As the 2024 Academy Awards nominations were announced, fans and cinephiles alike were ready to discuss the line-up and the snubs. This year’s nominations promise a diverse range of contenders, from groundbreaking documentaries and gripping dramas. Yet, one genre continuously stands on the outskirts of Oscar glory: superhero films.
Despite their immense popularity and success, these often find themselves in the shadows, with some exceptions that break through the genre barrier and secure an award. Some argue that the Academy favors more “artistic” or “serious” films over the blockbuster superhero flicks. While some believe the fantastical narratives and special effects pose challenges for the hero movies to be taken seriously in the eyes of voting members. But sometimes, we have a hero break through the glass ceiling and claim the ultimate recognition. Let’s take a look at the superhero movies that did take home the Academy Award.
11 Superman (1978)
Release Date December 13, 1978
Achievement In Visual Effects – 4 Noms, 1 Win
Released in 1978, Superman marked the dawn of superhero blockbusters. Starring Christopher Reeve as the iconic Superman, the movie follows his origin story: infancy on doomed Krypton to his heroic endeavors in Metropolis. Directed by Richard Donner, the film ended up being a critical and financial success and grossed $300 million globally. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Sound, Film Editing, and a memorable score by John Williams, the film secured the coveted Oscar for Visual Effects. Going beyond traditional categories, the innovative visual effects were acknowledged with a Special Achievement Award. Despite facing tough competition in Sound and Film Editing, Superman‘s groundbreaking effects work soared above the rest.
Defying Gravity With Visual Effects
The movie tagline, “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly,” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick; it was a testament to the film’s impact. The film’s most iconic achievement was its ability to make audiences believe that a man could fly. In an age before computer-generated imagery (CGI), the filmmakers used practical effects to bring aerial exploits to life. The wire-flying riggings used for take-offs and landings, combined with blue-screen matte techniques for stationary shots, created a seamless illusion of flight that captivated audiences worldwide.
10 Batman (1989)
Achievement In Art Direction–Set Direction – 1 Nom, 1 Win
10 years after the first superhero Academy Award, Batman, was the next to take one home. Directed by Tim Burton and released in 1989, Batman stood as a superhero film that really set the tone for future adaptations of comic book icons. Following Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, it departs from the original origin story of Batman, instead focusing on Batman inadvertently creating the Joker. Notable for its departure from the campy tone of previous Batman adaptations, Batman earned an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, thanks to the exceptional work of set decorators Peter Young and Anton Furst.
A Gothic Gotham Masterpiece
Furst is known for recreating a war-torn Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket, in which he applied his expertise to craft a hellish vision of decay for Gotham. Drawing inspiration from various architectural styles, they intentionally blended clashing elements to create a bleak, dystopian metropolis. Anton Furst and Peter Young’s win in the Best Art & Set Direction category at the Oscars recognized their outstanding contribution to the film’s visually striking world. The duo meticulously crafted a Gotham City that went beyond traditional superhero backdrops.
9 Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Achievement In Visual Effects – 3 Noms, 1 Win
In 2005, Spider-Man 2, the second installment of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, swung into the spotlight at the Oscars, securing the Best Visual Effects award. While Tobey Maguire reprised his role as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and faced off against the formidable Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina, it was the film’s technical prowess that garnered Academy recognition. Despite facing tough competition, Spider-Man 2 triumphed in the Best Visual Effects category at the Oscars.
Balancing Technology and Story
The film’s success was not only a testament to its captivating storytelling but also its groundbreaking use of visual effects. One example was the gripping train sequence and the menacing cybernetic tentacles of Doctor Octopus, which showcased a seamless blend of CGI and practical effects. John Dykstra, overseeing the visual effects, emphasized the filmmakers’ commitment to studying not only Spider-Man’s swinging movements through the city but also adhering to real-world physics.
