Oscar Math:

The Avengers + The Dark Knight Rises = One Nomination

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.

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Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children’s author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He has written more than ninety books for young people across a variety of genres, including graphic novels and theme-based classroom books focused on developing the literacy of reluctant readers. He was the series editor of Graphic Poetry, winner of the 2010 Texty Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association and the 2011 Teachers Choice Award from Learning Magazine. Glen received his Ph.D. from the University of Victoria in 1998, focusing on the history and theory of games in literature and culture. Since then, he has taught at a number of secondary and postsecondary institutions including UBC, Appleby College, and most recently, The York School in Toronto. His books have been published by Rubicon, Harcourt, Oxford, Scholastic, and Pearson Canada, and his reviews have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Beat, and Publishers Weekly.

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  1. Cody Walker says:

    Of course, I LOVE comic book movies. I really do. However, there is just a lack of substance behind most comic book movies beyond telling visually appealing narratives. Other than the Dark Knight, I can’t think of a single comic book movie deserving of an Academy Award because most comic book movies aren’t made to be any more than what they are. The Dark Knight was a movie about the nature of chaos and order and Heath Ledger perfectly exemplified this with his portrayal of the Joker, but the Avengers was a movie about . . . well . . . aliens attacking Earth and while Robert Downey jr. is a perfect Tony Stark, there just isn’t much more to Iron Man other than being a wealthy scoundrel. It’s great to watch, but there is no substance. Nothing to take away from that.

    In a way, it seems as if you are arguing that because a movie makes a lot of money that it deserves an Academy Award. Of course, this isn’t the case as we see when Avatar made all the monies ever and the Hurt Locker beat it out.

    Rotten Tomatoes may hold the Avengers in high regard, but that is because they are viewing the film within the realm of what it is meant to be; a great action film. As an action film, it is certainly a PERFECT movie. But it lacks substance beyond this and therefore can’t be elevated to Oscar status.

    • Glen Downey says:

      Hi Cody!

      Your observations are, of course, apt, and no doubt the sensible part of me will applaud when Daniel Day Lewis receives his Oscar. I think he spent a year researching the role of Lincoln and reading dozens of books on his life and times. Not sure how much shwarma Robert Downey Jr. ate in preparation for his role, but I can check.

      I’m not arguing, though, that films like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises should be accorded accolades because they made money. I’m suggesting that we should consider why we spend all that money collectively to see such films, and then largely dismiss them at awards time. I would argue that we, and the Academy, do precisely the same thing with comedies and comedic acting performances. It seems a shame.

      Your last point is the crux of it to be sure. If The Avengers is a perfect action film does that mean it must, by definition, be placed behind any drama that has what we traditionally think of as “substance?” That sort of seems a shame, too.

      Thanks for your comments, Cody! We’ve got the discussion rolling!

  2. Ben Marton says:

    Well, I think it’s actually pretty simple; until voting for Academy Award nominations becomes a democratic, public affair, the number of people who breathlessly (and, on a personal note, I’d say mystifyingly) praised the ‘gee whiz’ factor of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is irrelevant. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is the ultimate arbiter of the award that bears its name, and, right or wrong, is composed of a limited number of ‘experts’ with their own agenda.

    The real award conferred upon Nolan and Whedon for their workmanlike franchise pieces is the massive box office return. I love the Ramones, but would not have expected ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ to have been included in the recording sent along on the Voyager II probe. My favourite movie is ‘Army of Darkness,’ but I am not shocked and dismayed by the absence of Ash’s chainsaw prop from the Smithsonian. While I have always been a little disappointed that ‘Unbreakable,’ ‘Hancock’ and ‘The Incredibles’ were nor considered worthy of more critical acclaim, I try to keep some perspective.

    • Glen Downey says:

      Hey, Ben!

      The Ramones are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and got a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 — maybe they’ll put “I Wanna Be Sedated” in the next probe when they get around to it!

      My favorite movie is Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. I know–go figure–twelve chairs and a table…but Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb are sitting in two of the chairs.

      At the Oscars, I’d almost prefer some measure of separating the genres in certain categories, since action and comedy typically fare poorly against the drama (I’m thinking Shakespeare in Love and Annie Hall are the only two “comedies” that have won Best Picture in about the last 40 years).

      Thanks for your feedback!


