Recently, Todd Phillips’s Joker debuted at the Venice Film Festival, being met with rave reviews from critics as well as the big prize from the jury – the Golden Lion award for Best Film.
It’s a remarkable achievement as, despite its serious tone, Joker is still a ‘comic book movie’, a genre that isn’t generally perceived as award-friendly.
However, there is potentially a change coming, and it’s being speculated that Joker may be a rare example of a commercial comic book-based film that is in contention for awards season.
In particular, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the tragic Arthur Fleck is being touted for the Best Actor category. But what does it take to get that golden statuette? Here are seven comic book movies that have taken home the gold…
1. Superman (1978) – The Special Achievement Award
Superman was the first superhero movie to receive an Oscar, albeit in the non-competitive category of Special Achievement, which recognised the film’s special effects work.
Even now, 40 years on, it’s still considered a classic of both cinema innovation and storytelling, lending credence to director Richard Donner’s comments at the time that the film also deserved to be recognised for its production design and cinematography.
Despite defining the role of Superman for a generation, Christopher Reeve’s performance was not recognised – although he was more successful with BAFTA, winning a Best Newcomer Award.
2. Batman (1989) – Best Art Direction
Most of the 1980s were not great for comic book movies. The Superman sequels varied in quality, while films such as Howard the Duck and Robert Altman’s Popeye were never in danger of troubling the Academy.
However, the decade ended with a game-changer: Tim Burton’s Batman, a dark, Gothic take on DC’s Dark Knight, and a film whose influence can still be felt 30 years on. In the days before sophisticated green-screen effects, the production team essentially built an entire city for their hero to protect, so it’s no surprise that production designers Anton Furst and Peter Young won an Oscar for their efforts.
Surprisingly, however, Jack Nicholson’s cackling Joker would go unrecognised, although his successor would have more luck…
3. Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Best Visual Effects
Incredibly, there was a time when Marvel movies seriously lagged behind their DC competitors. That changed in the 2000s, particularly with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
The best of the three, Spider-Man 2, also became the first Marvel film to win an Oscar – courtesy of its mind-blowing special effects that brought Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) to life and portrayed Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) stopping a runaway train.
Despite the eventual dominance of its Cinematic Universe franchise, it would take Marvel another 15 years to clinch their next Oscar.
4. The Dark Knight (2008) – Best Sound Editing; Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Nolan defined Batman on-screen for many people, and the high point was this 2008 masterpiece. Playing like a detective movie more than a traditional blockbuster, the film’s selling point was Heath Ledger’s utterly fearless portrayal of The Joker.
While it was thought impossible to improve on Jack Nicholson’s portrayal, Ledger succeeded with a character that was part terrorist, part chaos theorist, and utterly captivating. It was no surprise to anyone when, alongside an award for Best Sound Editing, The Dark Knight won the Best Supporting Actor Award.
The win prompted a standing ovation from the Oscar crowd, yet the man of the hour was unable to take to the stage. Ledger had tragically passed away a year earlier, making the film a lasting monument to his incomparable talent.
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5. Suicide Squad (2016) – Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Yes, you read that right. Suicide Squad is officially an Oscar-winning film. While the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor couldn’t get a look in with Academy voters, this action-comedy won Best Makeup and Hairstyling for the iconic looks of Jared Leto as The Joker, and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
The win drew raised eyebrows from many, who pointed out the irony that a film that had received a fairly negative critical reception should now boast more awards than the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). However, that didn’t last for long…
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – Best Animated Film
The 2019 Oscar ceremony was the year Marvel finally broke through, starting with a well-deserved Best Animated Film win for Into the Spider-Verse.
An eye-catching, heart-warming expansion of the Spider-Man universe, this delightful animated adventure broke new ground and is considered superior to many of Spidey’s live-action outings. It also became the first film since Happy Feet to beat Disney-Pixar to the award.
7. Black Panther (2018) – Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Best Production Design
Finally, the MCU gets its due. Black Panther had already broken new ground at the Oscars prior to the ceremony, becoming the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, while Hannah Beachler became the first African American to be nominated for Best Production Design.
She would go one step further, winning the award – one of three the film would end up winning, alongside Best Costume Design and Best Original Score for Ludwig Goransson. (The movie was the first comic book epic to win an Oscar for its music.) Black Panther broke down walls for the genre, and set the gold standard for those to come.
It goes to show that comic book movies have a slightly better track record at the Oscars than it first appears. Is a Best Picture and Best Actor win for Joker therefore out of the question?
James Luxford is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.