Think back over the last twenty years of the Academy Awards. How many times has a film that was not based, loosely or otherwise on real life events scooped the award for Best Picture? How many times has a fantasy or comic-book movie taken the top gong in showbiz? The answer is very, very rarely. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the victor in 2003, remains to this day the only fantasy film ever to win Best Picture. It cannot be denied that the movies that did win are outstanding in their own right. The likes of The Departed, Birdman and The Artist were in turn masterfully constructed, thought-provoking, witty and beautiful to look at. But the strength of the competition is not adequate enough an excuse to justify the exclusion of some equally masterful movies that have been released in the last twenty years, movies that, although they are equally well written, directed and acted, have been excluded for no other reason than the fact that they do not fall into the norms of what an Academy Award worthy movie is supposed to be: namely, an inspiring story based on real life events.
The perfect example of this kind of oversight is a movie that was released less than two years ago. Although Logan, the last of the current generation of Wolverine films, was released at a time that did not lend itself to consideration for an Oscar (it arrived in cinemas the March following La La Land’s vi… sorry, Moonlight’s victory at the 89th Academy Awards) it was a movie that in many ways dwarfed its more prestigious compatriots. The story, though arguably clichéd, was marvellously constructed and marked a decisive shift in the superhero genre from the Marvel-esque trop of shiny, polished action heroes battling various dastardly foes (with the fate of the world in the balance more often than not), to the more compact, more gritty and infinitely more relatable “small-screen” format that allowed Logan and Deadpool to enjoy the success they did. Logan was less a superhero movie and more of a harsh, honest and emotional farewell to one of cinema’s most popular action heroes. There were no intergalactic bad guys, no spaceships and no overtly unbelievable superpowers. Instead the film was the story of a world-weary man, his father figure (a fading Professor X, rendered masterfully by Patrick Stewart) and his pseudo-daughter (played with emotion and guile beyond her years by Dafne Kean), struggling to deliver the latter from danger and into safety. On paper this sounds like a potentially Oscar winning formula: father protects daughter from external forces while struggling with his own demons, and the strength of the acting coupled with the gnarly yet deep-rooted emotion of the film lend it all the qualities of a multi-award winning drama. And yet, despite garnering some attention, mostly from fans, as a potential Oscar nominee it was given no recognition. Why not? You might ask.
Hollywood, and the upper echelons of the film industry in general, fall predictably into the trap of labelling one type of movie as “art” and another as “money-maker”. Very few films manage to bridge this gap, The Return of the King being one that did. Critics seem loth to credit anything connected with fantasy or horror the credit it deserves. Just because a film features a crew of superheroes, a ghostly nun, or a fantastical array of characters does not mean it becomes worthless from an artistic point of view. The mark of a truly great film is that it make you feel emotion, whether that emotion is terror as the shadow of the Babadook creeps ominously along the wall towards the stricken child, despair as the hero crawls across the battlefield bleeding from a thousand wounds, or elation as the star-crossed lovers fall into each other’s arms for the first time. With regards to Logan, it seems ridiculous that a movie so filled with emotion could be so brutally overlooked. If you removed the superpowers and comic book connections and changed the setting from a dystopian America to say, Second World War Europe or the modern day Mexico/USA border, I have no doubt that the film would have been one of the forerunners in the 2018 Academy Awards for Best Picture and that Hugh Jackman, the film’s grizzled and gloriously haggard star, would have been more than in the running for Best Actor. So, what is it about action and horror movies that mean they are so frequently and wilfully overlooked by critics and judges whenever the contestants for award’s season are announced?
At its heart, I believe it comes down to a mixture of snobbery and fear, fear to break away from the accepted norms that suffocate the diversity of award shows like the Oscars and Golden Globes. Snobbery, because there is NO way that any movie with magic or superheroes could possibly be worthy of consideration in the eyes of many critics, and fear because it has become the norm to award Best Picture to a film that tells an inspiring real-life story, or one which chimes with the social issues of the year that the Oscars falls within. Now, this must not be misinterpreted to mean that the films that do succeed are worthless. Birdman was perhaps one of the best shot, best acted, most witty and most thought-provoking films I have ever seen. Similarly, Moonlight was a deftly acted and heartbreakingly honest representation of issues which are at the forefront of modern life in America today. Both of these films are so good because they manipulate and fuel our emotional responses and in this regard I fail to see how a film like Logan, like The Babadook (a wonderfully head-wrecking, an unusually intelligent psychological horror) and like a hundred more can be so overlooked when they so masterfully achieve what their more lauded counterparts are universally hailed for.