      PS. Ash’s chainsaw prop isn’t in the Smithsonian? Now that’s just crazy. :-)

    • Cody Walker says:

      I’m not sure that I would want a more democratic process for the Academy Awards. I mean, do you want the same people who determine American Idol winners to determine best picture? I just think about my mom and how she has the worst taste in movies and if it were up to her, Wild Hogs would have won best picture years ago and Tarantino would never be nominated for anything because his films are “too violent” and “trash”

  3. Ben Marton says:

    Great point, Cody. And Glen, thank you for a generous reply to my rather snippy comment! I arrogantly assert by questionable authority, and you thank me. You, Sir, are a gentleman. But aren’t those two awards given to the Ramones simply for longevity? I think it is at least 25 years of output, in the case of the Hall of Famers. And I think I would put my quirky favourite, ‘Danny Says,’ on the probe…

    Your suggestion concerning division by genre has real merit; I do agree that action, sci-fi and horror (among others) tend to go begging come statuepalooza. In a perfect world, I would not have been as surprised as I was at ‘The Return of the King’s award success.

  4. As a member of the Writer’s Guild, I had an inside perspective on Oscar campaigning, and Warner Bros. definitely put The Dark Knight Rises out there, but it didn’t wind up getting nominated. TDKR was a rather divisive film, even among comics fans, so I understand why it didn’t get nominated. And, while Avengers was a lot of fun, I just don’t think it was at the level of the other nominated films.

    There’s always the temptation to say the Academy is out of touch, and there should be more populist categories, but honestly this year’s films are both accessible and generally pretty great. Argo or Django Unchained are great, fairly straightforward movies that I think deserve the commendation they’ve received. Even if there was an action movie category, I would put Django and Zero Dark Thirty in there.

    • Glen Downey says:

      Your points are well taken, Patrick! I thought, perhaps, that The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises might have shared three or four nominations between them in the technical categories rather than just the one. The Hobbit has been panned in some quarters–a bit unfairly I think–and managed to garner three nominations.

      And there are some strange nominations this year to be sure. I don’t quite know what to make of Les Miserables being nominated for Best Makeup. I think I could come up with five more deserving nominees in that category with a random list of films in my hand and a 20-sided dice.


  5. ...Ryan C says:

    I understand the point Glen is getting at here — that these films are pretty solid examples of what they are that we’re living in some sort of “golden age,” if you will, of super-hero movies. The fact that I didn’t particularly like either of these films is neither here nor there — I understand that most people did. But even leaving that aside, the idea that Ruffalo and Whedon were in any way deserving of Oscar nods is, I’m sorry, nonsense. Ruffalo, yes, gave a good performance as Bruce Banner — but it was hardly exceptional. We were just so used to seeing actors completely botch the part that a nice, solid turn in the role was a very pleasant surprise. Every single nominee in the Supporting Actor category turned in a better performance than Ruffalo, and they were all working with weightier and more consequential material. As for Whedon, he did a nicely competent job directing in what’s fast becoming a Marvel “house style.” It’s indinstinguishable, more or less, from the style of Jon Favreau, right down to both of them having an addiction to showing Robert Downey’s face inside the Iron Man helmet. As a matter of fact, if “The Avengers” had gone out mistakenly credited at the end “directed by Jon Favreau,” do you honestly think anyone would have noticed the difference? Marvel learned the hard way with “auteur” directors like Lee and Raimi that they’d just as soon bring in people who don’t make many demands in terms of individual artistic determination and that their product is better served by hiring directors with a high level of skill but pretty much no strong impulse to put their own personal stamp on their characters. The “best director” Oscar category is usually reserved not just for people who did a competent, even skillful, job of bringing a story to screen, but for those whose films were an expression of personal artistic vision (which is what sets Nolan’s films apart from most superhero fare — love it, hate it, or feel kind of “blah” about it, as I did vis a vis DKR, there’s no argument that it’s a product of a more singular artistic vision than, say, “Avengers” of “Iron Man,” for example). And so it should remain. “The Avengers” didn’t start life as a Joss Whedon concept, after all — it was a director-for-hire project. An enormously successful, big-bugedt director-for-hire project, sure, but a director-for-hire project nonetheless. When was the last time somebody working a director-for-hire project won the “best director” Oscar? I don’t know offhand, but it’s been a long time — maybe Coppola with the first “Godfather” film (which we equate with him so strongly that we don’t even think of it as director-for-hire work anymore, but it was — teh studio owned the book rights and hired Coppola to film it)?

    Anyway, I do want to say thanks for the article and providing us with a very thoughtful read, even if I may nit-pick at a few of your points. Sometimes I justthink our love for this genre can blind us a bit. I don’t think it’s any inherent bias against superhero flicks that kept Ruffalo and Whedon from receving Oscar nominations — I think it’s simply a fact that, while the work they did was good, and in the minds of many maybe even great, it wasn’t in the same league as the work of the people who were, in fact, nominated.

