, or even just five years ago, especially given its artier, more character-driven focus compared to Marvel’s big-budget CGI spectaculars.

It’s also possible that an epoch-ending film like Avengers: Endgame could do better than expected given its impact, but generally speaking it tends to be more grounded stories like Joker that are in with a chance at glory.

So will Joker, or any other superhero film in the future, win Best Picture? It’s not impossible. The victories of films like Lord of the Rings and Toy Story in previous years show that mainstream films with a fantasy element can sometimes win, and despite a general fear of just how much superhero movies (and particularly Marvel) dominate the cinematic conversation these days from many, it’s hard to imagine that one film from the genre won’t one day crack the formula.

But whether it’s Joker itself that finally has the last laugh remains to be seen.

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Joker is released in UK cinemas on Friday 4th October