When Spider-Man: No Way Home was released in theaters last month, no one was talking about the Oscars, but it was clear that they would be shortly. The picture swung into screens like a pre-ordained rescuer of cinema, a well-worn spandex bodysuit bearing the ambitions of an industry.
The film’s managers could go about asking a non-monetary recompense for their efforts as soon as the picture produced the massive box-office earnings that were fully anticipated of it.
The film’s official Oscar campaign for best picture had begun by the end of December, and a profile in trade publication the Hollywood Reporter provided the producers with a substantial platform to assert their merits. Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, made a populist case for the film, saying that he hopes the Academy “will think about the artistry that goes into storytelling that connects with a wide range of people on a very emotional level,” and that the public’s enthusiastic response is “the sort of thing the Academy was founded, back in the day, to recognize.”
Meanwhile, Tom Rothman, the chairman of Sony Pictures, defended No Way Home as a paradigm of “quality commerciality” that “the Academy needs to stay connected to.” “We have to overcome, strangely, the prejudice against the fact that it’s a big hit,” he concludes.
Oh, the poor wealthy little flick! No Way Home has generated over $1.6 billion globally to far, but as this marketing would have it, what it lacks is the love and respect of the industry it is attempting to save.
Last year’s win for Chloe Zhao’s quiet, meditative cross-country docufiction Nomadland, a film that shares a medium with Spider-Man in much the same way that Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger shared DNA in Twins, exemplified how the shape of an Oscar behemoth has changed over the years: voters have largely favored independent and arthouse features that rake in modest sums relative to the average Marvel blockbuster (In the meanwhile, Zhao’s own Marvel feature Eternals, which was lauded as a game-changing stunner by Feige before to its release, isn’t receiving a murmur of awards chatter from its studio: after all, it only earned a fifth of No Way Home’s current revenue.)
Recently, falling year-over-year TV ratings for the Oscar presentation have strengthened the narrative that Feige and Rothman are now promoting: that the Oscars have lost their popular touch, causing the public to identify with “elitist” critics and tastemakers’ tastes. (Notice the e-word, which has filtered down from the present conservative politicians’ public-versus-media debate.)
It’s the same criticism that prompted a frantic Academy to propose a “best popular film” Oscar a few years ago, only to quickly abandon the idea when it became evident they didn’t know what the criteria would be for such a distinction. (Do you want the biggest money or the most respectable money? Who can say?)
It’s both clever and deceptive to build a best picture campaign on the same foundation. The Academy has never had a prejudice against commercial success or the blockbuster form: in the last ten years, ostensibly the Oscars’ era of arthouse surrender, such big, brash popular entertainments as Joker, Gravity, Get Out, Ford v Ferrari, and Bohemian Rhapsody have received best picture nominations (and multiple prizes).
No Way Home would not be the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to be nominated for an Academy Award: just three years ago, Feige received an Oscar nomination for Black Panther. It wouldn’t be the first sequel in a long-running action series to triumph where its predecessors had failed: Mad Max: Fury Road won a half-dozen Academy Awards in 2016.
As it stands, No Way Home seems to be a long shot for a best picture nomination: a lower-ranking beneficiary of the Academy’s decision to limit the best picture category to a set ten spots, but far from a leader. Its chances of winning an award were recently dashed when Bafta rejected it from all categories when it failed to appear on the British Academy’s digital viewing platform in time. (British blockbuster hopes instead rely on No Time to Die, which was prominently included in the Bafta longlists published last week, while Billie Eilish’s somber theme tune is the most likely Oscar contender.)
Blockbuster cinema is all but secured a berth in the Oscar sweepstakes in the shape of Denis Villeneuve’s magnificent sci-fi extravaganza Dune, which has touched all the requisite precursors on the awards trail so far and has grossed almost $400 million globally.
That’s not much in comparison to No Way Home, but it’s a lot more than any other best picture winner since The King’s Speech. (Though Tom Hooper’s royalty-corn drama is just 11 years old, it seems like a relic from a time when a small-scale, adult-skewing drama could gross even modest superhero numbers in theaters.)
Isn’t Dune, in Rothman’s words, an example of “quality commerciality”? Or is it only a billion dollars short of that? Is the Academy merely biased towards certain types of major hits?