    • Glen Downey says:

      Thanks Ryan!

      As you recognized, I am being a bit of a devil’s advocate in the piece. I wonder, though, how the comedic, the action-packed, the comic-bookish and the just plain fun can ever really stand up in the Academy’s eyes against the weighty, the substantive, the deep (I know, I know…weighty, substantive, and deep sound pretty good).

      At the 1979 Academy Awards, though, Dustin Hoffman wins for Kramer vs. Kramer. Peter Sellers doesn’t win for Being There.

      Heavy sigh,



  6. ...Ryan C says:

    I agree there is a heavy bias against action-adventure films and comedy within the Academy, no question, and it’s one of the reasons I’m glad the Golden Globes have a separate musical/comedy category. That being said, that bias has dissipated a bit in recent years. I’m not suggesting for a moment that “Gladiator” deserved to win any Oscars at all, yet alone Best Picture as it did, but it did prove that a relatively substance-free action-adventure movie can take home the big prize. On a more universally-agreed upon front, “Annie Hall,” while not nearly of the same historical signifance as “Star Wars” in the scheme of things, is not really a movie that anyone points to and says “Geez, that beat out ‘Star Wars’ for Best Picture?,” because most folks agree it was a fine flick and very deserving of its Oscar win. Likewise, Martin Landau’s turn as Bela Lugosi in Burton’s “Ed Wood” is an award most close Oscar observers agree with wholeheartedly.

    At the end of the day, there will always be quibbles with the Academy’s choices, even when it comes to respectable drama. Is Hoffman’s win over Sellers any less egregious than “Ordinanary People” beating out “Raging Bull,” or “Forrest Gump” winning over “Pulp Fiction?” Probably not, so even within so-called “respectable drama” the Academy doesn’t always get it right. Opening up separate sub-categories for action-adventure, comedy, etc., would make the awards more fun — and longer, which nobody wants — but it’s no lock that the choices for winners in these sub-categories would make many folks happy, either.

    Of all the awards, though, the Best Director category usually at least finds a way to pick at the very least a suitable-enough winner. Sure, I’d have been thrilled to see some of the more interesting nominess of more recent years — Lynch for “Mulholland Drive,” Egoyan for “The Sweet Hereafter,” to name just a couple that spring to mind — walk home with the hardware at the end of the night, but the fact remains that this award has gone to the likes of Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Allen, Spielberg, Forman, Polanski, and the Coen Brothers — anyone who suggests that Joss Whedon’s name belongs anywhere in that list for any reason whatsoever is smoking something pretty interesting. He might be a darn good action-adventure director, but even narrowing it to the braodly-themed action-adventure genre alone, does “The Avengers,” Whedon’s most popular work and the one we’re discussing here anyway, come anywhere near close to any of the directors who have won for action-adventure work — say, Friedkin for “The French Connection?” Good heavens no. It’s not even remotely as compelling, from a pure direction standpoint, as action-0adventure work for which Friedkin wasn’t nominated, like “To Live And Die In L.A.” Maybe one day Joss Whedon will direct a film that does, in fact, earn him a place among the very best. I look forward to seeing it if he does. But “The Avengers” isn’t it, and even its biggest and most rabidly partisan fans can’t make an argument for it to be thought of on that level with a straight face.

  7. Ben Marton says:

    Ryan C, you make some excellent points, and you make them well; I must confess that I have repeatedly tried to ‘find a way in’ to ‘The Avengers,’ and there is just something…flattened out about it. It telegraphs poorly contrived set pieces and winking, self-congratulatory one-liners when it isn’t serving as the Tony Stark show.

    I certainly find ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America’ to be far more satisfying films, primarily because the intent of their respective directors shines through much more clearly, and each has a definable tone and aesthetic sensibility. Yet the narrative arcs of both central characters are criminally ignored in ‘The Avengers’ in favour of the Hulk throwing rag doll Loki around. And I’m sorry, but by the time Christopher Nolan’s po faced, agonizing Batman melodrama had ground to a sodden halt, I was way past caring.

    The more I think about these two strangely venerated films, the more I am convinced that a good deal of the enthusiasm they generate may not be so much appreciation of real cinematic merit as it is mis-apprehended relief by over-expectant fans that Whedon and Nolan didn’t mess up as badly as they might have. And I don’t believe dodging a bullet is sufficient to earn a gold statue.

  8. Glen Downey says:

    Thanks Ben and Ryan once again!

    I liked Captain America–for the sentiment it expressed and a couple of the acting performances. I really enjoyed Thor–especially Hemsworth and Feore–though I found the Warriors Three pretty forgettable…like Jar Jar Binks forgettable.

