By Daniel Smith-Rowsey
Ah, blockbusters. For us discriminating film fans, they’re a bit like that fashionable cousin at the family reunion that just won’t shut up. We love them and we hate them, but how to contextualize them with the rest of our lives? Some of us go out of our way to praise them for the slightest effort at respectability.
But perhaps we shouldn’t. This piece exists to explain why, despite the plaudits, none of Hollywood’s intended blockbusters of the first half of 2017 will be getting any but the most technical of Oscar nominations seven months from now (you know, like Sound Editing). There’s no Mad Max: Fury Road crashing this year’s party, more’s the pity.
Steve Neale distinguishes between two kinds of blockbusters, “intended” and “accidental,” and here we focus on the former while acknowledging that 2017 has already delivered one of the most glorious possible examples of the latter in Get Out. Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy, the best first film by any American director since roughly Being John Malkovich, is worth several dozen think-pieces, but lucky for you those have already been written by everyone from Aisha Harris to Zadie Smith, so no need to further reanimate that corpse (see what I did there). The first six months also produced at least one kinda-sorta accidentally-intended blockbuster in The Boss Baby, which couldn’t get a nomination even for Best Animated Feature if it shoved cookies down every voter’s throat.
Oscar nomination prospects are bleak indeed for intended blockbusters that under-performed, like Alien: Covered Up or King Arthur: Legend of the Soporific. (I think those were their titles.) The U.S. domestic Top 12 of the first half of 2017 consists of Get Out, The Boss Baby, and ten other films that did as their budgets intended and became blockbusters. Any Oscar nomination chances for any of those ten in Mad Max, Gravity-friendly categories like Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, or in Acting?
No, and an underrated reason why is that they’re all based on previous properties. We no longer live in a time where studios spend $100 million on an untested original idea that could go on to win four Oscars like The Matrix (its budget would be $100m+ in today’s dollars). Today’s big-budget movies, beyond plodding through the predictable hero’s-journey three-act structure, are also planting seeds for spin-offs and are chock-full with winks and gestures to knowing fans, qualities that give the films the feeling of received (not achieved) knowingness more associated with the open-ended quality of television. One reason Fury Road was so compelling was that it obviously didn’t care about the other Mad Maxes, its TV-friendliness, or its franchiseability.
You can’t say the equivalent about even the best of this year’s successful blockbusters, but let’s start with the worst, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Careers Tell Tiresome Tales, or some such subtitle. Johnny Depp earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his original incarnation of the scoundrel Jack Sparrow, but with rottentomatoes scores like these, “Jack and the Never-Land Pirates” has a better chance at an Emmy than POTC has at any Oscar nod, savvy?
Speaking of tiresome, another perennial franchise is screeching tired. Apparently The Fate of the Furious: See, We Didn’t Name It F8 is that its fans will eventually grouse that the franchise never got a single Oscar nomination. Any Furious move toward greater respectability (a la Logan) would likely give the Fast fans whiplash.
Speaking of recklessly driving nowhere, Cars 2: More Mater proved that Pixar films didn’t have a Free Parking Space in the Best Animated Feature category; it was the first Pixar feature to be shut out, but as Cars 3: Less Mater will prove, not the last. (Disney doesn’t care about murky-chancey-dicey Oscar odds for Pirates or Cars; they care about selling new Merc. Chan. Dise.)
Speaking of films about merch, everything is awesome about The Lego Batman Movie: A Lot of Joker Crying, except that it doesn’t have a song nearly as great as “Everything is Awesome,” which accounted for The Lego Movie’s only Oscar nomination three years ago. (Sorry, but five different ways to “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” the old Batman theme don’t count.) Nor does it have the meta-plotline with Will Ferrell that made you think past (and take a welcome break from) all the Lego-world conflict. But wait, would snubbing Lego Batman give those Dark Knight fans one more thing to complain about? In that case it’s definitely getting snubbed.
Somehow, the first Transformers pulled off three Oscar nominations ten years ago – two for sound, one for visual effects. And six years ago, the third film…got the same three nominations! These may have been a gesture to Michael Bay who promised he was done after three films, and who probably reneged the day after the nods. He was properly punished with zero mentions for Transformers: Age of Extinct Ideas. Here’s my guess at the Academy reaction to The Last Knight:
I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
The original King Kong (1933) got zero Academy recognition, even though it pretty much invented visual effects and was the first film to have more than an hour of original music written for it (what we now call a “score”). The first remake, King Kong (1976), got two Oscar nominations and no wins. The second remake, King Kong (2005), won three Oscars out of four nominations. If I’m doing my math right, then, Kong: Skull Island: See, We Didn’t Name it King Kong (2017) will win six Oscars out of eight nominations?! Ha ha, just kidding, it’s getting nothing. But wait, what about all those Apocalypse Now references? Okay, maybe a slight chance of a sound or visual nomination coming from Academy voters’ vestigial muscle memory.
Can live-action superhero films get Oscar nominations? Sure, and they can even win, like The Dark Knight for Best Supporting Actor or Suicide Squad for *choke*gasp*cough*…something. That said, don’t bet your cape on the three from the first half of 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ego Prattman Movie wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t exactly game-changing. (I was a pre-2017 fan of the song “Brandy You’re a Fine Girl,” but it is safe to say WE MUST NEVER DISCUSS IT AGAIN.) As with Lego Batman, GOTG traded its relatively meta 2014 perspective for a safer, more corporate-friendly storyline, and the result is like your favorite restaurant bringing you a tasty hamburger. Not bad, just not…worth creating a planet for.
