Barring an envelope snafu so unholy it makes last year’s Moonlight/La La Land mix-up look rehearsed, we already know which highly praised and very popular big-screen lollapalooza of 2017 won’t win the Best Picture Oscar. The director who helmed it won’t take home a statuette on Sunday night, either.
That’s because neither the movie nor its director are even in contention. Never mind that Wonder Woman was one of the rare superhero blockbusters to ever end up on dozens and dozens of year-end Top 10 lists, including the hidebound American Film Institute’s and Manohla Dargis’ in the New York Times.
Despite our own itch to bow deeply and forget we know how to speak English whenever Gal Gadot’s name comes up, even we at Playboy know that director Patty Jenkins was Wonder Woman’s behind-the-camera superheroine. In case you’re curious, we also liked Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird a lot. But instead of the Academy being tokenist and including only one woman among the Best Director nominees, we wish they’d included Jenkins as well.
That means it’s up to Ryan Coogler and Black Panther to break the jinx next year. Or the two jinxes, because Wonder Woman’s Oscar shutout doesn’t only reflect the Motion Picture Academy’s aversion to honoring comic-book spectaculars. Thanks to Jenkins’ snub, it’s also symptomatic of Oscar voters’ laggardness in recognizing non-male, non-white filmmakers as Steven Spielberg's—or even Ron Howard’s—peers.
A brainy superhero movie that genuinely challenges and matters to the big audience is a phenomenon worth saluting.
Sure, Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins was nominated for Best Director last year. But in his 30-year career, Spike Lee has never even been nominated for an Oscar in that category. (He had to settle for an honorary one in 2016.) Kathryn Bigelow is still the only woman to win one, out of just five female nominees in the Academy’s 91-year history. That includes Gerwig, who might not have even made the cut if it hadn’t been for an outcry over the Golden Globes’ “all-male” roster of 2018 directorial nominees, culminating in Natalie Portman’s famous jibe during the January ceremony.
It’s not as if the Oscars have ever rewarded artistic merit strictly for artistic merit’s sake. But rewarding combinations of artistic merit, commercial success and topical excitement used to be the Academy’s specialty, and both Wonder Woman and Black Panther fit that description to a T. The idea that, say, Darkest Hour’s lugubrious Great Man corn is somehow classier by definition is ridiculous. If anything, it’s the real comic-book movie of the three.
Needless to say, a big part of the excitement is that it’s taken a woman director and an African-American one, both of them new to superhero flicks–Jenkins hadn’t directed a movie since her feature debut, Monster, back in 2003, and Black Panther is only the 31-year-old Coogler’s third film after Fruitvale Station and Creed–to reinvent the ultimate white-fanboy film genre. In both cases, that brought out some disgruntled white fanboys’ proprietary streak: “Don’t mess around in our treehouse,” pretty much. But their bleats soon got drowned out by critics’ raves and America flocking to buy tickets.
With rare exceptions, like The Dark Knight–one of the defining movies of the George W. Bush era, from Batman’s morally murky vigilantism to Heath Ledger’s Joker standing in for Osama bin Laden–superhero spectaculars generally don’t have much of any significance to say about the society we actually live in. Most people would argue that’s not their job, but why shouldn’t it be? Any kind of movie, comic-book blockbusters included, can be resonant at that level if the filmmakers have imagination and passion. It’s just that DC Universe honcho Zack Snyder has never had either, and even Joss Whedon ran out of both after (or maybe during) his second Avengers movie.
Both Wonder Woman and Black Panther give the superhero genre a new dimension simply by putting atypical protagonists front and center and making their sexual or racial identity–not just their combat prowess–the point. Interestingly, both heroes originate in realms that invert the usual sexual and racial hierarchies and whose very existence is a closely guarded secret: Wonder Woman’s female-ruled Themyscira, and Black Panther’s technologically advanced African kingdom of Wakanda. That instantly redefines the people we’re accustomed to identifying with in these thingamajigs as intruders, potential villains or at best, faintly nebbishy allies.
Both movies are also at their clunkiest when they’re trying to play by the conventional superhero-flick rules. By far the worst thing in Wonder Woman is its tedious, predictably CGI-crazed climactic battle because that’s when Diana turns generic on us (she’s been Zack Snyderized), and her antagonist devolves into the usual cackling, quasi-unstoppable maniac. You feel the letdown more acutely because Jenkins’ use of the World War I setting up to then, with its emotional awareness of genuine death and suffering, has been so provocative and novel.
As for Black Panther, its dullest stretch is the long South Korea sequence because we’ve all seen that high-tech car chase a gazillion times by now. But unlike Jenkins, Coogler has figured out a final confrontation with expertly staged thrills that express, instead of conveniently ignoring, the rest of the movie’s themes. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger really do stand for opposing sides in a dispute that’s familiar to all African-Americans: Is conciliation or vengeful intransigence the right way to go? And everybody else in Wakanda’s split-second choices between warring loyalties are dramatic in human terms, not just pyrotechnic ones.
Anyhow, Jenkins probably shouldn’t feel too bad about being denied her due on Oscar night. The consolation prize is that Wonder Woman is the 2017 movie that masses of people will likely remember and care about well after the memory of Sunday’s Best Picture nominees has faded, and they won’t be wrong. All the same, Jenkins should have been honored with a nomination, and we hope that Coogler and Black Panther don’t end up facing the same snub a year from now. A brainy superhero movie that genuinely challenges and matters to the big audience is a phenomenon worth saluting, and someday, even the Academy will catch on that more viewers might bother to tune in if movies like Jenkins’ and Coogler’s were recognized as legit contenders for the gold.