    Yeah…I know…where is Gilderoy Lockhart with an Obliviate spell when I need one?

  9. Ryan C. says:

    I wrote intial reviews of both “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” for the website Through The Shattered Lens, here’s “Dark Knight”: http://unobtainium13.com/2012/07/20/trash-film-guru-vs-the-summer-blockbusters-the-dark-knight-rises/ , and here’s “Avengers” : http://unobtainium13.com/2012/05/16/okay-so-i-saw-the-avengers/ (both are also reposted on my main “solo” site, Trash Film Guru, http://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com , where I blog about films and comics pretty frequently). In retrospect, I feel like I went a little easy on both films as they’ve each become less enjoyable with subsequent viewings. I absolutely agree that both “Thor” and “Captain America” were far superior flicks to “Avengers,” as both at least displayed a unique authorial style on the part of their directors, and “Thor” was suffused with enough well-realized Kirby vision to sustain the film even if everything else about it had sucked, which thankfully it didn’t. Whedon’s “Avengers,” on the other hand, felt more or less exactly like Favreau’s “Iron Man” films, and all of them feel like visual interprtations of Marvels’ “Ultimate” Universe comics (A Universe that Marvel seems to be relegating to distant-second-tier status on the printed page even as it takes primacy on the big screen). I think, frankly, that Whedon had nothing particularly new or interesting to say with this film, or even a distinctive take of his own on any of the characters or the situations they faced — he just has a keen instinct for what the sci-fi/super-hero fan community wants (look at the size of his “cult” following, and check out the ferocity with which they’re willing to defend the guy) and delivers it. He knows how to do things by the numbers exactly. But if you want anything in the least bit challening, unconventional, or at the very least unexpected, look elsewhere.

    As for Nolan, the conclusion to his Bat-trilogy suffered from just the opposite problem. He had a distinctive vision and some rather personal obsessions he wanted to explore through these films, and by the time they were over, the trilogy had become so bogged down with its own self-contained mythology that it literally swallowed itself up its own ass. I recently re-watched all three on the Blu-Ray box set that just came out and I was struck by how steadily and inexorably downward they spiraled and how, contrary to what most folks apparently feel, “Batman Begins” stands out as, in my own humble view, quite easily the best of the bunch. But as Nolan gave in to his excesses more completely with each film — not unlike his idol, Hitchcock, but with nowhere near Hitchcock’s level of purely instinctive cinematic skill — the films became both more personal yet, bizarrely, less interesting. By the time “Dark Knight Rises” comes along and he’s given free reign/carte blache by the studio to indulge in his worst excesses, it’s all sadly inevitable that it’s doomed to come off the rails.

    That being said, a deeply flawed movie that t least has some vision and intent behind it is still of more artistic merit, in my view, than a film that tries to do nothing but be a crowd-pleaser for its own sake, so I still think DKR was a better flick than “Avengers,” but that, frankly, neither were really very good. Best comic book movie of 2012, then? Honestly, I think it was “Dredd,” and by a substantial margin. But that’s another converstaion for another time, I suppose.

    Oh, and for a personal anecdote relating to Ben’s point about people feeling “relieved” about Whedon and Nolan not f***ing things up, when I first voiced even the most mild reservations abou “The Avengers” on twitter, one of the more rabid “Whedonistas,” or whatever they’re called, out there, who runs one of the major sci-fi/fantasy fan websites, after calming down from his initial outrage at my apparent “blasphemy” at not thinking the movie was the greatest thign ever made, finally relented on the point of Whedon’s style being virtually indistinguishable from Favreau’s, but said Whedon deserved extra credit and praise for his work because, and I quote, “‘The Avengers’ could have sucked but didn’t.” When I pointed out that you could say the same for every single movie ever made that didn’t suck, said sci-fi editor/tweeter simply said I was determind to be a “hater” and exited the conversation. Excuse me? I never said I “hated” the film — and I don’t, I just don’t find there to be anything even remotely special abut it — but, more importantly, if out standards are so low than “not sucking when it could have” (again, something that can be said for any film at all that doesn’t suck) is considered some sort of artistic triumph, then we have only ourselves to blame when we get a steady stream of dull-but-competently-executed, essentially-interchangeable dross from Hollywood, because we’re not asking for anything more than that.

  10. ...Ryan C says:

    On an weirdly technical note, I wondeer why on some of my posts here, my chosen avaatar shows up,while on others it doesn’t?

  11. ...Ryan C says:

    And I wonder what’s with my typing today, but that’s another matter —

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