Now, let’s finish this article with the three films that have ostentatious online Oscar-campaign-ready fanbases. Logan: See, We Didn’t Name it Wolverine 3 was an impressive, old-Western-style effort for Fox after the considerably more modest ambitions of The Wolverine (2013), and I’m sure Fox was pleasantly shocked that Logan out-earned even the first Wolverine (2009). Last year, the superficially comparable Deadpool got major PGA, WGA, and Golden Globe nods. Hugh Jackman, a former Oscar nominee, added depth, dimension, and duration (years) to his iconic character, and the beloved Patrick Stewart turned in the sort of work that could net him a well-deserved first nod. (Even that kid, Dafne Keen, was terrific!)
So, why don’t we see major nods happening? One reason is that Get Out will be the one genre film from winter to soak up Academy attention; you can’t really expect them to notice two. Now here comes the part where the fanboys will get frothy. Despite its rottentomatoes scores, Logan has narrative problems that will bother voters. How did the kids get from the middle of Mexico to North Dakota without anyone noticing? Why would they have a rendezvous point so close to, but not actually over, the U.S.-Canada border? Putting aside those tiny issues, the script doesn’t give Jackman any comeuppance or evolution. Jackman is so excellent at playing the burned-out shell of a cynic that the film lets him play it far too long. When Logan wakes up in the North Dakota hideout and the kids have gone, absolutely nothing he has said or done implies that he would rush to save Laura from the drones, although he goes and does it anyway, his character evolution reduced to the moment he screams as he “snikt”s some bad guys. For us fans, it’s kinda enough, but for Oscar voters who have no investment in the character, it’s weak tea, not the sort of thing that earns Best Actor or Best Screenplay nominations. Sorry, bub.
Wonder Woman was wonderful, period. Speaking of periods, the period details were mostly authentic (although no one said “intel” before 1960, as Steve Trevor does here at least five times; in 1918 they would have said “info”), the script felt fresh, the editing and camerawork and direction were frisky and innovative, and the actors were solid. There may be some desire on the part of the Academy to celebrate Girl Power, and nods for Gal Gadot and/or for director Patty Jenkins could do that (Jenkins is “one of them,” having directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar in her only other feature, Monster (2003)). Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) featured a lead female who could have been male without changing a single word of dialogue; that’s certainly not the case with the overtly female-friendly Wonder Woman. Apparently on this basis, no less than Anne Thompson is predicting Oscar nominations for Gadot and Pine (presumably for Best Supporting Actor), as well as recognition for Patty Jenkins by other guilds.
Yet Kate Gardner at screenrant begs to differ, and we’re siding with her. Unlike Logan or Fury Road or Gravity, Wonder Woman doesn’t transcend blockbuster trappings as much as perform them better than most. The Hunger Games (2012) may be the closest comparison, and that received all of zero Oscar nominations. The Academy might cotton to WW better if it didn’t mention Bruce Wayne in any way (yes, Batman is now almost an Oscar curse). You will hear bloggers compare Gal Gadot to Sigourney Weaver, but by the time of her nomination for Aliens (1986), Weaver had built up a rather serious resume; Gadot was/is an unknown former model. Because of the lushly realized details both on the island and in Edwardian Europe, the film has reasonable chances at Oscar nominations for Costume Design and Production Design, but above-the-line nominations ain’t happening. This in no way represents a failure for feminism, it’s merely a further indication that when it comes to taste, the AMPAS, like the Amazons, are on their own island.
Speaking of feminism, it’s not nothing that the half-year’s two most notable blockbusters are led by women. (Three, if you count 2016’s Rogue One as a film most of its audience saw in 2017…but that Oscar ship has sailed.) Ladies and gentlemen, our final film, the #1 film of the year, the only 2017 film to enter the worldwide Top 10, one of only eight films to ever earn $500,000,000 at the North American box office, is…at least the 12th cinematic version of Beauty and the Beast. Around the time it won the MTV Award for Best Movie, its mob of online partisans emerged with their torches (and if you think that analogy is bad, you should be grateful we skipped one about bachelorettes and roses). Supposedly, the Academy still feels some esteem for the only animated film to have garnered a Best Picture nomination (back in 1991). Supposedly, the remake ticks a lot of typical Oscar boxes: musical, period, classy, literature-loving, woman-powered, the don’t-judge-appearances theme. And it gives the Academy a chance to reward something popular, which it needs to do more of (see: island comment in last paragraph).
Yeah, it’s not gonna happen. We’re not telling you not to love it, but the film simply isn’t going to appear on enough critics’ year-end Top 10 lists. (Get Out, by contrast, will be on all of them.) People, it’s got talking flatware. (Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.) The old film’s Best Picture nomination was partly about timing; if The Lion King (1994) had come out in 1991, that probably would have been Disney’s sole BP nod from the Katzenberg/Eisner era. Bill Condon does fine work in the director’s chair, but he doesn’t exactly elevate the material (particularly the paint-by-numbers third act) in the way that, say, Cuarón or Iñárritu would have done. Emma Watson will eventually get Oscar-nominated, but not in her fantasy-genre wheelhouse. And frankly, there may be a little bit of resentment, amongst the vast majority of Oscar voters, that the town’s most powerful studio is so easily bending over and kissing its old animated beasts and morphing them into live human vehicles. There’s no need to bless this new revenue stream with major Oscar nominations; the bajillions that Disney is earning in relaunched merch is reward enough.
So, when does Dunkirk come out again?