8 The Incredibles (2004)
Best Animated Feature, Achievement In Sound Editing – 4 Noms, 2 wins
Director Brad Bird, known for his ability to infuse animated films with sophisticated storytelling, delivered a groundbreaking experience with The Incredibles. Released in 2004, the movie masterfully combined family dynamics with the challenges of living in secret as a superhero. Bird’s directorial prowess and Michael Giacchino’s musical direction brought home two Academy Awards in 2005: Best Animated Feature and Achievement in Sound Editing. The journey of The Incredibles began with Steve Job’s bold choice to hire Bird, an underdog in the animation landscape, even after his recent setback with the film The Iron Giant.
Choosing the Underdog
Bird had an ambitious vision for The Incredibles, and it was received with a lot of skepticism. Yet, his determination to defy the status quo led to groundbreaking achievements. After overcoming initial doubts and budget limitations, Bird assembled a like-minded, creative team that adopted the “underdog effect” to fuel their innovation. As a result, the film not only defied expectations but set new standards for computer-generated animation.
7 The Dark Knight (2008)
Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger) – Achievement in Sound Editing – 8 Noms, 2 Wins
In 2008, Christopher Nolan redefined superhero movies with The Dark Knight, the second installment in his groundbreaking Batman trilogy. Despite not securing a nomination for “Best Picture,” the film’s legacy paved the way for a paradigm shift in the Oscars, leading to an expansion of the “Best Picture” category. The Dark Knight garnered a total of eight Oscar nominations, securing two wins, marking a historic moment for superhero films.
It became an unforgettable cinematic experience, primarily due to Heath Ledger’s transformative portrayal of the Joker. Ledger’s performance was nothing short of legendary, perfectly capturing the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the iconic villain. Tragically passing away seven months before the film was released, Ledger won a posthumous “Best Support Actor” Oscar win. In addition to Ledger’s Oscar, The Dark Knight secured another Academy Award for “Best Sound Editing.” Richard King, a long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, received the honor for his exceptional work in creating a riveting auditory experience.
6 Big Hero 6 (2014)
Big Hero 6
Release Date October 24, 2014
Director Don Hall , Chris Williams
Best Animated Feature – 1 Nom, 1 Win
Released in 2014, Big Hero 6, weaved together the brilliant storytelling minds of Walt Disney Animation Studios with the Marvel Comics universe. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, the movie revolves around Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy, and Baymax, a healthcare-provider robot created by Hiro’s late brother Tadashi.
Together, they form a superhero team to confront a masked villain who’s responsibile for his brother’s death. At the 87th Academy Awards, Big Hero6 secured the Oscar for “Best Animated Feature,” triumphing over its competitors, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, Song Of The Sea, and The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya.
A Marvelous Animated Feature
Big Hero 6‘s victory at the Academy Awards marked seven consecutive wins for Disney in the Animated Feature Film category, following the success of Frozen the previous year. The film’s technological and storytelling breakthroughs were celebrated during the Academy’s post-Oscars series. Directed by Don Hall, Big Hero 6 stood out for its meticulous attention to detail, including extensive research in Tokyo, which enriched the film’s visual authenticity. The character design, particularly the cuddly appearance of Baymax, drew inspiration from real-life soft robotics, showcasing Disney’s commitment to innovation.
5 Suicide Squad (2016)
Best Makeup & Hairstyling – 1 Nom, 1 Win
Released in 2016, Suicide Squad has become infamous for being one of the least well-received entries in the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. However, it achieved a unique feat by securing the Oscar for “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” at the Academy Awards. Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Nelson were honored for their exceptional work in transforming actors into iconic DC characters, including Jared Leto’s Joker, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc.
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Recognition Among Criticism
Despite facing widespread criticism for its narrative, performances, and character depictions, Suicide Squad triumphed over competitors like the Swedish drama, A Man Called Ove, and the sci-fi spectacle, Star Trek Beyond. The victory underscored the exceptional artistry involved in crafting the distinct looks of the characters, with special commendation for turning actors into compelling versions of classic DC villains.