Perhaps the more vague reality that Spider-supporters Man’s don’t want to admit is that it doesn’t seem like an Oscar candidate in the same way that most blockbusters that pass the best picture barrier do. Dune would seem outré as a best picture winner just because of its genre, but it also serious, literary, and aesthetically and acoustically beautiful.
Villeneuve has envisioned it as art but still having to work as a product, much like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which won Oscars despite falling outside the Academy’s genre wheelhouse 20 years ago. Even the closest parallel for a No Way Home nomination, Black Panther, made its case to the Academy on the basis of political relevance and original design: it was awarded as a cultural milestone, not just a commercial hit.
No Way Home, on the other hand, has a tougher time convincing Academy voters that movie is anything other than a commercial flashlight in the Covid-era business darkness. Even the multiverse twist that serves as the picture’s most distinguishing narrative element was addressed more creatively and inventively in 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so novelty was never expected to be a virtue of the ninth Spider-Man film in 20 years. That film earned a well-deserved Oscar in the animated category, but it had little Oscar buzz for best picture.
It’s clear that No Way Home’s Oscar campaign is only focused on best picture, with no effort expended to highlight the film’s acting, director, narrative, or even technical elements, all of which will eventually lose to Dune. As a result, the marketing promotes the movie as more than the sum of its parts, with money filling in the gaps.
That may be enough for some involved parties in an uneasy sector. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. In the 1952 Academy Awards, Cecil B DeMille’s enormous, garish, extravagantly foolish and very profitable circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth triumphed against future-classic western High Noon and John Ford’s The Quiet Man, shocking several viewers. It was noteworthy that DeMille’s picture only received one additional award (for “best original story,” a questionable claim).
Nobody could suggest with a straight face that the choice helped art, but it did recognise the year’s highest-grossing picture by a wide margin. It was, undoubtedly not by chance, the first Oscar broadcast ever to be shown on television: an ironic surrender to a media that was at the time seen as a threatening menace to cinema’s survival.
With the public watching, the Academy decided to honor the people’s decision, which occurred to be a spectacular Technicolor extravaganza that television couldn’t give at the time.
It wasn’t the first or last time the Academy bowed down to a popular phenomenon, though audiences have a tendency to gravitate toward blockbusters that at least ostensibly match their ideas of prestige fare: sweeping historical romance in Gone With the Wind (or Titanic, decades later), anti-Nazi politicking in The Sound of Music, the morally burdened underworld saga of The Godfather films, the treacly American Dream ideology of Forrest Gump.
Those blockbusters, on the other hand, don’t exist in a commercial landscape dominated by comic book fantasy, animation, and all-important IP; gone, too, is the world in which a modest, adult-targeted, borderline televisual character drama like Rain Man, 1988’s best picture winner, could also be the year’s highest-grossing film.
Even as recent outlier winners like Moonlight and Parasite have indicated a surge of younger, more adventurous Academy members, the Academy’s taste hasn’t radically changed over the years: a film like 2018’s best picture winner Green Book could have won the award at any point in the last half-century, even if it had made blockbuster money in previous decades. (As it is, Peter Farrelly’s unapologetically middlebrow race-relations story has grossed over $300 million worldwide, hardly indicating a shift in public opinion toward the obscure.)
All of this is to suggest that the Academy hasn’t shied away from blockbusters as much as blockbusters have shied away from them, while the fine adult dramas that have always been their sweet spot have been rebranded as art pictures. The lukewarm box office reception of Steven Spielberg’s much-touted West Side Story remake last month is a perfect illustration of this paradigm shift.
The first dominated the box office and the Oscars in 1961; the sequel is now regarded as a fringe critics’ favorite, while its Oscar aspirations remain strong.
Is there any benefit to the Oscars re-embracing blockbuster movie on its present parameters, except than boosting Kevin Feige’s ego? Of sure, a No Way Home nomination will boost the televised numbers, but too many experts underestimate Zoomers’ desire in watching a three-hour award show — with advertisements – when their favorite film of the year may or may not win. (If it does, they’ll undoubtedly watch it, along with Billie Eilish’s performance, the following day on YouTube.)
If the Academy is after that shaky clout, they may as well brace their teeth and make No Way Home this year’s The Greatest Show on Earth — a different type of victory flag for a financially endangered form at the time, further confirmed with gold. However, it will age similarly.