I managed to catch most of the live stream of the Academy Award nominations the other day, and I wasn’t surprised by the list of nominees in each category. Being in the thick of awards season, I had a sense of who the Academy would be giving nods to this year. So, like Emma Stone, I spent most of the brief broadcast wondering what Seth MacFarlane was going to say next.
When the live stream ended, though, and I got a chance to look at the nominations, I was struck by the fact that the 3rd and 7th highest grossing films of all time worldwide — The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises — managed to garner but a single nomination between them (with The Avengers getting a nod for Visual Effects). I don’t doubt that the Oscar nominees announced by MacFarlane and Stone are worthy of acknowledgment; it was, after all, a great year at the movies. But now that we’re more than a decade into the present century, it might be time for a brief discussion about how we see, think about, and appreciate contemporary blockbuster films.
The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were the two highest grossing films of 2012, earning $1,071,500,000 domestically and $2,592,800,000 worldwide. Both were also given considerable praise by critics, receiving acknowledgment for individual performances and, of course, for the action sequences and visual effects that we have come to take for granted. And no, I won’t throw Rotten Tomatoes at you and tell you that The Dark Knight Rises scored an 87% with critics, putting it level with Titanic and four points up on Avatar. And no, I won’t stoop so low as to mention that the 92% rating of The Avengers puts it a point up on The Deer Hunter and The Last Emperor.
The films that DC and Marvel have given us in recent years are about comic-book characters that inhabit comic-book worlds, and so they never were (and never are) going to be Citizen Kane or Casablanca with costumed crime fighters. They’re not going to give us Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane whispering “Rosebud” as the screen fades to black. They’re going to give us Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man eating shwarma at the end of The Avengers’s credits. To expect these films to do otherwise would, of course, be rather silly of us.
But we do need to ask ourselves why, when awards season rolls around, we often feel obliged to take the films that we talked about (and laughed about, and were so excited about that we went to see them two or three times) and put them largely to the side when it comes to handing out honors for acting and directing. If we like watching films about comic-book heroes and comic-book villains, why don’t we think these characters are good enough to stand against the heroes and villains of, for instance, the Iran hostage crisis, the bin Laden raid, or American presidential history? Why aren’t these performances acknowledged?
I would submit that the answer can be found at the Academy Awards themselves.
There’s a point in the show each year when an actor comes out on stage to tell us — perhaps admit is the more accurate term — that he or she recently hosted the Scientific and Technical awards. It always seems to be an awkward moment in the telecast, though the celebrities in attendance applaud good-naturedly after a twenty second clip of someone receiving an award for being the first to patent a process that is vital to filmmaking but which we aren’t really given time to understand. We don’t really care so much anyways, as it turns out, since these awards, as far as the public is concerned, don’t really “count.”
Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not suggesting that the Academy adds a dozen or so technical awards to its broadcast dealing with aspects of filmmaking that would each take several hours to explain to us. No one wants that — ever. What I am suggesting, though, is that all of us — those inside and outside the film industry — need to develop a greater appreciation for what films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises do so seamlessly nowadays. Why? Because you and I both know that we take for granted (all the time) what these films do. We also know that when action and adventure films don’t do these things seamlessly, we swiftly take them to task.
We also need to raise the question of why, when awards season is upon us, someone like Mark Ruffalo isn’t being talked about for his supporting role in The Avengers or Joss Whedon for achievement in film direction. When The Avengers was in theatres, people couldn’t stop talking about Ruffalo’s performance as Bruce Banner or about how exciting and entertaining they found Whedon’s direction of the film. Now that the nominations have been announced, though, there are no such discussions.
Why is this significant? Well, it won’t surprise you to know that as soon as the nominations for Best Director were read, criticisms began rolling in over the snubs to Kathryn Bigelow (for Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (for Argo). These haven’t just been criticisms mind you—some have gone so far as to talk about the omissions as “conspiracies.” After all, Bigelow and Affleck are serious filmmakers making serious films… important films… meaningful films. How could they possibly be left off the ballot?
No such hair-pulling or consternation over Joss Whedon being left off the ballot. Hell, there wasn’t even discussion about putting Joss Whedon on the ballot. Of course, he directed a film based on a comic book, so it’s not really a serious film, or an important film, or a meaningful film…right?
I don’t know…have you seen The Avengers?
I’ll bet more of you have seen it than Zero Dark Thirty or Argo.