4 Black Panther (2018)
Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Achievement in Costume Design, Achievement in Production Design – 4 Noms, 3 Wins
Released in 2018, Black Panther stands as a groundbreaking achievement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not only for its superhero narrative but also for the cultural and historical significance it carries. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the film follows the journey of T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, the newly crowned king of Wakanda, as he grapples with protecting his people and traditions while facing the challenges posed by a vengeful relative, Michael B. Jordan.
A Cinema Marvel Shaping History
Black Panther made history at the Oscars, securing three wins out of seven nominations, the most ever for a superhero movie. While it missed the Best Picture award, it triumphed in three crucial categories: “Best Original Score,” “Best Production Design,” and “Best Costume Design.” The recognition extended beyond the fictional world of Wakanda to the talented individuals behind the scenes, such as Ruth E. Carter, the first African-American woman to win the Oscar for Costume Design, and production designer Hannah Beachler, the first black woman to win in her category.
3 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Best Animated Feature – 1 Win
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the 2018 animated sensation, swung into the hearts of audiences and critics alike, earning “Best Animated Feature Film” at the Academy Awards. The film’s uniqueness lies not only in its departure from the traditional Peter Parker narrative but also in its embrace of an array of web-slingers from diverse alternate realities. The film’s brilliance wasn’t confined to its diverse cast of Spider-People but extended to its groundbreaking animation styles, each tailored to the unique personalities of the characters.
A Web of Animated Brilliance
Into the Spider-Verse captivated audiences by exploring the concept of a multiverse, showcasing not only various Spider-People but also distinct animation styles. The film’s storytelling prowess, coupled with kaleidoscopic visuals, demonstrated a commitment to pushing the boundaries of animated storytelling. The clever integration of obscure variations of Spider-Man, along with the convergence of different animation techniques, made the movie a standout in the superhero genre.
2 Joker (2019)
Release Date October 2, 2019
Best Performance by an Actor In A Leading Role (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Achievement in Music Written For Motion Pictures – 11 Noms, 2 Wins
Joker, the 2019 DC film, ventured into the realm of the unconventional, presenting a unique and gritty take on the iconic Batman villain, the Joker. Joaquin Phoenix, who portrayed the troubled loner Arthur Fleck, delivered a performance that earned him the prestigious “Best Actor” Oscar at the Academy Awards. Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stands as a cinematic achievement that defied expectations and explored the psychological unraveling of its titular character.
The Symphony of Madness
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, left an indelible mark on the film and the superhero genre as a whole. His immersive performance, characterized by a haunting descent into madness, earned him the Oscar for “Best Actor.” In addition to Joaquin Phoenix’s accolade, Joker received another Oscar for “Best Original Score,” crafted by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The score, dominated by cello-heavy compositions, added an ominous and terrifying layer to Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Joker.
1 Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Black Panther Wakanda Forever
A sequel that will continue to explore the world of Wakanda and all the characters introduced in the 2018 film.
Release Date November 11, 2022
Best Achievement in Costume Design – 4 Noms, 1 Win
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the highly anticipated sequel to the groundbreaking Black Panther, made its mark at the Academy Awards by securing the coveted “Best Costume Design” Oscar for Ruth E. Carter. The film continued the legacy of its predecessor, exploring the African nation of Wakanda and introducing new characters like Namor. Angela Bassett, portraying Queen Ramonda, made history with a nomination for “Best Supporting Actress,” breaking barriers in the realm of superhero cinema.
Battle of the Visual Effects
Ruth E. Carter’s exceptional work in costume design played a pivotal role in the film’s success at the Oscars. With intricate attention to detail, Carter crafted attire that not only adorned the characters of Wakanda but also brought to life the cultural nuances of Namor’s Talokan. In the category of “Best Visual Effects,” it faced formidable competition from Avatar: The Way of Water. Despite both films boasting vibrant visuals and impressive CGI, Avatar secured the victory. The loss highlighted the ongoing challenge for MCU films to secure wins in visual effects categories, despite their contribution to cinematic experiences.